‘The Closest Thing We Have to a Panacea’

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    In 2009, the city adopted universal pre-kindergarten . . . and frankly, it is some of the best money that we could ever spend. Those who have to deal with truancy every day know exactly what I mean. Those who see children who wind up in special education because of failed educational opportunities, because of the social and economic conditions in which they live, know exactly what I mean. Those professionals who have to oversee the juvenile justice system know exactly what I mean. It pays for itself over time.” –Mayor Vincent C. Gray, Washington, D.C.

    This week there is some good news from Washington, D.C. in the midst of all the dismal Congressional news on the shutdown.

    Like many American cities, the nation’s capital faces deep challenges, including some neighborhoods where poverty, violence, and unemployment rates are rampant. These major challenges plus the necessity of educating all the city’s children for the future made the District of Columbia ready for major changes. Over the last several years, they’ve made a series of decisions that have made the city a model of best practices for its youngest children. When Mayor Vincent Gray spoke on early childhood education at a recent Children’s Defense Fund/Duke University Child and Family Policy Center conference, he shared some of the approaches our nation’s capital city is getting exactly right when it comes to preparing the next generation of workers and leaders for the future.

    Mayor Gray explained that because he had a background in clinical psychology and entered politics after serving as the city’s Director of Human Services, he understood that investments in early childhood pay for themselves many times over in better outcomes throughout a child’s entire life. He knew the city couldn’t afford to waste more childhoods.

    He said, “Ninety percent of brain development has already occurred by the time a child is five years of age, yet many children don’t start school before five years of age, which seemed like an incredibly lost opportunity to me.” The mayor helped lead the push for universal pre-kindergarten, and since it was adopted four years ago, the city has chosen to fund pre-K using the same formula as every other grade to ensure its availability.

    As a result, more than  90 percent of D.C.’s 4-year-olds are now in school in a full-day program as are more than 70 percent of 3-year-olds. Children in the city’s pre-K programs are all being taught by teachers with the same qualification standards as teachers at every other grade level in the system. There is also a strong team in place in the D.C. public schools making this work.

    That tremendous achievement is only part of D.C.’s early childhood education success story. The city’s Early Success Framework focuses on children starting at birth through third grade, and Mayor Gray explained that for the last year and a half the city has been examining the existing resources and agencies that already serve these children and their families to decide how efforts can be better coordinated and organized for maximum impact. The city uses a three-pronged system: traditional public schools; public charter schools, which now serve 43 percent of D.C.’s students; and licensed home and community-based providers, which help serve the very youngest children beginning in infancy. Public schools are also co-locating with community agencies that operate infant and toddler child development centers. As high schools are modernized throughout D.C., all of them are opening with state of the art infant and toddler classrooms. As the mayor explained, that’s just one more way the city is able to provide developmental programming for its children at the earliest stages and also engage parents right from the very beginning.

    ince children do not come in pieces, I was pleased to hear that schools are being connected to the city’s health care system, and at the same time the health care system is emphasizing the successful developmental interventions that can be made with young children. The city also is making new investments in infants and toddlers and has begun talking with the Clinton Global Initiative about strategies to decrease infant mortality. The mayor summed it up saying, “the Early Success Framework is really a frame for us to be able to put together a panoply of programs on behalf of children.”

    And it’s working. “We are already seeing it in terms of third grade test scores on the part of kids. We are already starting to see it in terms of kids’ reading capacity. We’re starting to see it in terms of the expansion of very young children’s vocabulary. . . . I think it’s because we have started our kids out at an early point.”

    Mayor Gray said most D.C. residents supported these new investments in children because they knew something different needed to be done and understood this was a prudent use of city resources: “Being able to move systems in that way is a very difficult and painstaking progress, but it will never happen until you conceive of it, and then you start to try to make it happen . . . I know there is no panacea to any of this, but frankly, it is the closest thing we have to a panacea, and it amazes me that jurisdiction after jurisdiction does not invest in early childhood education—or hard times hit [and] it’s one of the first things in which jurisdictions disinvest. That is a huge, huge mistake.”

    Imagine what could happen in America if many of the dysfunctional self-serving members of Congress had the common sense to focus on what is truly important: investing in rather than undermining America’s children and future with cheap fleeting political posturing.  Communities and governments all across the country can learn from the strides Washington, D.C. is making for its young children. And I hope they will.

    Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to http://www.childrensdefense.org.

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