Early childhood education is a long-term investment

on Thursday, 03 April 2014. Posted in News

Initiatives aim to get children ready for kindergarten

Ellen Meder
Published:  Morning News
March 30, 2014

For progress to occur and initial investment must be made, and the Pee Dee is ponying up when it comes to education, investing heavily in the front end of the process.

One of the reasons early childhood education has become a rallying cry in the past three years is the convincing research Francis Marion University professor Dr. Tammy Pawloski has shared with many community leaders. Though estimates vary, it is thought that $1 of investment in early childhood education can yield $9 to $17 later in the form of fewer special education referrals, less remediation, fewer teen pregnancies and fewer violent crimes.

"Children who participate in high-quality child care are more likely to successfully complete high school and earn higher salaries," Pawloski said. "Early childhood education makes sense for the long term, as well as the short."
Florence School District 1's board unanimously passed an intensive early childhood education plan last spring that has become a pilot for the whole state, garnering $500,000 funding to help.

Though he'll be retiring this summer, Florence 1 Superintendent Allie E. Brooks Jr. said the district is going the right direction toward narrowing the achievement gap.

"In all my 46 years in education, this initiative is probably the most fundamentally sound education initiative that any community could ever undertake, because we're talking about impacting everybody," Brooks said.

Brooks said that to help traditionally underperforming groups of students, educators have to help families change the curriculum of the home where children learn so much, because when some students have heard 100,000 fewer words by kindergarten, it can be difficult to catch up.

The plan is ambitious: within five years the district will increase the number of children under five served from 325 to 1,400 a year, at a cost of $3.6 million annually. That includes programs like giving parents of children younger than 17 months additional resources on brain-stimulating activities for infants, growing the existing Parent Child Home program that brings a specialist and toys and books to the families to learn constructive play, and finally growing the 3K and 4K preschools.

But the district knows it can't do it alone. That's why in addition to giving its own preschool instructors training on brain development and stimulating play, it has opened its training sessions to any and all child care providers in the area.

"The overwhelming majority of those children will wind up in the public schools, so we need to be speaking the same language," Brooks said. "We need to be consistent in exposing these students to what standards they will be expected to master. And so once again, it takes a village to raise a child."

That village mentality is also what Brooks thinks will make this focus stick for years. Florence 1 has a huge ally in The School Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to raising and distributing grant money for district schools and now leading the early childhood education charge.

The School Foundation got local and national businesses to buy into the importance early on, and at the start of the year began implementing its Start 2 Read program,
which will bring books and experts to area businesses so parents can learn the best, most stimulating ways to interact with their young children.

It also launched Start Smart, an online tool families can use to check their child's readiness and ask development experts questions.

Other areas are beginning to look at the importance of early childhood education as well, including Darlington County Schools which had a conference on the subject in the fall.

Florence 1 school board members have expressed a hope that the state and federal governments will decide to invest in the nation's youngest learners too, but until then they will solicit business funds, seek grants and prioritize the budget to keep promises of getting students ready to enter kindergarten.

The reason it works to focus on such young children? They don't wait to enroll in school to start learning. Pawloski said that while infants are born with just 10 percent of their neural connections, 90 percent are developed by age 5 and 50 percent of brain development happens in that time, more than any other.

"This development is driven by experiences, and the brain is built to stretch to meet the demands of the environment," she said. "If a child is exposed to high-quality, stimulating experiences, then his brain will grow in ways that will help him make sense of the world."

Prepping for Kindergarten

To illustrate some issues stepped up early childhood education aims to help, we did a Q&A with a 5K kindergarten teacher to hear about the differences she sees in school readiness. Karen Pattillo has taught 38 years and is currently at Dewey L. Carter Elementary School in Florence 1.

Q. Describe the difference in a more advanced student and a student who is less prepared.

A. An advanced student has an extensive vocabulary with developed oral language. He has often had much exposure to books and many learning experiences, such as going to the beach or visiting a zoo, etc. These experiences help to build vocabulary/language and help the student understand the books that he will read. An advanced student has good self-help skills (ties own shoes, zips jacket, is responsible in getting school folder back each day, keeps up with required work, etc.). An advanced student should be able to work, play and get along with others as well as follow classroom and school procedures. A student who is less prepared needs time to develop his vocabulary and language so that he will be able to learn to read and write. It is very difficult to "catch up" when a child needs two years of growth or more in one year to be on grade level. This student may not have had a chance to be with other children; therefore, he may have difficulty sharing or working on a project with other students. This child may need help in learning to take care of such things as tying his own shoes and zipping his jacket. Learning to do these things can build up a child's self-esteem.

Q. How does having a variety of preparedness levels influence how you teach a class?

A. I never feel that I have enough time to do everything that I would like to do with each child. I try to use different modalities/styles of teaching. Many activities are planned to challenge the more advanced student and provide opportunities for the less advanced student to learn the material. This is a challenge to the teachers as well.

Q. From your perspective how does school preparedness make an impact on students as their education progresses?

A. School preparedness is so vital. With the Common Core Standards and the rigid requirements in each grade level (including kindergarten), students need to be ready to work together, learn to read and write and be able to become more independent and responsible learners. Thank you, Floyd Creech, and many others who support helping our community provide for young children (0-5) so they can learn the self-help skills, the social skills and other readiness skills that are necessary for them to be successful learners.