Monday, September 22, 2008

Building a Foundation for Success

By Sharen Hausmann

A new school year is underway and with it brings continued hope and excitement, particularly for the youngest of learners.

For many children though, that excitement is replaced by nervousness -- they are not ready for school.

By most national estimates, about a third of the children who are starting school aren’t ready. Unfortunately, by the time they reach third grade, many of these students will still be falling short of what their schools expect them to be learning.

As they make their way through grade school, middle school, and high school, many under-achieving youngsters will continue to lag behind what their classmates are achieving and their schools are requiring. Worse yet, they will fall far short of what the job market will be demanding at a time when the new economy places a premium on high skills and the ability to adapt to new technologies.

Helping these youngsters get on the path to success is a crucial challenge for Georgia educators. Fortunately, research points the way to solutions. Neuroscience demonstrates that the brain’s development is nearly 90 percent complete by the time a child is five. Moreover, the most rapid brain development takes place during the years from birth to age three. Educational research reveals that children who have benefited from excellent early care and pre-kindergarten education programs are well-prepared for school and do better in the first three grades. And economists report that investments in children’s early years will reap great returns in reduced drop-out and retention rates, increased graduation rates, and, eventually, improved worker productivity.

This research explains why it is so important to ease the transition from preschool to kindergarten by making sure that children are ready for school and schools are ready for children. Acting on this insight, the United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta’s Early Learning Division -- Smart Start -- is working to improve the transition to school for children from three to six years old. In May, 2003, Smart Start was awarded $4 million over five years by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for a new initiative -- SPARK Georgia -- that gets children ready for school and schools ready for young children.

SPARK Georgia works to create partnerships to serve vulnerable children from 3 to 6 and their families in communities of Central DeKalb, Norcross and Gwinnett. With guidance from early learning providers, educators, policymakers, business leaders, and community members, the initiative uses several strategies to serve all of the adults involved in caring for children.

In order to prepare children for school, parent educators conduct home visits to family, friends, and neighbor caregivers. They offer pointers for early learning activities. They conduct health, vision, dental, and literacy screenings. And they offer appropriate books and toys to enhance school readiness, and connect caregivers in small groups. Nearly half of the children and families served speak a language other than English, including Spanish, Vietnamese, Kurdish, Somalian, and Arabic.

In order to prepare schools for children, SPARK Georgia organizes Partnerships for School Readiness Councils to link caregivers, school personnel, and communities to work toward a smooth and successful transition to school and improve the culture within the schools. Funded by the federal Early Learning Opportunities Act, the Refugee and Immigrant Family and Child Project provides English as a Second Language classes to caregivers.

In addition to families, communities and schools, the project also works with the business community. For instance, Smart Start Georgia recently received a grant to expand literacy programs and screenings and provide additional materials to caregivers in the targeted communities, using literacy strategies and professional development for early care professionals, parents, and other caregivers. Funding from private foundations will also increase the number of caregivers and children served by the Learning Van, staffed by child care specialists who demonstrate and loan educational toys, books, and equipment to caregivers in a variety of settings including apartment complexes.

In order to succeed in school and in life Georgia’s children must have a strong foundation for learning. Encouraging children to play and explore helps them learn and develop socially, emotionally, physically and intellectually. Programs like SPARK Georgia will go a long way to build that foundation and should be expanded state-wide so all children can benefit.
Hausmann is vice president of early learning for Smart Start, the early childhood division, United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta.
Copyright (C) 2008 by the Georgia Forum. 9/08

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