Seeking Safety: Can Preschool Help Fight Crime?


Mercedes Carmona raves about Tulsa’s pre-kindergarten program. Carmona’s youngest daughter, 5-year-old April, is about to enter the program at Kendall Whittier Elementary School.

“They learn fast,” said Carmona, a stay-at-home mom who volunteers at the school. “They learn their ABCs faster, numbers, and they become good kids. They know the rules. They listen.”

Years of research support what Carmona knows firsthand. Most children who participate in early education programs are more prepared for kindergarten—academically, socially and emotionally—than those who don’t. Studies have indicated that early education translates into higher graduation rates, better paying jobs and a lower tendency to get in trouble with the law.

Yet fewer than three in 10 children in America are enrolled in preschool programs.

That is not the case in Oklahoma, one of three states to provide universal early childhood education. Oklahoma passed a law in 1998 that that provides early childhood education to every 4-year-old, regardless of family income. Today, 74 percent of Oklahoma’s children take advantage of the law.

Tulsa, a city of almost 400,000, goes even further, due in large part to George Kaiser, a Tulsa native who made billions in oil and banking, and who has turned early childhood education into a personal crusade. Among the programs funded through the Kaiser Family Foundation is Educare, the gold standard for early childhood education.

“Educare is like a Head Start on steroids,” said Dr. Noreen Yazejian, a research scientist at the University of North Carolina’s Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute. “They have raised the level.”

Tulsa has three of the 20 Educare centers in the country, more than any other city. The three centers provide preschool education to 536 disadvantaged children from infants to age 5.

Although researchers lack conclusive evidence that early childhood education programs keep people away from crime years later, there is mounting data that they are an effective tool for blunting some of the school and socialization problems that can lead to troubled youths.

The evidence is so influential that more than 5,000 police chiefs, sheriffs, prosecutors, victims’ families and others in law enforcement across the country have joined the advocacy group Fight Crime: Invest in Kids.

According to the group’s website: “America’s anti-crime arsenal contains no weapons more powerful than the effective programs that help kids get the right start in life….Yet, despite decades of growing research proving what works, inadequate investments leave millions of children needlessly at risk of becoming delinquent teens and violent adults while putting every American at greater risk of becoming a victim of crime.”

The Fayetteville Observer traveled to Tulsa this month as part of “Seeking Safety,” the newspaper’s yearlong project examining the way communities are attacking crime problems. The project was led by reporter Greg Barnes, a 2014 John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Reporting Fellow.

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