Early education is key to childhood development, but resources are lacking in Vermont

Literacy Part 1

Brains are not merely born, but rather built over time, based on our life experiences. Children pick up on everything we do, and reinforcing actions is necessary to a child’s growth. Science tells us that 80 percent of the brain is developed by age three, and 90 percent by age five, with more than 700 brain connections forming every second.

Specifically, from birth to age five the things a child does, or does not learn, dictates their future success in both school and life.

“Exploring and playing with books during the first three years stimulates brain development, improves listening skills, and builds vocabulary even before children can speak on their own,” according to Communications Coordinator for the Stern Center for Language and Learning in Williston, Vt., Suzanne Loring.

“By nine months of age, children’s brains are responding to the sounds of language, and by watching the adults in their lives, they are learning the mouth movements necessary for early speech production,” Loring said. “Shared book reading, or reading with your child not only helps with their language development, but it teaches them how the real world relates to the printed page…That’s why reading the same book over and over again, while sometimes a bit challenging for the parent, is very beneficial for the child. The repetition is helping solidify the brain connections involved with learning words.”

Keith Enochs, who works with Take Care Net, a committee which undertakes early learning initiatives and promotes them legislatively, says that by age three high socio-economic status children have an average vocabulary of 1,100 words, while middle socio-economic status children have an average vocabulary of 750 words, and low socio-economic status children have an average vocabulary of 480 words.

According to the Morrisville District/Lamoille Valley Building Bright Futures Council’s Regional Plan, compared to the 13 percent statewide, in the Morrisville District 14 percent of children birth-to-five were in families living below poverty.

This learning gap between economic classes is detrimental to all of society and undermines the “American Dream,” according to which all people should be afforded the opportunity to prosper and gain upward social mobility, which can be achieved through hard work. In 1931, writer and historian James Truslow Adams wrote, “life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement, regardless of social class or circumstances of birth.”

But if a child starts off with a poor education tied to social and economic circumstances, how is he or she to prosper in life without the basic foundations of learning which are taught most effectively between birth and five-years of age?

The answer, most likely, is that they won’t.

“A child’s early experiences are like a house; if you build a house on a shaky foundation, and if you continue to build on top of it, it’s more likely to collapse,” says Assistant Professor of Pediatrics in General Academic Pediatrics at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College, Steven Chapman, M.D. “Our children need to have a solid start during these first years…Our children will run faster and farther in life if we prepare them early.”

Data from the Vermont Education Agency suggests that children who are enrolled in pre-kindergarten programs are more likely to be ready for kindergarten, with the most impact upon those children living in poverty, and children who have access to two years of preschool.

Two years of early education could make all the difference to a child’s future being spent in-and-out of jail, or on the path to college and a successful career, and giving back to the community.

While quality care for children outside the home as parents earn a living is incredibly important, Jessica Perrotte, early education teacher at JFK Elementary School, points out there is much parents could do, and should do, at home.

She suggests reading to them often, so that when they grow older, reading is a loving habit. Don’t just focus on the academics, she warns. Playtime is also invaluable and stimulates a love of learning in children. “If we keep the focus on creating a safe and stimulating environment in the early years, we can help all of our babies and toddlers develop into successful, independent kindergarteners who are well-prepared for life,” says Perrotte.

Margo Grace, K-2 literacy specialist at Ferrisburg Elementary School, agrees that she has noticed that children who have had early literacy and educational experiences come to school with a larger vocabulary, which she says makes it easier for them to learn and participate in school. “The more successful children are in school, the more successful they will be as adults,” said Grace.

In the Perry Preschool Study conducted in 2005, by HighScope, researchers examined the lives of 123 3-to-4-year-olds born in poverty and at high risk of failing in school. From 1962–1967, the subjects were randomly divided into two groups. One would receive high-quality preschool, based on HighScope’s participatory learning approach, and the other group would receive no pre-schooling whatsoever.

This study found that adults at age 40 who were in the preschool program had higher earnings, were more likely to hold a job, had committed fewer crimes, and were more likely to have graduated from high school, as compared to the adults who did not have the preschool education.

During the course of this study, it was found that 67 percent of 5-year-olds who attended the preschool had an IQ above 90, while only 28 percent of 5-year-olds with no preschool had an IQ above 90, before starting kindergarten.

This study also found that while only 15 percent of 14-year-olds without preschool had reached basic achievement, 49 percent of 14-year-olds with preschool had reached basic achievement by that age.

Cost-wise, this study found that for each participant, the initial price for preschool was $15,166, but that the total public benefit, culminating in savings in the areas of education, tax on earnings, welfare and crime, was $195,621.

