Utah District Sees Pre-K as Tangible Investment (Ed Week)

By Arianna Prothero

The long-standing pre-K program in Granite School District, which covers parts of the Salt Lake City, Utah, metropolitan area, was so successful that school officials were able to convince investment firm Goldman Sachs and investor J.B. Pritzker in 2013 to front the money for expanding it through type of financing known as a social impact bond. Investment in early education saves money by keeping capable, but disadvantaged, children out of pricey special education services farther down the road, according to Brenda Van Gorder, the director of preschool services for the 70,000-student district. Those savings then can be used to pay off the loan.

Granite's expanded program now serves about 3,000 3- to 5-year-olds, most of whom attend preschool for free or pay tuition on a sliding scale based on their families' income. Nearly half the preschoolers are eligible for free- or reduced-price lunch, and nearly 40 percent are either ethnically diverse or speak a language other than English when they enter school, said Ms. Van Gorder.

In addition to the $7 million social-impact bond, money comes from the federal government through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or Title I funds, as well as smaller grants and donations from community organizations.

Aside from its private investors, another unusual aspect of the program is that it trains many of its educators in-house: Most pre-K general-education teachers do not have four-year degrees.

"It's almost like we have a grow-your-own, with the intent that our staff will all be working toward a child-development certificate," said Ms. Van Gorder.

Despite its expansion, the program still has a waiting list and struggles to find space and transportation for the children it does serve. But Ms. Van Gorder said the investment seems to be paying off. Pupils who matriculated from the pre-K program remain on par with the achievement levels of their better-off peers as they move into higher grades.

"Our district was really struggling; we had lots of kids not reading on grade level in 3rd grade," she said. "Everyone kept saying the grade before didn't do their job. Well, the buck stops here."