Years ago, an administrator stopped by my kindergarten classroom while on a site visit. He quickly scanned the room and my students -- a room bubbling with robust activity and children fully engaged in learning -- hesitant to enter, remarking aloud, “Oh, so this is the daycare.”
Clearly, he didn’t ‘get it.’
The end of the year is a good time to celebrate how far we’ve come, and how our understanding of brain development and early learning has evolved over the last few years. That being said, there is work to be done. Last week, it was announced at the Maryland State Board of Education that the 2017 Kindergarten Readiness Assessment shows only 45% of our children enter kindergarten demonstrating the readiness skills needed for success. While that is a 2% increase from last year, I take that data as an urgent call to action.
I grew up in the Central Valley of California, the eldest of eight children. My family benefitted from public assistance in a variety of ways. There were times when the electricity was shut off or there was little food in the house. I have vivid memories of pots and pans blackened from cooking in the living room fireplace when the gas hadn’t been paid. I remember the large plastic bag of frozen burritos delivered to the house by a local charity organization when our supply of government cheese, beans and rice had run out. Without the financial support from my grandparents, tax benefits that help the poor, and "food stamps" (the precursor to SNAP), or other relief assistance – programs that many families rely on, today – we would not have survived. It is likely, too, that without government assistance, I would not have gone to college. But, today, all of that is under attack. Congress continues its relentless assault on children by attempting to destroy the health coverage on which most poor and low-income kids depend. Last week, a tax plan was unveiled a tax plan that would further erode what actually makes our country great: the assurance that every child, regardless of the zip code in which she was born, has the opportunity for a promising future.
Almost 45 years after its debut, that slogan for the United Negro College Fund remains one of the most recognized in American advertising. With its motto, "The Early Years Matter," Ready At Five is focused on a similar, enduring message, but rather on the 'front end' of a child's developing mind. In the first years of life, more than 1 million neural connections form in the brain every second, building the brain's architecture and providing the foundation for all future learning, behavior, and health. Barriers detrimental to that brain's educational achievement can start early, including those caused by poverty, caregiver mental illness, child maltreatment, and low maternal education. By the time that child reaches kindergarten, he is already behind his peers. Time and time again, the adverse effects of his gap only multiplies unless there are interventions. One proven, successful intervention is high-quality preschool. When we provide all children with equitable opportunities to attend high-quality preschool, we ameliorate some of the risks to their learning and development. Even economists illustrate that the early years matter, finding that there is a huge return on the public investment when children from low-income families attend high-quality early childhood programs.