Our Voice: Pasco’s pre-K center a life-changing investment

For newspaper readers, the thought of a child starting school having never held a book seems unbelievable.

But Pasco school officials say it happens.

Children from low-income families arrive on their first day of kindergarten not knowing that a book reads left to right, let alone that letters make words and words make stories. They do not know how to count, how to hold a pencil nor write their name. They may not even understand how to sit still and pay attention.

They start out behind and they often stay behind, making their school years a discouraging struggle.

That’s why Pasco school officials are determined to get a pre-kindergarten center up and running so their most needy children can start out ready for elementary school.

If ever there was a good investment of taxpayer money, this is it. National studies conducted over the years show an investment in early education results in less tax money being spent later. Students who do well in school are more likely to graduate from high school and go on to earn a decent living. Those who don’t do well are more likely to end up in jail or dependent on the government.

The Pasco School District already has property for a new pre-kindergarten center, but is asking the state for $7.5 million to help construct the building. The district would match that amount with its own money, mostly from available levy dollars and other school accounts. They are not asking Pasco voters to support another bond measure.

The new center potentially could serve up to 900 4-year-olds in a half-day program, or 450 if it was all day.

And the statistics supporting the need are sobering. Nearly 80 percent of kindergarteners in the state meet literacy standards when they start school, compared to 15 percent of Pasco kindergarteners. In math, 53 percent of kindergarteners statewide start out ready. In Pasco, it’s 4 percent.

Pasco school officials estimate many of their students are at least two years behind before they even step foot in a classroom.

There is a full-day kindergarten program in Pasco at Captain Gray Early Learning Center, which pulls kindergarteners from central Pasco elementary schools, but it is not a preschool.

A few state lawmakers already have filed a capital funding request on behalf of the Pasco School District, and the center could open in fall 2016 if the money is approved.

We hope it is.

Today’s kindergarten classes are not for play time. Academic expectations are high and children need to be prepared from the get-go if they are going to function at their appropriate grade level.

Right now, too many Pasco children are behind before they begin. A pre-kindergarten center would set them at the starting line with everyone else, giving them a better chance at a successful life.