Friday, February 08, 2008

Learning Starts At Birth

By June St. Clair Atkinson and Stephanie Fanjul

To truly prevent the dropouts of tomorrow, our work begins at the very start: the day a child is born. Why? Because children are born learning, and if we wait until third or first grade or even kindergarten to pay attention to what they've missed, it's already late in the game.

Research tells us that at least half of the educational achievement gaps between poor and non-poor children already exist by the time they start kindergarten. A child's brain works on a "use it or lose it" principle, and synapses not stimulated early on will be discarded and more difficult to reconstruct later. Like starting five spaces behind the starting line, the bigger the gap when children start school the harder it becomes to close in the intervening years.

Recognizing this, North Carolina educators and policymakers had the foresight to launch Smart Start, an early child hood program and More at Four, a high-quality pre-k program that serves 4-year-old children who are at risk. The two programs work together to ensure that, from birth, children have the developmental opportunities they need to be successful in school. But now we need to go a step further.

We have brought together early childhood and school leaders, parents and communities to take this next step forward, launching the NC Ready Schools Initiative. This is part of a national initiative that focuses on the early years that span from age three to grade three.

Last June the State Board of Education adopted the Ready Schools definition and endorsed the recommendation that all elementary schools link with a community planning team to conduct a ready schools assessment as part of their School Improvement Planning process. It endorsed the North Carolina Association for the Education of Young Children "Power of K" position paper clarifying what kindergartens should be like -- not the pushed-down academic structures often resulting from the pressures of accountability and No Child Left Behind.

Research from states where Ready Schools' programs are further along shows that such programs are helping to increase reading scores significantly -- from 49 to 70 percent passing rates for African American first graders in Montgomery County, MD -- and to decrease proficiency gaps based on race and ethnicity. In addition, more careful consideration is going into who serves in a principal's role in the elementary grades. If that person does not have training in child development and the early years, pilot participants are providing professional development in those areas.

An emphasis on the crucial learning period from birth through the early grades can also help ensure the success of existing programs such as No Child Left Behind, which have a heavy focus on academics and accountability.
It is imperative for educators to understand that they can teach academic content in developmentally appropriate ways for young children. We also know, that as critical as pre-K for at-risk students is, without sustained focus and appropriate instruction, these children may experience "fade out" -- or a loss of learning gains -- by grade three. Thus, the notion of "book-ending" education -- focusing on children of high school age and very young children -- is important to our ultimate goal of success for all students.

North Carolinians can be proud of their history as educational innovators -- from opening the first public university in the nation to starting the first Governor's School to pioneering school-based accountability. But given all of this effort what can citizens make of the state's continual problem with school dropouts and a high school graduation rate that still shows approximately one-third of all ninth graders failing to graduate from high school within five years?

With the introduction of the NC Ready Schools Initiative, combined with our existing efforts through Smart Start and Governor Easley's More at Four Program to enhance early childhood education, North Carolina has an excellent chance of reversing those high school dropout numbers and continuing to reduce the achievement gap. We can't start soon enough -- because when it comes to educating North Carolina's children, this is one test we cannot afford to fail.
St. Clair Atkinson Ed.D., is the state superintendent of North Carolina. Fanjul is president of The North Carolina Partnership for Children, Inc.

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