Early education is the key

Education is vital to an individual’s success and tops most communities’ concerns. But America’s education statistics offer a grim snapshot.

Nearly half of all kindergarteners start school unprepared to learn. And, children from low-wage earning, or “at-risk” families, start one to two years even further behind. We know that children who cannot read by third grade are unlikely to graduate from high school. With 7 out of 10 fourth-graders not reading at grade level, we can expect that approximately 1 in 3 students in high school today will not graduate (and it’s 1 in 2 for children of color). Finally, pay attention here employers, more than 20 percent of today’s workforce is functionally illiterate.

Changing these numbers requires a community-wide commitment to lasting change. And whether the focus is achievement gaps or graduation rates, boosting early education is part of the solution. That’s because the first five years hardwire a child’s brain for future learning. But stressors – like persistent poverty, absent parents or homelessness – can weaken that brain architecture and the foundation for success in school, work and life.

Community leaders across Washington state are engaged in this issue and want to be part of the solution. Focus groups with business leaders hosted by the United Ways of Washington in nine communities last fall found that business leaders recognize the long-term importance of available and affordable quality early education opportunities. Leaders know that “kids make it or break it in the first 5 years and after that, there’s only so much you can do in the next 12 years of school.”

United Ways see this as an arc of success – starting at birth and culminating in high school graduation with good jobs, a stable income and health benefits for families. The continuum of educational experiences from birth, through early education and through the traditional K-12 system, all contribute to success in our global, knowledge-based 21st century economy.

Washington State is viewed as a national leader for its public and private efforts to strengthen its early care and education system with the importance of the early years receiving much focus. But, we still face huge challenges.

Kindergarten teachers in Washington report less than half of incoming students are adequately prepared for kindergarten. In very high poverty classes, only a quarter of children enter ready to succeed.

Currently, Washington’s early learning programs serve only half of eligible low-income children.

Only 67 percent of all Washington state public school students from the class of 2001 graduated from high school.

In communities throughout our state, United Ways are focused on this challenge as well. In Spokane, United Way and community partners are working together to improve child care quality and transitions into kindergarten. In Thurston County, the United Way distributes calendars in both English and Spanish that contain tips for parents about how to prepare their child for kindergarten.

Finally, Island County has Partners in Island County Early Learning (PICEL) that is a purposeful collaboration for early learning and building a community coalition promoting early learning relationships and school readiness. The PICEL partners are: Island County Health Department, Toddler Learning Center, United Way of Island County, Sno-Isle Library, ECEAP, South Whidbey Children’s Center, Island County school districts, Head Start and Early Head Start, Child Care Providers and Parents. PICEL has recently been awarded a grant from the Department of Early Learning for the purpose to engage business and community leaders as part of the Early Learning Coalition.

We still have a great deal of work to do and it is important that our elected officials continue the momentum to provide increasing opportunities for children to enter school ready to succeed. As we enter this election season, we encourage discussion of the importance of strengthening our state’s educational system – from birth through adulthood -- with all candidates for office, at every level. Before you cast your ballot, it is important that you know where the candidates stand on this important issue.

This is not a partisan issue, but one that requires collaboration across all sectors. Working together, we can accomplish things that no organization, no individual and no government can accomplish on its own.

As a state, Washington has made a great start in prioritizing early education thanks to strong leadership from the public and private sectors. We are moving in the right direction, but there is still much more to do if we are to ensure that every child enters school ready to succeed, graduates on-time, and is prepared to compete in our 21st century economy. This is a challenge the United Ways in Washington State are eager to accept.

Cathy Niiro is executive director of United Way of Island County.

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