Ready to Learn

By Kathleen Vail

The 4-year-olds at the Margaret H. Cone Head Start Center live in one of the most depressed and crime-plagued neighborhoods in Dallas. Most come from single-parent families, and many of their mothers and fathers did not graduate from high school.

But when these children leave the center, they're ready for elementary school. And they do some astonishing things when they get to Julia C. Frazier Elementary, a K-3 school that has earned exemplary ratings for the past two years despite a 97 percent poverty rate.

By third grade, the Cone graduates outscore their peers on local and national reading tests. In 2002-03, 90 percent of the third-grade Cone graduates at Frazier read at or above grade level on the national Stanford-9 exam. Two years ago, every Cone graduate third-grader passed the Texas assessment tests in reading and math.

How can children from such overwhelming poverty score so high on these standardized tests? Cone's literacy enrichment program, developed a decade ago, is at least partly responsible. LEAP, as it is called, does not focus on worksheets for 4-year-olds or require children to learn concepts and skills before they are developmentally ready.

"I don't want to push any child," says Nell Carvell, who designed the program and now serves as the director of the Language Enrichment Activities Program and Head Start Initiatives at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "I do think that's inappropriate. But if you give them an opportunity under guidance to play with these things, it's amazing how much they learn." 

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