Do early education programs for at-risk students work? A new study is the first to analyze Virginia’s program statistically, and the results are positive.

Curry School of Education professors Francis Huang and Marcia Invernizzi led research that evaluated more than 60,000 students at 1,000 public schools across Virginia. Students were evaluated from the beginning of kindergarten until the end of first grade. About 11,000 had attended a Virginia Preschool Initiative-funded preschool.

A majority of the 11,000 children had been identified as at-risk to qualify for the preschool program; they lived in poverty or were homeless, had health or developmental problems or did not speak English as a primary language. Some of them had guardians or parents who had limited education, were incarcerated or chronically ill.

Children who were in the program performed better in both kindergarten and first grade than those who didn’t go to preschool. They had higher literacy skills and were less likely to repeat kindergarten. Gains were even greater among children with disabilities, African-American children and Hispanic children. By second grade, the benefits of the preschool program diminished but did not disappear completely.

“The fact that we can show that preschool is beneficial, especially to these at-risk children, is powerful,” Invernizzi says. “Our findings add to the rationale for investing in early childhood education.”