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Pre-kindergarten (also called Pre-K or PK) is a classroom-based preschool program for children below the age of five in the United States (when kindergarten starts). It may be delivered through a preschool or within a reception year in elementary school. Pre-kindergartens play an important role in early childhood education. They have existed in the US since 1922, normally run by private organizations. The U.S. Head Start Program, the country's first federally funded pre-kindergarten program, was founded in 1965. This attempts to prepare children (especially disadvantaged children) to succeed in school.
The term "pre-kindergarten" is often used interchangeably with the concepts of "day care," and "child care;" however, these other early childhood settings focus their goal on substitutionary care for children while their legal parents/guardians are absent as opposed to pre-K's focus on skill building. They could involve academic training, or they could involve solely socializing activities.
Pre-kindergartens, though, differentiate themselves by equally focusing on building a child's (1) social development, (2) physical development, (3) emotional development, and (4) cognitive development. They commonly follow a set of organization-created teaching standards in shaping curriculum and instructional activities/goals. The term "preschool" more accurately approximates the name "pre-kindergarten," for both focus on harvesting the same four child development areas in subject-directed fashion. The term "preschool" often refers to such schools that are owned and operated as private or parochial schools. Pre-kindergartens refer to such school classrooms that function within a public school under the supervision of a public school administrator and funded completely by state or federally allocated funds, and private donations.
Most school districts describe Pre-Kindergarten as "an early learning program to prepare children for kindergarten who are identified as at risk." Pre-kindergarten provides learning to children who are 4 years old on or before September 1. Pre-kindergarten for three-year-olds provides learning to children who are 3 on or before September 1. Most programs are 3 hours but extended day is offered in some schools.
"K-2" is often (and controversially) used interchangeably with "pre-kindergarten." Although early childhood education experts criticize the use of the term as a way to rationalize utilizing a kindergarten model and teaching kindergarten skills in pre-kindergarten classes, public school districts continue to incorporate the term as a way to integrate pre-kindergarten into the stable of accountability under the No Child Left Behind Act.
To qualify for free pre-kindergarten in some states the child generally must be:
- 4 years old (some districts offer programs for 3-year-olds) on or before September 1 and meet one of the following criteria:
- Limited English Proficiency. (This refers to the United States only. In Canada and other countries, free pre-kindergarten programs may not necessarily be available to parents or may have different criteria for admission.)
- Economically Disadvantaged. Students qualifying as economically disadvantaged must meet the federal income eligibility guidelines. To qualify a family must have income below about 175% of the Annual Federal Poverty Guidelines (U.S.A).
- The child of a parent in the military or injured or killed while actively serving in the military. Appropriate U.S. Department of Defense identification or documentation must be provided.
- In or have been in the conservatorship of the state. Appropriate documentation from the Department of Family and Protective Services must be provided.
"Pre-Kindergarten" may have different meanings in other countries. In India, this is also known as Nursery in Kindergartens such as Applekids.
In 2013 Alabama, Michigan, Minnesota, and the city of San Antonio enacted or expanded Pre-K programs. In New York City new mayor Bill de Blasio was elected on a pledge of Pre-K for all city children. A poll conducted in July for an early education nonprofit advocate found that 60 percent of registered Republicans and 84 percent of Democrats supported expanding public preschool by raising the federal tobacco tax.
Funding for Pre-K has proven a substantial obstacle to creating and expanding programs. The issue produced multiple approaches. Several governors targeted existing budgets. San Antonio increased sales taxes, while Virginia and Maine look to gambling. In Oregon, currently 20% of kids have access to publicly funded Pre-K of any kind, and a 2016 campaign is working to fully fund Pre-K to 12 education, for all kids whose parents want them to have the option of Pre-K. 
A 2012 review by the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University identified Oklahoma, Georgia and West Virginia as among the leaders in public program quality and fraction of enrolled children. Florida had the highest enrollment in 2012 — almost four-fifths of all 4-year-olds. About 84 percent were in private, religion-based or family centers. That state’s preschool programs did not fare well on quality measures. Other states with more than 50 percent enrollment included Wisconsin, Iowa, Texas and Vermont.
- Pre-school playgroup - a related type of establishment found in the United Kingdom.
- Forest kindergarten
- Andrews & Slate (March 2002). "Public & Private Pre-Kindergarten Programs: A Comparison of StudentReadiness". Educational Research Quarterly 25 (3): 59.
- Applekids website
- PÉREZ-PEÑA, RICHARD; RICHFEB, MOTOKO (February 3, 2014). "Preschool Push Moving Ahead in Many States". Retrieved April 6, 2014.
- "Fully Fund Oregon Schools". Retrieved March 6, 2015.