MARQUETTE - As 3-year-old Mya Hemmer, a student at a local preschool, grabs another puzzle piece, she's unaware of the debate surrounding the very activity she's engaged in: Can preschool really affect people for the rest of their lives?
The answer in the scientific community seems to be yes, as many studies on early childhood education have shown high-quality preschool programs to have benefits in adulthood.
"There are a lot of different kinds of studies that support the benefits of early childhood programs," said Francella Quinnell, an associate professor in Northern Michigan University's psychology department who specializes in early childhood education. "(Studies) are reporting a lot of positive effects.
Mya Hemmer, 3, tries to piece together a puzzle at a local preschool. The debate over whether preschool is effective is still ongoing. (Journal photo by Jackie Stark)
"People can be much much older and still love learning new things," she added. "A lot of those kinds of attitudes get set up pretty early on."
Though there have been many studies to date on the subject of preschool education and its effects, one of the most well-known is the Perry Preschool Study. The study began 40 years ago, collecting data on 3- to 4-year-old Ypsilanti residents, and data collection continues today. So far, researchers have found that adults who completed a preschool education program as children had higher earnings, were more likely to graduate from high school, more likely to hold a job and commit fewer crimes than their peers who had not attended a preschool.
Other studies have also suggested that economically disadvantaged children reap the strongest benefits from attending educational preschools.
Head Start is a national preschool program meant to help those same children.
Marjorie Klein, director of the Early Childhood Education component of AMCAB - which includes all Head Starts in Marquette and Alger counties - said the program is aimed at closing the school preparation gap between disadvantaged children living in poverty and children who come from higher socioeconomic backgrounds.
"The children who come from better socioeconomic conditions are better prepared (for school)," said Klein. "Low income children are traditionally less prepared, so by providing children with a better experience, you equalize that."
In fact, David Deming, a professor at Harvard University, conducted a study specifically focusing on siblings enrolled, and not enrolled, in Head Start programs across the country. The study found that Head Start participants are roughly 8 percent more likely to graduate from high school, 6 percent more likely to attempt at least a year of college and 7 percent less likely to be in poor health than their siblings who did not attend a Head Start program.
"(Head Start is) a preschool program, not a daycare," Klein said. "Children enter kindergarten well-prepared, eager to learn and ready to learn."
Sarah Misale, owner and operator of Discovery Central, a preschool program located in downtown Marquette, said the importance of early education could never be overstated.
"This is an introduction to education," said Misale, who holds a bachelors degree in early childhood education. "If you take another child, one who hasn't had schooling, and compare them, the ability to express themselves, their confidence, their ability to feel safe, to be social, it's just never-ending. There's a lot of importance in early education."
Inside Discovery Central, there are toys and activities galore, but not a single one was placed there without a purpose. From the sign-in board to the foam building blocks, everything has a role in child development, even the monthly calendar.
"We use the calendar every day," Misale said. "We say what month it is, help (the students) to get the sound behind the letter. We think of other words that sound like that. It helps develop speech and emergent literacy, which are the building blocks for reading and writing."
Quinnell said it's these building blocks that are paving the way for children's success later in life.
"These programs do a lot for children," she said. "It gives them a good start in all areas of development, which is the base they're going to work from for the rest of their lives."
Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242.