Kindergarten readiness is critical to a child's long-term academic success.

Whereas many factors contribute to equipping kids for this foundational year of their academic careers, education experts almost universally agree about one in particular -- children who attend public preschool programs are better prepared for kindergarten than those who don't.

And it's never too early to start exploring your options.

From 6 to 7 p.m. tonight, Thursday, Jan. 18, at Siebert Elementary School, 385 Reinhard Ave., join Southside STAY for our annual South Side Pre-K Options & Parent-Teacher Panel.

Pre-K leaders from Columbus City Schools, SPARK Columbus and the city of Columbus will present an overview of the excellent -- and sometimes free -- preschool options for local children.

A panel of Pre-K parents and teachers from South High School pathway schools will also share their experiences and answer questions.

Dinner will be provided by Southside STAY and complimentary childcare is available for those who register. Please send an email to southsidestay@gmail.com to request childcare.

Why choose Columbus City Schools for Pre-K?

On the South Side we are fortunate to have a wellspring of public preschool options.

All seven neighborhood elementary schools that feed into South High -- including Fairwood, Lincoln Park, Livingston, Moler, Siebert, Southwood and Stewart -- offer full-day programs licensed by the Ohio Department of Education.

Each is fully compliant with state regulations and the majority have the Ohio Department of Education's highest, five-star Step Up to Quality rating, which recognizes programs that have highly trained teachers, emphasize the development of school readiness skills, commit to continuous improvement and focus on family engagement.

Further, as opposed to being a stand-alone learning experience, early childhood education at Columbus City Schools is part of a broader developmental trajectory that starts in Pre-K but extends well into elementary school.

From roughly ages 3 to 8, learning is tailored in developmentally-appropriate ways for individual students, beginning with grounded, concrete experiences that prepare and gradually guide them into more abstract thinking down the line.

That means every child who attends a South Side Pre-K program is not only receiving one of the best preschool experiences available in Central Ohio, but one that's also rigorously aligned with evidence-based research.

Additionally -- and perhaps most importantly -- given the South Side's rich cultural and socioeconomic diversity, students in public preschools are immersed in inclusive atmospheres with a variety of other learners and learning opportunities, providing invaluable cultural exchanges in and beyond the classroom.

Don't just take it from me. Last spring, a task force comprising some of the most prominent early childhood researchers in the nation published a report, "The Current State of Scientific Knowledge on Pre-Kindergarten Effects."

Summarizing decades worth of field research, they highlighted wide-ranging benefits of pre-K education, underscoring the importance of evidence-based, developmentally-appropriate programs that blend social and emotional growth with numeracy- and literacy-based skill specific curricula.

The biggest gains occur among poor, disadvantaged, and dual language learners, but the report emphasized that attending preschool benefits all students, regardless of background.

On behalf of Southside STAY, I hope you'll join us at Siebert Elementary School to learn about your public Pre-K options.

Southside STAY chairman Mike Alcock submitted the Village Notebook column .