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New group working to increase access to early education

Bill Gates Sr. and Monica Harrington discuss early childhood education, Friday in Mullis Center. Listening is Ryan Rippel, Gates’ special assistant. - Richard Walker
Bill Gates Sr. and Monica Harrington discuss early childhood education, Friday in Mullis Center. Listening is Ryan Rippel, Gates’ special assistant.
— image credit: Richard Walker

New group working to increase access to early education

We are born wired to learn.

By age 3, our brains have one trillion synapses — more than we’ll have in adulthood. By age 6, our brains are 95 percent the size of mom’s and dad’s.

We’ll spend 13 years in school preparing for college or the workplace. But it’s our first five years of life — those years before we ever set foot in a classroom — that have the most impact on our ability to learn, control our behavior and build relationships.

By age 5, we have the building blocks for success, or we have a tough road to hoe.

“The first five years have so much to do with how the next 80 turn out,” said William H. Gates Sr., co-chairman of Thrive by Five and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Gates was the guest speaker at the San Juan County Early Learning Leadership Luncheon, Friday in Mullis Community Senior Center. In attendance were educators, health and social workers, and business people from throughout the county.

The message: Investments in early learning pay huge dividends for children, families and society. By increasing the likelihood that children will be literate, employed and college-bound, we decrease school dropout rates, dependency on public assistance and trouble with the law.

The luncheon was sponsored by the San Juan County Early Learning Consortium, Thrive by Five and five county health and human services agencies. San Juan County is part of a regional partnership that has been awarded a grant to develop a business plan to make early childhood education available to all children.

Gates, whose Thrive by Five foundation has raised $10 million in two years to promote and support early childhood education, led the call for islanders to get involved locally in raising funds and building policy to ensure all children enter school ready to succeed.

Gates said Thrive by Five and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation believe all lives have equal value. The challenge is to ensure all children have access to what they need so they can lead productive lives.

Some 600,000 Washingtonians live in poverty, he said. A year of child care costs 50 percent more than tuition at Skagit Valley College. More than 50 percent of Washington children walk into a kindergarten classroom unprepared.

“It’s a moral failure and a policy disaster,” he said.

Gates pointed out how easily a child can fall behind. A child who did not have access to early childhood education and shares a kindergarten classroom with children who can read or write their ABCs can lose self-confidence early. If the child’s behavioral and social skills are not as developed as the other children’s, then the problem is compounded. The result is disinterest in school.

“Dysfunctional children grow up to be dysfunctional adults, and that leads to a dysfunctional society,” Gates said.

Studies bear out the success of early childhood education.

Some 123 children from low-income families in Ypsilanti, Mich., were followed from pre-school age through age 40; the number included children who had been randomly selected to attend Perry Preschool, a recognized program with well-trained teachers, daily classroom sessions and weekly home visits.

At age 40, almost 10 percent more of the group that had attended Perry owned their own home, compared to those that did not attend Perry. Twenty percent more earned more than $20,000 a year. Almost 25 percent more had a savings account. Twenty percent more graduated from high school on time and did not require special education.

In a similar study of children at a full-day, year-round program near Chapel Hill, N.C., almost 30 percent more of those that had attended the program didn’t repeat a grade, 20 percent more were non-smokers, and about 25 percent more attended a four-year college.

Gates said quality early learning programs offer up to a 16 percent return in the form of the child’s contributions to economic development and prosperity in adulthood. The Perry study showed a return of $17 for every $1 spent — an annual rate of return of 18 percent and a public rate of return of 16 percent.

Bill Watson, executive director of the San Juan County Economic Development Council, called investments in early education “good business.”

Denise King, director of Skagit Valley College San Juan Center, said early childhood education helps give children the learning skills they need “so they can function as employees and as productive members of society, and break the cycles of abuse and poverty.”

Jamie Stephens, a substitute teacher and president of the Lopez Island Chamber of Commerce, pointed to the need to ensure today’s children can compete in the workplace; he cited a study that predicts 45 million American workers will have at least an undergraduate degree in 2020.

The next step: Participants were invited to join the new San Juan County Business Partnership for Early Learning, which will take the leadership in developing a plan to increase access to early education. They were invited to distribute written materials and other information on early learning, and to host early learning specialists as speakers before community groups.

They were also asked to sponsor the placement of signs on proposed “learning trails” on Lopez, Orcas and San Juan. The signs, to be placed on existing trails on those islands, suggest activities that encourage a child’s exploration and imagination, as well as relationship-building in families.

For more information on how you can help, call 378-5246 or e-mail sjifrc@rockisland.com

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