OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Oklahoma children are heading off to school earlier than ever, with about half of 4-year-olds attending a public preschool program during this past school year, the state Education Department says.
``It's really proven to be a successful program. Parents like it, school districts like it, teachers like it,'' said Ramona Paul, an assistant state schools superintendent.
Educators say the number of kids in preschool is expected to rise as school districts become more creative in finding space to accommodate them.
In 1990, about 2,500 4-year-old children attended preschool programs, compared with more than 25,700 this school year.
Recently released U.S. Census Bureau statistics back the state's figures. They also show Oklahoma is doing better than many states in offering educational opportunities for these young students.
From 1990 to 2000, the number of Oklahoma children ages 3 and older enrolled in educational programs before kindergarten increased from 53,000 to 110,000. Those numbers include nursery school and preschool.
Educators say the increase is due in part to more working mothers, changes in welfare laws and research showing the benefit of early childhood education.
School districts can decide whether to offer a preschool program. In Oklahoma, state-financed preschools must have a certified teacher and adhere to state curriculum standards. Each classroom is limited to 20 students, and a minimum of two adults including the teacher.
Some states require only a minimal amount of training compared with others such as Oklahoma that require specific credentials in early childhood education.
Alan Simpson, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based National Association for the Education of Young Children, said he doesn't believe preschool programs ever will replace kindergarten as the entry year into education.
Some states want all 4-year-olds in school programs, but none are mandating it.
``Policy makers recognize families like being able to choose,'' Simpson said. ``A parent can be the first teacher, and that's a great opportunity. But what we're seeing now is a lot more recognition that many families don't have that option.''