A majority of the city's preschoolers are Hispanic, although they come from a diverse array of backgrounds. Children from the Dominican Republic or of Dominican descent are the largest slice of the population, followed by students of Mexican and Puerto Rican origin or descent.
More than half start preschool with little or no English oral skills. Every classroom has either a bilingual lead teacher or an assistant teacher who can speak Spanish. The district also is offering dual-language instruction in a growing number of its preschool classrooms.
All preschool teachers in Perth Amboy's programs--even those who work for the providers that partner with the district--hold bachelor's degrees and certificates in early-childhood education, as required by the state for all the Abbott school districts. Paraeducators must have at least 60 hours of college credits as well. Master teachers employed by the district work closely with the private centers to ensure the state's standards are met.
Strict rules govern how much time should be devoted to play during a day: 210 minutes, also state-mandated. The preschools all use Creative Curriculum, a commercial program that organizes the preschool classroom and its activities around a unit of study that stretches across multiple weeks.
At the Acelero Head Start Center here, a classroom of 4-year-olds has been learning about music. The teacher and children have created an elaborate play area with a "sound booth" they made out of a cardboard box where they can "record" themselves singing; the area has a toy drum kit and guitar, other instruments, and a microphone fashioned from a cardboard toilet paper roll and aluminum foil.
In a neighboring classroom of 3-year-olds, children learning about dough created a bakery assembly line and ovens made of cardboard and shoeboxes where they can pretend to bake bread or make pizza. Their unit of study included a visit to a local bakery and a project they worked on to create a photo album that documented their field trip.
"We want it to go deep with our kids," Sperlazza says of lessons the center provides.
In an ongoing study of the longitudinal effects of New Jersey's public preschool expansion in the Abbott districts, researchers at the National Institute for Early Education Research concluded in a 2009 report (the most recent) that children who participated in the program were less likely to be retained in the early grades.
Looking at children who were in 2nd grade in 2008, the researchers found that grade repetition in kindergarten and 1st grade was 10.7 percent for children who had not attended prekindergarten, 7.2 percent for those who had attended for one year, and 5.3 percent for those who had attended for two years.
The researchers also found positive effects of preschool on children's oral-language skills, early literacy, and mathematics skills in the early grades.
Barnett, who is one of the study's authors, says the effects of preschool show up in later grades, too.
"These programs in New Jersey that have near-universal participation rates beginning at age 3 see children, including Latinos, scoring near the state averages in 4th, 5th, and 6th grades," he says. "And the state average in New Jersey is a very high bar."
Perth Amboy's early-childhood program also provides education and outreach services to parents.
Iris Martinez-Campbell heads that effort for the school system.
"We educate these parents on the importance of things like routines for their children, such as putting them to bed at an early time and the same time every night," Martinez-Campbell says. "From there, we educate them on the importance of talking to their children and reading to them. We loan them books if they don't have any in the home. The goal is to build habits in these families that will extend into the school years."
At Robert N. Wilentz Elementary, a K-4 school that enrolls many of Perth Amboy's preschool graduates, kindergarten teacher Diana Franco sees the effects of preschool for her pupils from the first day of school.
"I have to spend very little time getting them acclimated to being in a classroom," she says. "They know how to listen to a teacher, how to work well with others, and can go with the flow of my classroom almost from the beginning. It's great because we can start learning right away."
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