This is only one study of many that analyzes the cost-benefit ratio to be in favor of early education for preschool-age children.

Increasingly, early education goes hand-in-hand with childcare. In Vermont, 72 percent of children under the age of six have all parents in the workforce. These parents rely on care outside of the home for their children for up to 40 hours a week, making it imperative that a child develop key skills during that time they spend with childcare providers.

According to a privately funded early education campaign, Let’s Grow Kids, right now in Vermont 40-to-50 percent of children enter kindergarten unprepared. If children were exposed to education earlier in their lives, this number would not be so staggering.

In Vermont, only one-third of registered providers and fewer than half of licensed providers, take part in the systems the state has in place to indicate quality childcare. The reason so many childcare providers do not participate in these programs may not be that they don’t provide quality care, but rather because of low pay for the childcare workforce, insufficient training and education of caretakers, or inadequate facilities due to a lack of funding for upgrades.

Recognized quality childcare in this state is accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), which awards accreditation for licensed child care centers, and the National Association for Family Child Care (NAFCC), which awards accreditation for registered child care homes.

In addition, Vermont has implemented a quality-rating system for its public childcare, preschool, and after school programs, called the Step Ahead Recognition System (STARS). Providers that participate in STARS have gone above and beyond state regulations to provide professional services to children and families.

However, parents have a hard enough time finding a pre-kindergarten or childcare program in Vermont with openings, to say nothing about vetting for quality.

According to the Morrisville District/Lamoille Valley Building Bright Futures Regional Plan, only 6 percent of the district’s childcare programs had either national accreditation or 4/5 stars in the Step Ahead Recognition System in 2008.

With Vermont’s comparatively high cost of living, many new mothers are forced to throw their quality childcare worries out the window, and embrace any opening they are given, wherever it is offered. “At a Fourth of July barbeque this summer, I ran into a very pregnant mom in the buffet line, and after learning she would return to work following maternity leave, I asked if she’d found a childcare provider yet,” said Executive Director of the Vermont Association for the Education of Young Children, Melissa Riegel-Garrett.

“I was not surprised when she replied that she was on several waiting lists, but she had not secured a spot. What did surprise me was when she shared that she really didn’t even care which program her child got into, as long as they had a spot by the time she returned to work…This soon-to-be-mom will be joining the majority of Vermont parents who work outside of the home to make a living. In a childcare market with a shortage of available infant care, the stakes are high when it comes to ensuring that childcare programs in Vermont are not only affordable and accessible, but also quality…About a week after the barbeque, I received an email from the soon-to-be-mom. She had reviewed the providers she was on a waitlist for, and only one of them was participating in STARS, and none of them were nationally accredited…For Vermont to prosper in the future, all of our children must have the early experiences that support healthy development. We’re all in this together, and we must invest in what works.”

This quality-control issue is not new for Vermont. Mothers have been battling 6-inch-thick waiting lists for years now, and this is something that childcare providers know all too well. “I’ve experienced families begging me to let them in, thinking that knowing me they would have a better ‘in’ to the program,” says Assistant Director at Appletree Learning Centers in Stowe, Vt., Nicole Walker.

“I’ve had friends call me at home, begging me to get them in. I have a waitlist a mile long at Appletree. I have families who come back each week, religiously to our door, and they have the same conversations with me, begging and praying that I can get them into the program. And I hate to have to tell parents that, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t have any openings for you, and we probably won’t until your child is three.’ Just to see the facial expressions, and their body language just physically drop when you say that is really hard.”

Walker explains that although a childcare center is not accredited, it does not mean that it is not quality. She says that quality can be found in both large and small centers, as well as in home centers. When looking for quality she urges parents to pay attention to the teachers – are they engaging with the children? Ask yourself if you feel comfortable and welcome – is there evidence of each child’s growth and development throughout the program? Is there evidence of cognitive and social-emotional skills? Walker says that those are all key pieces to a child’s development.

“I really believe, seeing my own children in school now, that being in those childcare programs equip them to be able to be socially comfortable, and able to learn, and to problem-solve, and to be part of a big group,” says Executive Director at Green Mountain Kids in Morrisville, Vt., Kristin Moodie.

The evidence establishing the importance of very early childhood education – way before kindergarten – is abundant. The bad news for Vermont is that the state has nowhere near the resources and facilities to provide those opportunities for thousands of its youngest residents.

Ed. Note: This is the first in a Basement Medicine series exploring issues surrounding early chilhood education in Vermont.