Expanding Early Learning Can Break the Cycle of Poverty

Editor’s Note: Clarke County School Superintendent Demond Means submitted this op-ed in honor of Public Schools Week, Apr. 1–5.

Last month, Edward F. Zigler died at the age of 88. Zigler was the architect of the Head Start program, the early learning program that has provided vital support to countless 3- and 4-year-olds across the nation over many years. He held that social development is as critical as academic growth for a child to thrive. His passing reminds me of the important work we strive to accomplish in the Clarke County School District, including meeting the needs of our youngest students.

Research has demonstrated that high-quality early childhood education programs can break the unforgiving shackles of generational poverty, which hold back too many children in Clarke County. Yet each year, more than 100 4-year-olds land on the district’s pre-kindergarten waiting list, our existing classrooms already full. We are also unable to serve all of the children eligible for Head Start and Early Head Start. Simply put, the district does not have enough space for our youngest learners.

Last November, I presented a plan to develop a new Office of Early Learning to respond to this urgent community need. It included a recommendation to build a new Office of Early Learning on the historic grounds of the West Broad School. This proposal has been a source of significant community discussion.

Since the initial presentation of the plan, the district has explored alternative locations to provide these early learning seats, and we continue to assess options. We remain firmly committed to expanding the number of early learning classrooms and to maximizing the district’s resources in doing so.

I stand confident that adding these seats will have a positive and lasting impact on our families and children. High-quality early childhood education empowers families to chart a new pathway for their children to succeed in high school, in postsecondary programs and in the workforce. The positive reverberation in our community would be significant.  

As this work continues, the district is focused on what is best for children, and my commitment to breaking the cycle of poverty in this community is steadfast. High-quality early childhood education is a proven strategy to mitigate that cycle. It is also an opportunity to unite as a community, rather than become divided because of disagreements over location.

As Zigler once said, “I remember when I was in Washington, they kept trying to get me to say whether I was a Republican or a Democrat. I just said, ‘My politics are children. That’s all I know anything about.’” As superintendent, my singular goal is helping children and their families. An essential step in reaching this goal is providing our community with quality early childhood education, and it is my priority as we move forward.