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Prekindergarten in U.S. Public Schools: 2000-2001
NCES: 2003019
March 2003

Executive Summary

Background

Research on the relationship between children's early care and education and school readiness has shown the potential importance of enriching learning experiences for young children and, in particular, the positive outcomes of early intervention for educationally disadvantaged children (Love, Schochet, and Meckstroth 1996; Barnett 1995; Haskins 1989). In fact, the National Research Council suggests that a finding that young children who are at risk of school failure have a greater likelihood of success if they attend high-quality early childhood programs seems to emerge across studies of early care and education (Bowman, Donovan, and Burns 2001).

In recent years, renewed attention has focused on the role that public schools might play in providing high-quality programs for prekindergarten children (Saluja, Early, and Clifford 2001; Hinkle 2000). Educators and policymakers have considered the possibility of public schools drawing upon existing resources to expand and improve prekindergarten programs and thereby help prepare young children for school (Dwyer, Chait, and McKee 2000; Hinkle 2000). Unfortunately, data on the role public schools play in providing early childhood education are limited and are sometimes clouded by a lack of common terminology. Most of the available data do not differentiate public school programs from other early childhood education programs; the data often include programs offered by private schools, public and private day care centers, and Head Start classes operating outside of the public school system.

In response to the lack of current data on public elementary school prekindergarten programs, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) used its Fast Response Survey System (FRSS) to conduct the "Survey of Classes That Serve Children Prior to Kindergarten in Public Schools : 2000–2001," FRSS 78, 2001. The survey gathered information on characteristics of the prekindergarten classes to answer questions such as the following:

  • What percentage of public elementary schools nationwide had prekindergarten classes? What percentage offered general education and special education prekindergarten classes?
  • How many children were enrolled in prekindergarten classes at public elementary schools? What were the age, racial, and ethnic characteristics of these children?
  • How many prekindergarten classes were offered in public elementary schools , and how were they distributed between general education and special education? What was the average size of these classes?
  • How many teachers were responsible for teaching prekindergarten classes, and what was their education level? How did their pay compare with that of other teachers in the school district?
  • What percentage of public elementary schools reported that prekindergarten children received transportation, meals, and extended day care services, and what percentage of prekindergarten children received those services?

The results presented in this report are based on questionnaire data from 1,843 public elementary schools in the United States. The data provide national estimates representing all special education and regular elementary and combined public schools in the nation.

Key Findings

Public Schools With Prekindergarten Classes

During the 2000–2001 school year, there were about 19,900 public elementary schools with prekindergarten classes. This represents 35 percent of all regular and special education public elementary schools in the country. Results from the 2001 FRSS survey indicate the following:

  • There was a positive relationship between public elementary schools offering prekindergarten classes and school size,1 ranging from 28 percent of small schools to 42 percent of large schools (Table 2).
  • Schools in the Southeast were most likely to offer prekindergarten classes. Forty-six percent of these elementary schools offered prekindergarten compared with between 30 and 35 percent of public elementary schools in other regions (Table 2).
  • The likelihood that public schools offered prekindergarten classes varied by poverty concentration.2 About half (51 percent) of elementary schools with the highest poverty concentration offered prekindergarten. Onequarter (25 percent) of elementary schools with the lowest poverty concentration offered prekindergarten. It is important to note that prekindergarten programs have tended to target at-risk children, including children from low-income families (Table 2).
  • General education prekindergarten classes were offered by 28 percent of public elementary schools; 15 percent offered special education prekindergarten classes (Table 2).

Prekindergarten Children in Public Schools

Responses to the survey revealed that approximately 822,000 children, categorized as younger than 3 years, 3 years, 4 years, and 5 years or older, were enrolled in public elementary school prekindergarten classes (Table 4). As of October 1, 2000, 20 percent of the children were 3-year-olds and 68 percent were 4-year-olds (figure 2). Larger percentages of children enrolled in special education prekindergarten classes were younger than 3 years, 3 years, or 5 years or older, compared with those in general education prekindergarten classes.

