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May 25 Daily News editorial

Area school officials say that between 50 and 70 percent of Cowlitz County children enter kindergarten without underlying literacy skills. That means they're having to play catch-up from day one in the classroom. Experience shows that too many of these children never catch up. Some join the ranks of the nearly three in 10 students who fail to finish high school. Others graduate high school, but fail to reach their potential.

This community has a large stake in improving every child's odds of success, obviously. The Cowlitz Child Psychiatry/Early Learning Coalition knows what that will take - ensuring that every child enters kindergarten healthy and ready to learn. The coalition's May 18 Early Learning Community Forum was a call for a collaborative, community-wide effort to achieve this goal.

Early learning can be critical in determining a child's prospects for success in later years. Eighty percent of brain development occurs between birth and age 3. The brain is 90 percent developed by age 5. Accordingly, early learning programs tend to give the biggest bang for the education dollar.

The Washington Legislature signaled its recognition of the importance of preschool education in 2006, when it created the state Department of Early Learning. Lawmakers were betting that bringing various early learning programs under a single, cabinet-level umbrella would improve the effectiveness of the state's effort to help the state's youngest citizens succeed. The Washington, D.C., advocacy group Voices for America's Children thought it was a smart bet. Washington was among 10 states held up by the group in 2008 as models for expanding the opportunity for children to start school ready to learn.

The state's effort also has benefited from private-sector involvement. In 2006, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation pledged some $90 million over 10 years to further Washington's early education efforts. Boeing Co. and various other private foundations and corporations also have partnered with the state.

This public-private commitment to early childhood education will pay dividends over time, no doubt. A similar partnership on the local level - such as the comprehensive effort promoted by the Child Psychiatry/Early Learning Coalition - would be equally productive. From a community standpoint, it's only sensible to undertake this mission.

Head Start - one of the programs that falls under the state's Early Learning Department - has been particularly effective locally. This landmark preschool program has demonstrated here and around the country how the early childhood education can have lasting impact. One national study of Head Start's effectiveness in preparing economically disadvantaged children for school tracked young students for 25 years. It found that those children who had participated in Head Start were more likely to finish high school, stay out of trouble with the law and own a home than economically disadvantaged children who had not participated in the program.

It's long been established that early learning programs with a broad focus that involves parents and addresses health and nutritional needs, as well as literacy, work best. This is the focus the Child Psychiatry/Early Learning Coalition wants to bring locally. It's one that requires - and merits - the community's full support.

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