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Aug. 10 Daily News editorial

Congress appears ready to strengthen the federal commitment to early learning. The Senate Labor, Health and Human Services Subcommittee recently approved a $989 million increase for Head Start. The money will go to Early Head Start, which serves low-income pregnant women and families with infants and toddlers up to age three.

The Early Head Start program has benefited from strong, bipartisan support, even as state and federal revenues have sharply declined with the recession. That's mostly due to a growing body of evidence showing that this early learning may well deliver the biggest bang for the education dollar. What goes on between birth and the first three years can be critical in determining a child's prospects for success in later years. Eighty percent of brain development occurs during those three years.

Educators, health professionals and others in this community have organized a comprehensive effort to make sure that every child gets an early start on their education and enters kindergarten healthy and ready to learn. The Cowlitz Child Psychiatry/Early Learning Coalition is a community-wide effort aimed at preparing children to reach their potential.

This county's need for such a comprehensive effort is all too apparent. Cowlitz County has a relatively large number of low-income families. 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 manage to catch up.

Head Start, with its broad focus on family and the child's health and literacy needs, has been particularly effective at preparing children to succeed in the classroom and beyond. The landmark preschool program has demonstrated here and around the country how 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.

Our community benefits from one of the nation's top-rated Head Start programs. The Lower Columbia College Head Start program has earned back-to-back perfect reviews from the U.S. Administration for Children and Families, the federal office that overseas Head Start programs. One perfect review is rare; two straight scores of 100 percent is exceptional.

Lower Columbia College's Early Head Start program received an $890,000 federal grant last February. The money allowed the program to increase the number of children receiving home-based services in Longview and Kelso. Currently, more than 50 children are being served. The proposed new funding pending in the Senate would be used to continue this expanded service. Holding the line on the number of children being served is important. As it is now, Early Head Start is able to serve less than four out of every 100 eligible families nationwide.

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