No sooner did this school year wind down than we started counting the weeks to a new one. For many 3- and 4-year-olds, preschool this fall will be their first school experience. But in Clarke County, 56 percent of children ages 3 and 4 do not attend preschool. These kids may not have the opportunity to develop the skills that are crucial to success in the classroom, the workplace and life. As a result, many of our children start school behind—and Clarke County suffers academically, economically and socially.
What’s more, nearly 40 percent of Clarke County’s children live in poverty, and over 80 percent of Clarke County School District students are considered low-income. Evidence suggests that intervening in the early years of a child’s life is critical to breaking the cycle of poverty, when children’s brains act as sponges. Young children’s brains develop 700 new neural connections every second. These connections build the foundation on which all future learning, behavior and health depend.
We have a chance today to make a significant, positive bottom-line impact on Athens area businesses and communities. Investment in early childhood education promises to help improve employee productivity now and build the foundation of skills for the workforce of the future. This focus on kids from birth to 5 reduces future expenses for remedial education, crime and other problems. And it leads to higher incomes, creating a stronger consumer base.
Research proves that quality early care and education is the ultimate catalyst for success for individuals, families and communities. In Clarke County, we’ve seen statistically significant differences in children’s behavior and cognitive, physical and social-emotional development from when they start pre-K to the end of the school year. But the benefits extend far longer. Studies show that students who participated in Clarke County School District pre-K programs had improved academics through high school.
Let’s look beyond the numbers. Ana Sanchez became pregnant while a senior at Clarke Central High School. Ana enrolled in the Early Head Start home-based program for pregnant teens, where she had a weekly home visitor who encouraged her to stay in school and keep herself and her baby healthy. Ana graduated and had a healthy baby boy named Aaron. Ana’s home visitor continued to come weekly to teach her the skills she needed to care for her baby. Two years later, Aaron entered the Early Head Start center-based program, where he received loving care from two highly trained teachers.
Ana and Aaron continue to grow and progress. Aaron is finishing second grade at Whitehead Road Elementary, where all reports show he is meeting or exceeding standards. Ana is now a home educator herself with the Early Head Start Program. She continues to learn and grow in her profession.
Ana and Aaron are defying the odds, because they are learning the skills they need to succeed. We need more stories like these.
The issue in Clarke County is that the capacity for high quality, affordable preschool and pre-K is nowhere near the need. Right now, more than 2,500 children ages 0–4 are economically eligible for Early Head Start or Head Start programs, but only 320 children are currently served. We must do more to ensure Athens families have access to affordable, high quality childcare.
The good news is that Georgians are serious about early education. A recent poll from the Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students (GEEARS) shows that early care and education generates overwhelming bipartisan support among Georgia voters. Nearly 90 percent of Georgia voters support the use of lottery funds to provide voluntary pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds. Nearly 80 percent believe that the state government should expand voluntary pre–kindergarten for all families who want to participate. More than 60 percent believe it is more important to ensure sufficient funding for education than holding the line on taxes and spending.
Athens-area leaders can create positive, long-lasting change in our community by increasing the quality and accessibility of early care and education. This is the best way to invest in our city’s future. For every dollar invested in early education, we save $7 as a result of lower demand for social services, reduced crimes rates and increased tax revenues.
We must urge our local, state and federal lawmakers to commit to funding quality early learning programs that all Athens-area families can access. We can build a strong workforce pipeline for Athens, but we must start early.
Binderman is executive director of the Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students. Johnson is executive director of Family Connection-Communities In Schools of Athens.