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No Funding for Early Education? What About Partnerships?

Early Childhood Getty.png

Today's guest blog is written by Dr. Kandace Bethea, superintendent at the Marion County School District in South Carolina. 

Children are learning from the moment they are born. Touch, talk, sights, and sounds are the building blocks of a child's brain. In fact, science shows us that by the time a child is 5 years old, 90 percent of his or her brain is developed. That means long before they step foot into kindergarten, parents, caregivers, family members, and quality early-learning teachers play a part in helping form a child's brain—the foundation for all future learning, social and emotional behavior, and overall health.

Because we know the future of a child's developing brain, and therefore their overall future success, is in our hands, we cannot wait until they reach school age before we focus on their learning. Early education is the best investment we can make in our children.

A recent meta-analysis found that participation in early-childhood education leads to increased graduation rates as well as reductions in special education placements and grade retention— both of which reduce long-term costs for schools while benefiting students.

I am the superintendent of the Marion County school district. We are located in an economically distressed community where many parents don't have the ability to provide a literature-rich environment. Children don't choose the circumstances to which they're born, so as educators, it's our responsibility to remove any barriers to learning. While this is not an easy task, especially in a financially challenged district, we make it happen with an incredible amount of focus and a lot of help from our partners.

Early Education - The Classroom Solution
Giving our children a jump start on their education has been made easier thanks to the coordination or our program through the South Carolina Child Early Reading and Development Program (CERDEP). This full-day, early education program is aimed at helping 4-year-olds develop the foundational skills required to enter kindergarten. Currently offered in most school districts in our state, the program is available to our eligible 4-year-olds at no cost. Additionally, the South Carolina First Steps 4K program allows us to leverage federal funds for specific programs such as providing books to the students in our Academy of Early Learning to take home. 

We, of course, would like to see every 4-year-old in our district enrolled in this early education program; however, the funding is limited to a certain number of seats. And while the Marion County school district does have some room in our budget for additional students to enroll, we simply do not have the money to ensure every child who needs early learning has access to this program. 

Early Education - The Parent-Empowerment Solution
To fill the funding gap, we look to partnerships. 

The most powerful early-learning partners are the parents of our students. By educating parents and providing them with the resources necessary to support their child's development, we empower them to be their child's first teacher.

That's why we have been really happy with the Waterford UPSTART program created by the nonprofit, Waterford.org. This online early-learning solution makes the process easy for parents, providing tools like 15-20 minutes of adaptive reading, math and science software five days a week, and a family education liaison (FEL) who walks parents through the process. If a family doesn't have a computer or internet access, that is provided at no cost. This eliminates many of the common barriers our parents and students are likely to encounter.  This video highlights the results and sentiments of key stakeholders within our community, parents and district staff. 

I thought it was important to bring participating families into the early-learning center to meet our teachers and connect this home-based learning with the school environment. We held a kick-off day where parents learned how to log in, how to monitor their child's progress, and how to engage with them about what they are learning. This is a crucial step toward a child's success. 

Results showed students completing the program in Marion County started school on average at a kindergarten-intermediate level.

Teachers and administrators understand learning doesn't just happen during school hours, but in every moment of a child's life. By injecting support into those home environments where literature, technology, and potentially even conversation are not readily available, we can make an enormous difference.

Investing in early learning makes the biggest impact on a student's achievement. When a teacher is not available, we have to find other ways to get the job done. That's our goal in Marion County, to ensure every child has the opportunity to succeed.

Kandace Bethea can be reached via email at [email protected] or on Twitter at @bethea_kandace.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images. 

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