The survey also asked about the racial and ethnic background of public school prekindergarten children.3 About half (49 percent) of the children were White, 24 percent were Hispanic, 23 percent were Black, 3 percent were Asian, and 2 percent were American Indian/Alaska Native (Table 6). Nationwide, 61 percent of all public school students are White, 17 percent are Hispanic, 17 percent are Black, 4 percent are Asian, and 1 percent are American Indian/Alaska Native.4

Other findings on the racial and ethnic background of public school prekindergarten children include the following:

  • In city schools, 28 percent of the prekindergarten children were White, 35 percent were Hispanic, and 33 percent were Black (Table 6). In contrast, in rural/small town schools, 74 percent of the prekindergarten children were White, 10 percent were Hispanic, and 12 percent were Black. Among all public school students in city schools nationwide, 37 percent are White, 27 percent are Hispanic, and 30 percent are Black. Nationwide, 79 percent of all rural/small town public school students are White, 7 percent are Hispanic, and 10 percent are Black.5
  • Forty-seven percent of public school prekindergarten children were Hispanic at schools in the West, compared with 9 percent at schools in the Southeast (Table 6). Thirtythree percent of all public school students in the West were Hispanic, as were 7 percent of students in the Southeast.6
  • In schools with the lowest level of poverty, 79 percent of the prekindergarten children were White, 8 percent were Hispanic, and 7 percent were Black (Table 6). In schools with the highest level of poverty, 22 percent of the prekindergarten children were White, 39 percent were Hispanic, and 36 percent were Black. Nationwide, 79 percent of all students in public schools with the lowest level of poverty were White and 8 percent were Black. In schools with the highest level of poverty, 15 percent of students were White and 39 percent were Black.7

There are federal and state programs designed to provide limited English proficient (LEP) children,8 low-income children,9 and children with disabilities with early childhood education experiences, such as Title I programs, Head Start, Even Start, and the Preschool Grants Program. Public school programs for children prior to kindergarten also receive funds from state initiatives for enhancing school readiness.

For this survey, public school officials were asked to report the number of LEP prekindergarten children, low-income prekindergarten children, and prekindergarten children with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) in their schools. Findings from the FRSS survey show the following:

  • Fifteen percent of public elementary school prekindergarten children were LEP (Table 7). This percentage varied by school size, locale, and region. Nationwide, 9 percent of all public school students received LEP services.10
  • Sixty-one percent of prekindergarten children were low income (Table 7). This percentage varied by school size, locale, region, and percent minority enrollment. Forty-five percent of all students attending elementary schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program were eligible to receive free or reduced-price lunch during the 1998–99 school year (Fox et al. 2001).
  • Thirty percent of the children enrolled in public elementary school prekindergarten classes had IEPs (Table 7). This varied by percent minority enrollment and poverty concentration. Nationwide, about 13 percent of all public school students had IEPs.11

Prekindergarten Classes in Public Schools

During the 2000–2001 school year, about 58,500 prekindergarten classes were offered in U.S. public elementary schools (Table 8). About twothirds (67 percent) of these classes were general education classes; 33 percent were special education classes (Table 9). Study results also indicate the following:

  • The percentage of special education prekindergarten classes was higher in schools with the lowest poverty concentration than in schools with the highest poverty concentration (40 percent compared with 23 percent, respectively) (Table 9).
  • Overall, public elementary schools that offered prekindergarten averaged 2.9 prekindergarten classes per school (table 10). City schools averaged 3.4 classes per school, whereas rural/small town schools averaged 2.4 classes per school. The average also varied by region, minority enrollment, and poverty concentration.
  • The average public elementary school prekindergarten class had 14 children (Table 11). The average number of children per general education prekindergarten class was higher than the average for special education classes, with 17 children per class among general education classes compared with 9 children per class among special education classes.12
  • Thirty-two percent of the classes followed full-day schedules, and 68 percent followed half-day schedules (Table 12). This distribution varied by several school characteristics. For example, 77 percent of the classes in schools in the Southeast were on full-day schedules, compared with 13 percent of the classes in the Central region.

Prekindergarten Teachers in Public Schools

School officials were asked to report the number of teachers who taught prekindergarten during the 2000–2001 school year. In addition, they were asked to provide basic information on the teachers' educational backgrounds and the pay scale used to determine their salaries. Results of the FRSS survey indicate the following:

  • Nearly 46,000 teachers taught prekindergarten classes in public schools during the 2000– 2001 school year (Table 13).
  • Eighty-six percent of the prekindergarten teachers had a bachelor's or higher degree (Table 14). Prekindergarten teachers in city schools, and in schools in the Northeast and Central regions, were more likely than their counterparts in other locales and regions to have a bachelor's or higher degree.
  • The majority (82 percent) of public elementary school prekindergarten teachers were paid using the public elementary school teacher pay scale (Table 14). This likelihood varied by school size, locale, region, and poverty concentration.

