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Community works to Get Ready! for early childhood education

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Experts believe similar programs can benefit Kentucky's children

By Kelly Cantrall

The summer is long to a 3-year-old, especially when leaving the confines of a scheduled day at preschool to the endless stretches of time at home.

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But a camp that could serve infants, 5-year-olds and everyone in between seemed difficult to pull off, Tracie Dupin recalled thinking when she heard of the new Get Ready! Camp. And that was before she saw the camp was not in classrooms, but in the cafeteria at Central Hardin High School.

“Then I was really puzzled at how all of this was going to work,” she said.

But by the end of the summer, Dupin and her two children attended the camp almost every day and the break from school didn’t last so long after all.

“It made the summer fly by because there was always a new adventure or something new to play with,” she said.

The camp that seemed unusual in its structure also was unusual in its beginnings. And those beginnings could serve as a model for a state that has worked and struggled to put early education in the spotlight for almost 30 years.

Three organizations — Hardin County Schools, Central Kentucky Community Foundation and PNC Bank — helped organize and pay for the camp last summer. The camp allowed parents to attend as often as they wanted and was hosted at two HCS schools.

At the end of the five weeks, 328 children attended the camp along with 220 adults. Many of the children and adults came back for lessons multiple times, with the camp registering 1,194 total visits.

Davette Swiney, vice president of Central Kentucky Community Foundation, wanted to see a program that not only provided enrichment for children too young for kindergarten, but also a way to bridge the gap between public preschool and child care centers. The program also brought preschool teachers into child care centers to teach employees techniques to use with children. Swiney said she felt that was an important aspect of the program, and one in which child care employees were excited to participate.

“They were so appreciative of what they’ve been given,” she said.

She is pleased to see the interest level in this area of education was high enough to produce this program.

“This community sat down and decided this is what we need,” she said.

Before the first day of kindergarten

Local business leaders learned of individual and societal benefits of early childhood education after a visit from the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence last December. The committee is one of several Kentucky organizations that have long touted the benefits of preschool and other early childhood education programs, for the way it can promote strong brain development in young children and how it can save on tax money spent over the long term.

In a study shared by the Prichard Committee, of Chicago child-parent centers — a program comparable to Kentucky’s preschool program — former preschool participants by the age of 21 had a 29 percent higher high school graduation rate. The group had a 33 percent lower rate of arrests as juveniles and a 42 percent lower rate of arrests for a violent crime. There also was a 40 percent reduction in grade retention, and child maltreatment was reduced by 51 percent.

These statistics were beneficial for those preschool participants, but Chicago as a whole benefited from the group’s success. It cost taxpayers $6,692 to send a child through the program. But taxpayers received $67,937 per child in return — $770 in savings in child welfare, an additional $7,243 in income tax, $21,988 in increased earnings and $33,435 in cumulative savings on crime.

Ninety percent of public spending on children goes to those older than 5. But 90 percent of brain development already has occurred by that age, according to the RAND Corporation, a policy analysis group. Brain development for senses such as vision and hearing peaks at about 2 months old and at about 8 months for language skills. For higher cognitive function, brain development peaks at about age 1. Brain development for those functions starts to wane at 5, and for sense and language skills, it’s essentially finished by that age as well, according to information shared by Prichard.

Early experiences for children often were key in their development. In a study that recorded the vocabulary size of children and parents, the vocabulary size of the child corresponded to the size of the parent’s. Vocabulary size grew by the socioeconomic status of the parents — children of parents on public assistance had vocabulary size of about 500 words, compared to 750 words for a child of working class parents and more than 1,000 words in families of professionals.

Early childhood education comes to Kentucky

Data such as this found its way to the Commonwealth.

Gov. Paul Patton attended a meeting for state governors in the late 1990s and came back excited about what he learned about brain development in children younger than 5, said Cindy Heine, associate executive director of the Prichard Committee. From this new information, he created the Governor’s Early Childhood Task Force.

The task force studied research conducted on how children fare in various environments in their early years. One of the studies the task force looked at was the Abecedarian Project released in 1999 by the state of North Carolina. It was the first in the country to follow participants from birth to the age of 21. The study found children who receive “quality early care” do better on academic and cognitive tests, are more likely to attend college, and are less likely to need special education services or have children before turning 21.

From the task force’s findings, the Kids Now program was created in 2000. Kids Now is paid for through tobacco settlement money and created several programs to fill gaps for children who might be falling behind before they enter a classroom.

The Prichard Committee also was an early advocate for early childhood education. The committee released a report in the ’80s after also seeing research concerning the benefits. Their report recommended voluntary state-funded preschool available to any child, Heine said.

This area of education has remained an interest for the committee. They recently formed the Business Leadership Council for Pre-K, which is the council that visited Hardin County leaders.

Business leaders don’t have any ties to the education field, which makes them new and different voices for the ears of policy-makers, Heine said.

Seeing how students can start so far behind before entering kindergarten usually makes an impression, she said.

“If you look at it with your heart instead of your mind, it’s fair. It’s only fair,” Heine said of assisting children.

But the programs also make financial sense, because of the return on investment received when looking at the cost of preschool compared to societal costs such as incarceration and the loss of working taxpayers. The return has been estimated by various studies to range from $2 to $17 returned for every dollar spent, she said.

“It’s an easy sell,” she said.

Moving forward with early childhood education

Heine said the committee still would love to see preschool for any 3- and 4-year-old, but with the state of public funding, it’s a goal they no longer seek.

“Realistically, we have had to back off of that,” she said.

The committee now focuses on the goal of setting income requirements for families to allow more children to be eligible for preschool. This economic reality makes the blending of public and private money — such as the resources that came together to create the Get Ready! Camp — a possibility to bring these kinds of programs to children.

“It was just a great idea,” Heine said of the camp.

Swiney said she hopes the camp could serve as a building block for more efforts like it.

“Early childhood is a missing component for some people,” she said, and it will take a “smorgasbord” of efforts to bring these experiences to children who need them.

The partnership of various organizations can sometimes create something greater than one group could alone.

“There is little that can be done by a single entity very effectively in today’s world,” she said.

The camp also highlighted the partnerships possible between public preschool and private child care facilities. Its goal was to create fulfilling early experiences for children no matter the setting.

Kathy King, president of the Hardin County Early Childhood Council, hopes to continue those relationships through upcoming educational sessions for all early childhood workers.

King said county residents are lucky to have multiple organizations willing to work together for the benefit of its youngest residents.

“I’m proud of Hardin County for working together like this,” she said.

Kelly Cantrall can be reached at (270) 505-1747 or kcantrall@thenewsenterprise.com.