It’s 7 a.m. in early fall. The sun begins to light up the neighborhood, and a yellow school bus rounds the corner and approaches a gathering of children and parents. As kindergartners climb on board with new lunch boxes and backpacks, their parents wave anxiously, hoping all goes well for their five-year-olds on the first day of school.

In ten years, five-year-olds may be old pros at the school game. Carolina researchers at the FPG Child Development Institute (FPG) are making preliminary plans for First School, a school that begins at age three. It may sound radical, but early childhood research has been laying the foundations for such an arrangement for decades.

What will this mean? At first glance, First School might look like a regular elementary school on the outside. But inside, its several hundred students will range from age three through second or third grade. And its programs and spaces will reflect three decades of thinking about what makes a rich environment for young children. Activities and facilities will focus on children’s social, emotional, and physical development, as well as their academic skills. Administrators and teachers will align curricula across grade levels, providing smooth transitions for children. School personnel will make supportive relationships with families a central part of the school. First School will provide full-day options for working families, and it will be available to all children regardless of whether or not they are considered “at risk.”

What’s the right age to start school? This is not a new question. Thirty years ago, school systems struggled to decide whether or not to add kindergarten to their existing programs. Recent thinking has turned back to this question. Some children start school already behind their peers due to poverty, disability, or other factors. The achievement gap appears early.

A child’s success in school is shaped before he or she enters a kindergarten classroom, says Don Bailey, director of FPG. FPG itself was founded in the mid-1960s on the assumption that earlier is better for children. This doesn’t necessarily mean that all children need formal preschool education, says Bailey, also a professor in Carolina’s School of Education. “But the quality of the experiences that the child has during the infant, toddler, and preschool years is very formative and is in many ways determinative of future development.” FPG research for the past thirty-five years has focused on the early years. “What can adults do in terms of parenting interactions or in terms of programs and services for kids to help make that better?” Bailey asks. Two major lines of research at FPG have zeroed in on this question.

One line of research has examined the effects of early intervention and high-quality child care on children’s later school success. The most well-known study, the Abecedarian project, followed a group of low-income children starting in the early 1970s. A portion of the group received full-time, individualized childcare — incorporating educational games focused on each child’s social, emotional, and cognitive development, especially language — at FPG from infancy through kindergarten. The researchers, led by Frances Campbell and Craig Ramey, evaluated the children’s progress at ages twelve, fifteen, twenty-one, and thirty. “Each time point has shown that the kids who participated in the group here are better off on any number of measures than the children who didn’t,” Bailey says. Children who received the early intervention had greater academic achievement and less need for special education services. Later, they were more likely to attend college and find jobs and less likely to have children as teenagers themselves. “From this and other studies we’ve shown experimentally that if you create a rich environment for children, you can really make a difference in their lifelong achievement,” Bailey says. (See Endeavors, Winter 2000, “The Magic of Early Care.”)


With data showing that good programs for young children benefit them throughout their lives, legislators and governors have begun to push for prekindergarten programs, says Dick Clifford, FPG senior scientist and codirector of the FPG-based National Prekindergarten Center. Clifford, a research associate professor of education and a former elementary school principal, leads the planning for First School along with Bailey.

The role of state and federal government in public school has been the focus of a second line of FPG research, which focuses on public policy. Currently, forty-three states have some kind of prekindergarten initiative for four-year-olds, and some of these efforts also encompass three-year-olds, Clifford says. A number of projects at FPG have been studying prekindergarten programs in North Carolina and around the country. “These studies in general are finding that these programs are well intended,” Clifford says. “They generally have a set of good standards.” Prekindergarten teachers are expected to have bachelor’s degrees and to be trained to work with young children. Classes have low adult-to-child ratios and typically have established curriculums. “But we’ve found that even though the standards are in place, these programs are having a lot of difficulty translating these standards into good teaching practices in their classrooms,” Clifford says. For instance, though all programs say they’re emphasizing literacy and math, on a day-to-day basis children spend an average of only 13 percent of their time on literacy activities and 7 percent on math activities. And by the researchers’ measures, these activities are often not challenging enough for the children’s developmental levels.

Also, Bailey says, prekindergarten care in the United States is not really a system. Preschool care takes place in a wide variety of settings. In addition to Head Start programs for low-income children and services for children with disabilities, preschools are held in private childcare centers, churches, family homes, and, increasingly, in schools.The problem, Clifford says, is that these different groups don’t talk to each other. There is no single organization ensuring that preschool programs are consistent with the school systems children are about to enter.

Best practice would say that you want preschool teachers to take their preschoolers to see the kindergarten class before they go to meet the teacher,” Clifford says. “You want kindergarten teachers to come and talk to the prekindergarten teachers about things they’re planning for children for the fall, to ease this transition. But you see virtually none of that happening in our country because there’s this loose-knit set of programs, particularly on the prekindergarten side, that are not really tied to any organization.

So we’re worried about these things,” Clifford says. “We need some models to say, ‘How can this be done well? How can we bring together what’s happening with kids in their early years with what happens in schools?’” State initiatives such as North Carolina’s Smart Start and More at Four have stimulated improvement and expansion of prekindergarten services, Bailey says. “What we’re talking about is the next logical step. What if, ten or twenty years from now you could have, in essence, school starting at age three for children? What should that look like?” Bailey asks.

Since public schools have gotten increasingly involved in early childhood education in recent years — about 25 percent of all U.S. four-year-olds and many three-year-olds are enrolled in public-school-operated preschool programs, Clifford says — why not enhance the existing system? The researchers envision First School as an extension of public school, Bailey says. He admits that people may be hesitant about that. “People think, ‘If schools get involved in the lives of young kids, they’re going to be making them sit in desks and do worksheets.’” This is not what Bailey and Clifford have in mind.

Activities will focus not only on cognitive skills, but also on the child’s social and emotional development and physical health. Climbing equipment, nutrition, group environments, and social relationships — the whole child — will be as important as teaching children to read. “So much in the literature shows that where young children learn is in the context of play and social relationships,” Bailey says.

The planning process for First School will continue over the next few years, as the researchers do pilot work and secure funding. Though it’s too early to say for sure, Bailey and Clifford foresee an initial school opening around the year 2008. In preliminary meetings, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City School Board and Superintendent Neil Pedersen have been receptive, encouraging the researchers to continue with their plans. “We’re excited about this potential partnership,” Pedersen says. “We believe that preschool education is critical to the success of children in our schools, and this project works to provide a smooth transition between preschool and what we now consider the formal school years.”

In the long run, will every three-and four-year-old be getting on the school bus come fall? “We’re not thinking of setting up something that would be required for families,” Bailey says. Just as kindergarten and even first grade aren’t mandatory — in North Carolina, a child legally doesn’t have to go to school until age seven — the researchers imagine First School would be voluntary. And the school isn’t designed to replace good parenting, but to establish early partnerships with families to provide children with the support they need for successful lives. Pedersen already sees the positive effects of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City School District’s existing prekindergarten classes. “Some parents are intimidated by the formal public school setting,” Pedersen says. “But we find that if they can become involved during their children’s preschool years, oftentimes that smooths the way for a healthy relationship in the elementary school years.”

Bailey says, “Ultimately we’d love to see it required that schools have this available for all children whose families want it. Our goal is to develop it well, to study it, and then to help other people do it in many different places.”

Michelle Coppedge was formerly a staff writer for Endeavors.