Support Services Offered to Prekindergarten Children in Public Schools

Public elementary school prekindergarten children and their families receive various support services. The survey asked about three of these services: transportation, meals,13 and extended day care. The survey asked schools to report the number of prekindergarten children who received the service during the 2000–2001 school year. The study findings indicate the following:

  • Prekindergarten children in 79 percent of schools with prekindergarten classes received transportation services (Table 15), and 52 percent of all prekindergarten children received this service (Table 16). These percentages varied by several school characteristics.
  • Seventy-four percent of schools with prekindergarten classes provided meals to prekindergarten children (Table 15), and 64 percent of all prekindergarten children received meals at school (Table 16). These distributions also varied by school characteristics.
  • Extended day care was offered by 18 percent of public elementary schools with prekindergarten classes (Table 15), and 5 percent of all prekindergarten children received this service (Table 16).

Prekindergarten Funding Sources in Public Schools

Public elementary schools use a variety of funding sources to support prekindergarten classes. The survey gathered information on the use of various sources: state or local education funds; federal or local programs for children with disabilities; Title I, Part A; Head Start; child care funds through a state or local agency; and Title I, Part B. Study findings indicate that 80 percent of public elementary schools used state or local education funds and 51 percent used funds from federal or local programs for children with disabilities (Table 17). The likelihood that schools used the latter source was higher in rural/small town schools (56 percent) than in city schools (42 percent). Receipt of Title I, Part A funds for prekindergarten classes was reported by 25 percent of public elementary schools with prekindergarten classes, and 13 percent reported receipt of Head Start funds. Eleven percent of schools used child care funds through a state or local agency, and 4 percent used Title 1, Part B funds for prekindergarten classes.

In conclusion, the results from this survey offer an overview of public school prekindergarten classes in the United States. During the 2000–2001 school year, approximately 822,000 children were enrolled in 58,500 public elementary school prekindergarten classes nationwide. These classes were offered in about 19,900 public elementary schools, roughly one-third of public elementary schools in the country. Approximately 45,900 prekindergarten teachers instructed these classes. Many characteristics of the prekindergarten classes varied by school characteristics (including school size, locale, region, percent minority enrollment, and poverty concentration). The findings from this FRSS survey provide unique and important contextual information on public elementary schools with prekindergarten classes and the children who were enrolled in those classes.


1 School size is defined as small (enrollments of less than 300 students), midsized (300 to 599 students), and large (600 or more students).

2 Poverty concentration is based on the number of students eligible to receive free or reduced-price lunch. The categories used in this report are less than 35 percent of students eligible, 35 to 49 percent eligible, 50 to 74 percent eligible, and 75 percent or more eligible.

3 Race and ethnicity were reported on the questionnaire using five categories: American Indian/Alaska Native; Asian; Black, non- Hispanic; Hispanic; and White, non-Hispanic. To improve readability, the following labels are used throughout the remainder of this report: American Indian/Alaska Native; Asian; Black; Hispanic; and White.

4 National Center for Education Statistics, Common Core of Data 2000–2001, Public Elementary/Secondary School Universe Survey (NCES 2002–362). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, unpublished tabulations. Data are based on all public regular and special education, vocational education, and alternative education schools.

5 See footnote 4.

6 See footnote 4.

7 See footnote 4.

8 For this study, these children were defined as those "whose native or dominant language is other than English, and whose skills in listening to, speaking, reading, or writing English are such that he/she derives little benefit from school instruction in English."

9 For this study, these children were defined as those eligible to receive free or reduced-price lunch.

10 National Center for Education Statistics, Common Core of Data 2000–2001, Local Education Agency Survey: School Year 2000– 2001 (NCES 2002–360). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, unpublished tabulations.

11 See footnote 10.

12 Among the sampled schools responding to this survey, the average number of children per prekindergarten class ranged from 2 to 48 overall for general education classes. For special education classes, the average ranged from 2 to 35 children per prekindergarten class.

13 Schools were instructed to exclude snacks.

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