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Praising preschool education, Nixon backs attempt by education officials to win federal grant

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 12, 2011 - Gov. Jay Nixon applauded on Monday an infusion of funds for preschool classes in St. Louis and praised efforts by the state board of education to get even more money from Washington to help students prepare for kindergarten.

At the Peabody eMINTS Academy at 1224 S. 14th Street, the governor stopped off at a couple of classrooms, then talked with reporters about how money from the desegregation case settlement, announced last month, would help the St. Louis Public Schools invest $23.1 million to pay for more than two dozen more new classrooms just like them.

That kind of commitment is needed, Nixon said, to raise the district's graduation rate and make sure all its students leave prepared for college or a job.

"The key to having students succeed when they leave the 12th grade is to make sure they can succeed when they enter the first grade," Nixon said.

"We want every child to be successful and achieve at his or her full potential. That's why early childhood education is not just important; it is critical. All of us share the ultimate goal of making sure children who are entering kindergarten are prepared academically and socially."

Not everyone in Jefferson City is so supportive of more money for preschool education. When the state Board of Education was deciding whether to apply for a federal grant from the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge, a group of lawmakers cautioned education officials that if they did so, they might put their state funding at risk.

The dispute centered on a requirement for the federal grant that states set up a rating system for preschools. Such a rating system has been rejected in the Missouri legislature, with critics saying they don't want preschools to have to adhere to a one-size-fits-all set of standards. 

Asked whether he backed the state board in its effort to get the $60 million from Washington, Nixon again stressed the importance of early childhood education and said, "You bet I support that."

But on another move to gain more money for public education in the state, Nixon was noncommittal. He would not comment on plans to circulate a petition seeking to raise Missouri's cigarette tax by 73 cents a pack, with 80 percent of the money going to education, both elementary and secondary and the state's colleges and universities.

"At this point," Nixon said when asked if he supports an increase in the state's tobacco tax, which is the lowest in the nation, "I am focused on getting my budget to the finish line. It's not something in front of me at this point. It's not on my agenda."

The money for new preschool classrooms in the city schools is part of a $96.1 million settlement from the area's longstanding area school desegregation case. The preschool money is targeted to open 25 new preschool rooms, two of which will be early childhood special education classrooms; provide before and after care for preschoolers at 30 sites throughout the city; and expand to Sumner, Beaumont and Roosevelt high schools a program to help teen parents continue their education by providing child care and related services.

Nixon got a firsthand look at two of the classrooms at Peabody. In one, the education was brought to students by the letter N, as they sat on a brightly colored carpet and sang the alphabet song along with their teacher.

"Are you guys being nice to her?" Nixon asked, adding: "Say yes."

"We're here today to visit your classroom and thank your teacher for all she's doing," Nixon said.

The governor then visited a classroom down the hall, where students were paying equal attention to a Santa figurine seated in an easy chair and reciting a poem as well as to the crowd of adult visitors watching the scene. They then broke into groups, some headed for four computers against the classroom's south wall and others to a miniature kitchen.

Principal Carey Cunningham introduced Nixon to reporters, saying that the governor "has seen the importance of starting early with our children. The earlier we can get involved in their lives, the more successful they will be."

Nixon stressed the importance of moving the St. Louis Public Schools forward so they can regain the accreditation they lost in 2007, though he acknowledged that the badly needed improvements needed aren't easy to achieve.

"This stuff takes a while," he said. "You can't snap your fingers and turn schools around.

"This is about providing an opportunity every day to kids who work hard and play by the rules. It's extremely important for students and their parents to know there is no excuse for not performing."

Asked about another state education issue involving St. Louis -- the law that allows students who live in unaccredited districts to attend adjacent districts at no cost, with the receiving districts having no say in how many students they will take -- Nixon said he hopes that lawmakers can come up with a remedy that will help avoid disruption of the education in suburban districts.

Those districts need to be able to predict how many students they will be teaching, and the city schools need to improve to the point that they regain accreditation.

"I don't think a major disruption of a child's education, including a physical disruption, is in the their long-term interest," the governor said.

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.