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A Pre-K child at Marshall University’s Early Education STEAM Center explores photos on a computer during school.

HUNTINGTON — Children enrolled in West Virginia’s Universal Pre-K program generally enter kindergarten with an advanced set of initial skills compared with kids who didn’t participate, according to preliminary data from a study launched five years ago.

That, of course, was the intent of the Pre-K program, which began in West Virginia in 2002.

However, the early findings also suggest that the advantages Pre-K students have when entering kindergarten fade by the time they are in third grade — a development that researchers in the state plan to delve into further with an extension of the Pre-K study.

The study that began in 2015 involved the National Institute for Early Education Research in New Jersey, the West Virginia Department of Education and Marshall University’s College of Education and Professional Development, with data collectors supervised through Marshall working in seven counties. Those counties were Putnam, Kanawha, Wood, Fayette, Roane, Greenbrier and Nicholas. Now, researchers will continue their work after a $2.5 million extension was approved recently.

“West Virginia is really ahead in our Pre-K programs,” Mindy Allenger, associate professor at Marshall’s College of Education and Professional Development, said. “The earlier we can intervene with children, the better. In those early days, their brains are developing like crazy, and if we can get that quality start to kids, it’s going to improve our long-term school scores, increase their employment options, earning potential — it’s really setting them up for success.”

That’s how April Melvin, Pre-K teacher at the Child Development Academy at Marshall, which practices a play-based curriculum, sees her role. Her job as a preschool teacher helps set the tone for the child’s future educational experience, she said.

“We are the stepping stone of the child’s school career and we want it to be a positive experience,” Melvin said. “When we help foster a love of learning, especially through play, it will help influence the way that a child feels about school for the rest of their life.”

Melvin said children at the academy gain social-emotional skills, cognitive skills, fine and gross motor skills, adaptive skills and academic skills through hands-on learning.

“We want our children to be independent, be able to express themselves and have a curiosity of the world,” Melvin said. “When we focus on who they are and what they need, meeting their needs in that moment, all of the other things will develop naturally.”

Initial data from the study suggests that kids who attend a Universal Pre-K program will have advantages over their peers in kindergarten who did not attend; however, those advantages often reach a plateau by the time the child enters third grade.

“We’re looking to see if they’ve retained those early gains, because there is a lot of data that says students do have gains after going to a quality preschool,” Allenger said.

Nearly 76% of children who attend kindergarten in West Virginia have attended the Universal Pre-K program, according to Monica DellaMea, executive director of the Office of Early and Elementary Learning at the WVDE.

Because the program is so heavily used, the study plays an important role in making sure participating children receive a thorough education and teachers are provided with fact-based assistance.

“Since the beginning of the study, the researchers have followed a cohort of children. We are now in our fifth year of looking at this study, so we’re getting ready to wrap up our last year of data collection,” DellaMea said. “There seem to be advantages for those children in Pre-K, but those advantages tend to fade, which is a national trend we’ve seen, by first or second grade, so we know that that’s something that speaks to the fact that our instructional practices in kindergarten, first and second grade are areas in which we could definitely see improvement.”

The study also uses a classroom assessment system to look at three major components of program quality: emotional support, classroom organization and instructional support.

According to assessments thus far, West Virginia has fared well in indoor space environment, helping children expand their vocabulary, encouraging children to use language, staff and child interactions, peer interactions and limited transitions and waiting times.

“West Virginia is on par nationally with emotional support,” DellaMea said. “It’s very clear from our study that the teachers genuinely adore the children they serve and want to make sure their needs are met.”

DellaMea said the state fares similarly in classroom organization, but shows room for improvement in instructional support, which has been historically lower than the other two sectors across the U.S.

“It’s an area in which we know we definitely have room to grow in West Virginia, and that is something that we’re really focusing on as an office and helping to build resources and support to make sure educators have what they need to be successful,” she said.

Because of West Virginia’s dedication to Pre-K development, the National Institute for Early Elementary Research also has selected the state to participate in a second study to identify and share positive early learning practices with other areas of the country that may be struggling.

“What they plan to do is put together a case study on each state that was selected, and the other states are Michigan, Alabama and New Jersey,” DellaMea said. “We don’t have all the answers, and we know that we always have room to grow, but this helps us strive to make sure we’re providing what the state needs as far as resources and support.”

West Virginia passed legislation in 2002 requiring the state to expand access to preschool education programs in order to make prekindergarten available to all 4-year-olds in the state by the 2012-13 school year. West Virginia’s preschool program is available in all 55 counties. West Virginia requires that a minimum of half of the programs operate in collaborative settings with private prekindergarten, child care centers or Head Start programs in order to facilitate expansion of the program.

Follow reporter Hanna Pennington via Twitter @hpennHD.