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LTE: We have a crisis in early childhood education

Recent research on the developing brain shows that child development during the years of birth-5 years is crucial for a positive trajectory

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What’s the buzz?  In recent months, perhaps you have noticed a buzz of conversations about early childhood education. In April of this year, Governor Polis signed the much-touted Universal Preschool bill into law. “Universal preschool” establishes ten hours of preschool per week for every four-year-old in Colorado at no cost to parents, and it is set to begin July 1, 2023. While this is a step in the right direction, the bill makes no provision for 0-3 year olds nor for the care of four year olds for the other 30 plus hours in the work week.

Recent research on the developing brain shows that child development during the years of birth-5 years is crucial for a positive trajectory in their physical, intellectual, and socio-economic development.  However, in the developed world, the United States is a shameful outlier in its low levels of financial support for young children’s education.  Here, public funds are allocated primarily to the public education of 6–18-year-olds, not to the 0-5 -year-olds in childcare and early childhood education programs.

According to the 2021 census, Longmont has 5,239 children under the age of 5. Only 2060 slots are available in licensed facilities. This leaves 3,179 young children in Longmont without access to licensed care. Right now, that gap is filled FFNs -Family, Friends, and Neighbors- who care for the children in their homes. Many grandparents and friends fill in as providers because they offer the only affordable options for parents.

Educators’ ideal goal is to teach children and meet them wherever they are in their development. This goal is made clear in this statement by the Colorado Department of Education: “Every child, in every community deserves access to high quality, evidence-based early learning experiences. A strong start is crucial to ensuring student’s ultimate success in school, postsecondary education, in the workforce, and in life.”  When children do not have this “strong start” and are not school ready when they enter kindergarten, meaning they have deficits in one or more of the following- physical health and motor development, social and emotional development, speech, understanding, and general knowledge- they will require more time and resources. To truly meet our stated goals, we must increase public spending for preschools.

The US News identifies socioeconomic status as the single factor that most influences how ready to learn a child is when they enter kindergarten.  Among incoming students who are eligible for free or reduced lunches in St. Vrain Schools, only one-fifth demonstrated school readiness when they entered kindergarten. The achievement gap for these vulnerable children frequently continues through their school years. For example, third grade reading proficiency is generally seen as an important forecaster of success in school and life; however, in 2020, less than half (46%) of all third graders in St. Vrain schools met grade level expectations in English Language Arts (Community Foundation Boulder County).

This is not all doom and gloom.  “Universal Preschool” is one step. Now we need to enhance the screening process of infants and young children to detect developmental delays, train and recruit more early childhood educators, design resources for current educators, provide access to nutritious meals, coordinate the services of the existing early childhood organizations, nurture public/private ventures, and much more.

Everybody can help. A friend recently engaged a waitress in conversation.  This young, single woman said she was completing her high school education online because she had a two-year-old daughter to support. When my friend asked if she read to her child every night, she admitted she did not because of a lack of time and books.  After leaving the café, my friend stopped in a nearby used bookstore to purchase some children’s books, which she offered to the young mother with a smile as she said, “This will make it easier to read to your daughter every night.”  In the words of Marian Wright Edelman, “If you don't like the way the world is, you change it. You have an obligation to change it. You just do it one step at a time.”