By Lore Croghan
For Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Preschool sure ain't child's play.
Just ask Jim Matison, a constant crusader for high-quality early childhood education, which he says is a life-changing experience for impoverished children.
"Here's a mind-blowing statistic," the executive director of the Brooklyn Kindergarten Society (BKS) told the Brooklyn Eagle Monday at a fundraiser for the 122-year-old nonprofit.
"If you're an African-American or Hispanic male age 35 living in Harlem or Brownsville, Bed-Stuy, East New York or Bushwick, and you do not have a high-school diploma, the odds are even you have spent at least two years in jail."
The kids who wind up on the wrong side of the law are already falling behind by the time they're in elementary school.
Though no one's ever confirmed it, many educators believe the state of California looks at third-graders' standardized test scores to budget for future prison construction, he said.
"Start behind – stay behind," said Matison, 68, whose downtown Brooklyn organization runs child care centers with high-impact school readiness programs in five New York City Housing Authority developments.
The centers, for kids ages 2 to 5 from low-income families, are at Seth Low Houses in Brownsville; Brevoort Houses, Sumner Houses and Tompkins Houses in Bedford-Stuyvesant; and Albany Houses in Crown Heights.
"A full 90% of all brain development occurs by age 5," said the Columbia MBA and former head of Saint Ann's lower school.
He touted BKS' preschool achievements at a cocktail party at Superfine in DUMBO that capped a book drive for the child care centers' lending libraries.
"Are you curious? Do you think abstractly? Do you plan ahead? Do you respond to authority? Do you play well with others?
"If you are dropped into public school starting in kindergarten and you're deficient in these skills, you will never catch up."
To bring the children up to speed, rigorously trained teachers, assistant teachers and aides at BKS centers work with them on language and literacy development. Enrichment activities include music, dance, art and chess for the 4-year-olds, which teaches them "planning ahead, patience, winning and losing" and wows their parents.
"The parents say, ‘My child is smart – he or she plays chess,'" Matison explained.
Ten percent of the new arrivals at BKS preschool programs are special needs children; two-thirds have significant learning deficits.
By the time the kids leave BKS programs, more than 90% of them are at or above their age group's normal skill levels.
Every dollar invested in high-quality early childhood education brings a return of $7 to $17, he said. The payoff comes from less spending required on the juvenile justice system and dropout prevention programs, and lower outlays of public assistance.
Supporters who turned out for Monday's fundraiser praised BKS programs.
"Play is children's work, and that never changes," said board member Mary Stanton, who's a preschool teacher at Packer School.
"Language, pre-reading, math, social skills – it all comes from playing. BKS maintains that tradition," she said.
"Whether you're into dollars and cents or the emotion, it's so important to give children the opportunity to grow and fulfill their God-given potential," said another board member, Harry Shulman.
Donald Brennan of Brennan Realty Services, a sponsor of Monday's shindig, has been a long-time supporter of BKS' main fundraiser, the Yuletide Ball, which for many years was Brooklyn's only coming-out party for debutantes.
"I like the opportunity to help the youngest members of our community who are most in need," he said.
BKS needs to raise $1 million each year for its preschool programs.