Across the Great Divide: Looking Through Spreadsheet Spectacles

Today we had 19 kids in the preschool.

M and his sister J are back again after being sent home after violating their behavior plans. They were both doing better today. M came close to having a meltdown just like the last one that got him booted out of class, but the teachers worked to bring him back down to neutral.

I’m not sure what sets him off at snack time. Today, the kids got to eat like dinosaurs, which meant eating melon chunks and Cheerios off paper plates without using their hands. It was supposed to be fun, but something wasn’t happening the way he wanted, and he lay screaming in frustration on the floor.

Running the classroom involves a constant flow of maintaining the familiar — the “Start Your Day” song, the “Say Your Name” circle, the weather report, snack time — with new material. The familiar stuff grounds the kids, lets them all participate, helps them socialize and brings the slower ones along while learning from the others. The new stuff keeps the day stimulating, introduces new cognitive and motor skills, etc.

G, who I introduced several posts ago, continues to make progress. Since I’m only there once a week, I can really notice the difference the minute I walk in the door.

Nineteen kids may not sound like a lot in these days of larger public school classrooms, but I assure you, when preschoolers ranging in age from 3 to 5 are involved, it’s a handful to manage.

Today, because of the iffy weather, we tried an experiment. Instead of going outside to the playground, we split the class in half, sending 10 to the “gym” and keeping the others in the classroom to string beads. After half an hour, we flipped the two groups. In contrast with the regular hour on the playground, this structure for play time produced less conflict among the kids, but it also meant they got half the normal physical activity.

I’m sure we’ll do it again this winter when we have a larger group and can’t go outside. The split wasn’t just an innovation out of the blue. It was made necessary by the number of kids we’re serving.

Last year, the size of the gym was cut in half to add another classroom to buffer kids coming out of the toddler room and give them more time to catch up to the older kids they’d be around in the preschool. The extra class seems to work well for the kids, and it allows us to handle more children than before.

But it also means much less indoor play area for physical activity during the winter months when it’s too cold to go out. Although we have trikes and some climbing equipment, it’s crammed into half the space, making it difficult to safely use it all with a full house — of even a partial one. It has also meant hiring more classroom staff and needing more volunteers.

If you were a school board member or a legislator looking at a school like this through spreadsheet spectacles, you’d see more kids being served but also higher staffing costs. You would not see that the new classroom was smaller, limiting the number of children it could accommodate, while still requiring two teachers in the room.

You’d also see the increased capital costs, but not see the reduction in space to play. And with one more group needing to use the play area, you’d probably overlook the impact on how their respective days had to be restructured.

Finally, if you’re just looking at costs, you might see a good efficiency ratio in that classroom with 19 kids, but from the children’s and teachers’ standpoints, it’s not ideal.

Now, suppose it’s next year, and new adults are overseeing the budget. The housing crisis has gotten worse, and there are more kids living in the shelter. Healthcare costs for staff have risen, so have energy costs. All the books and equipment have another year of wear and tear. There’s no more room in the building.

And our overseers ask, where can we cut? Why can’t you do things smarter?

If you’re just looking at a spreadsheet, those questions may make perfect sense.

This blog was written by Charlie Quimby and originally published on  Across the Great Divide. Follow Charlie on Twitter: @CharlieQuimby.

On a side note, People Serving People was featured in this article about the affordable housing crunch. Doobie Lenear in the photo is one of my former kids.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Bert Perry on 10/14/2011 - 10:04 am.

    The question in my mind is why we’re bothering with preschool. When Head Start is evaluated statistically, we find that there are no measurable benefits by the time children are in fourth grade. It’s effectively money right down the toilet.

    Besides, let’s think carefully about this proposition; “the way to get four year olds mature enough to handle school is to put them in a classroom for 20-30 hours per week with 15-25 other four year olds.” If not patently absurd, it’s at the very least counter-intuitive.

    And yes, we ought to think carefully about why we’re paying people through tax breaks to put their kids in daycare for the same reason.

  2. Submitted by Charlie Quimby on 10/15/2011 - 06:48 am.

    Bert,
    The question in your mind is muddled. The studies of Head Start don’t show there are NO measurable benefits by fourth grade. They show that Head Start doesn’t give kids an appreciable advantage over other cohorts of kids, most of whom DO have a variety of preschool experiences, including public, private and home schooling.

    The research does show early childhood education matters.

    It would be unethical to purposely withhold children from preschool to study the impact, but that’s what would happen to some of the homeless kids without subsidized preschool programs like the one I volunteer for.

    Your other proposition overstates the class sizes in our program and ignores the impact of curriculum and trained adults working with the kids.

  3. Submitted by Bert Perry on 10/17/2011 - 01:13 pm.

    Charlie, against what control are they comparing for you to claim that Head Start works when you concede that the measured results in 4th grade are identical between the test sample and the control you mention?

    Let’s be serious here; we’ve been trying this for decades now with no meaningfully good results. It’s time to cut our losses and try something that works–say get the government to stop promoting single parenting through the tax code, through Pell grants, family law, and such.

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