Lola M. Rooney never intended to study the effectiveness of pre-kindergarten education, but over the years she encountered results too important to ignore or keep to herself. In her work, she has laid to rest claims stemming from outdated and deeply flawed studies that supposedly show that the impact of pre-K on students diminishes or disappears by the third grade. To the contrary, she has repeatedly witnessed how quality early childhood programs produce a once-in-a-lifetime leg up that lasts a lifetime.
For 25 years, Rooney taught in the same Philadelphia school community. Her career began at Girard Elementary School, where she taught kindergarten. Some of the children who entered her class came from “Get Set,” a precursor of the Head Start program, and some came from Miss Annie’s family day care home.
These children had been exposed to some key experiences, Rooney explains. “They knew the basic alphabet without singing the song, recognized numbers from one to five, and understood the concept of words and word phrases.” A reverence for reading was also fixed in their minds, as the children pretended to master the skill even if they held the book upside down.
Other kids had been cared for by a family member or neighbor—babysitters, for the most part. “These children, too, were excited and eager to learn,” Rooney says. “But lacking exposure to early childhood education experiences, they struggled to understand what was being presented in kindergarten. Their vocabulary and their ability to learn through play were much more limited.”
After Rooney earned her master’s degree from Temple, she taught fourth and fifth grades, where she saw 95 percent of her students from kindergarten. Later, she became a seventh-grade anchor teacher in the same public school community. And in 1974 she became one of the founding teachers in the Girard Academic Music Program, or GAMP, a fifth- to 12th-grade magnet school whose admission requirements included good test scores and grades and music auditions.
The difference between the pre-K haves and have-nots was still clear to Rooney. “Those who struggled in kindergarten through frustrations from inexperience with reading, literacy, and comprehension continued to struggle in fourth and fifth grades when doing book reports, and in sixth grade with math word problems.” Later, she observed that this same group was unable to meet the entrance requirements for GAMP.
However, Rooney noticed that those with pre-K backgrounds “excelled through fractions, seventh- and eighth-grade algebra … They had awesome science projects, and whizzed through Shakespeare and American History.” They were the ones who “were able to make it into my 11th and 12th-grade English lit class, and were among those graduating with honors in GAMP’s first graduating class in 1979.”
What about other factors for success such as economic status and race? Rooney dismisses them. “It did not matter whether their parents were receiving welfare or were white-collar workers; no matter whether they were African-American, Caucasian, Latino, Asian. It was where their early learning experiences were formed.” What really matters, Rooney is firmly convinced, is that children have an exposure to pre-K education.
Since 1991, Lola Rooney has returned to her focus on early childhood, and she now serves as the Director of Early Childhood Education and School-age Child Care for the Philadelphia Freedom Valley YMCA. She remains serious about the importance of universal access to quality pre-K. Still living and working in the same neighborhood, Rooney often sees those she taught through the years and remembers which ones had the benefit of pre-K: “They are in their mid to late 40s; store managers, working in banks, hotels, hospitals, auto shop owners, airline employees. One owns his own barbershop right here in Center City.”
On the flip side, “Those who struggled, I’ve seen them also; many were able to overcome obstacles and turned things around in their lives; and others, I’ve been to their memorial services.”
Those memorial services may have come far too early. New longitudinal studies that followed kids after pre-K point to higher graduation rates and earning power. In addition, crime rates are lower for the pre-K groups. So it’s not a stretch to suggest that the benefits of pre-K include living longer. Even harder to dispute is the increased quality of life that starts with pre-K.
Lola Rooney saw kids coming to her kindergarten classes who had a distinct advantage from being enrolled in pre-K programs, and she’s been able to follow these kids for decades. She knows that pre-K is a big key to success. Her experience and conclusions should stir our society and its leaders to make quality, properly funded pre-K a right.