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Education: Council promotes benefits of preschool programs

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

When forecasters want to predict how many prison beds will be needed in the future, they start with the percentage of a state’s third-graders who can’t read.

“The third-grade reading level indicates whether that child will graduate from high school,” said Carolyn Ellis, wife of Coastal Carolina basketball coach Cliff Ellis and co-chairman of the Early Learning Council of Georgetown County, an organization supported by the Bunnelle Foundation aiming to influence the development of young children. The council has been recognized for its success, receiving the Early Childhood Champions Award from the Institute of Child Success last month.

“If we want to, as a culture, have a transformative impact on where we live, our society and our economy, we will invest in early learning,” Ellis said. “Prisons are a burden on society. We should do everything we can to help our fellow citizens be all they can be.”

The Early Learning Council is not alone. President Obama has called for making early learning one of the federal government’s educational priorities, and initiatives are springing up across Georgetown County to either encourage or assist the development of children at a very young age.

Joe Waters of the Institute of Child Success of Greenville, guest speaker at the Georgetown County United Way’s annual meeting last week, said the early years shape the architecture of the brain. “Getting things right at the beginning of life is much better than fixing it later,” he said.

Waters said research has shown that children are capable of learning at a much earlier age than educators ever thought. “When early experiences are positive,” he said, “the architecture of the brain can build itself from the bottom up in a healthy fashion. However, when a child’s early experiences are negative because of abuse, neglect, poverty or maternal depression, the building process is thwarted, and the probability of poor outcomes increases.”

Waters said children exposed to “toxic stress” without consistent supportive relationships have problems in learning, behavior, and both physical and mental health. Their defenses against disease, from heart disease to diabetes to depression, are weakened. The consequences are lifelong — and expensive.

That was the reasoning behind the Georgetown County United Way board’s decision last year to implement programs that would begin to close the education gap.

“We made that decision just about the time the Early Learning Council was coming together,” said Pat Strickland, president and CEO of the county United Way. “The two just fit together and meshed over the past year. Timing is everything.”

The Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce is taking a business approach: Early education is an investment in the workforce of the future. Eighty-nine percent of members who answered a survey said early childhood issues are critical to developing a solid workforce.

“It doesn’t matter what we do to recruit industry,” Brian Tucker, the chamber executive director, said. “If they don’t see the workforce they need, they are not coming. The research points all the way back to the womb.

“As far as the cost factor for the taxpayers, we have to do a better job of educating our youth. That’s not a slam on the school district, but we have to find something that is measurable, credible and with a high level of accountability. It needs to answer the question that an investor asks of a board of directors: Prove that my money is making a positive impact.”

Tucker said the chamber is not making the usual moral argument for education. It’s good for business. “An educated population,” he said. “leads to higher wages, lower taxes and a safer community.”

By 2018, 63 percent of all jobs will require post-secondary education, forecasts say. In South Carolina, only 31 percent of the population has a degree beyond high school. One of the Early Learning Council’s goals is to get the business community to support early education in order to develop the local workforce from within. Sixty percent of all American workers and 45 percent of those with a college degree live and work in the state where they grew up, according to the Institute of Child Success. “This means that our investments in early childhood here in South Carolina will pay off, for the most part, for South Carolina,” Waters told his United Way audience, “though we might not see it for 25 years.”

Returns on investment in early learning range from $8 to $14 for every dollar spent from earnings, tax revenues and decreased criminal justice costs, according to figures from the Early Learning Council.

Georgetown County is beginning to show improvement in a variety of areas, but the number of children in trouble are “startling,” according to Judy Ingle, a former teacher and another member of the Early Learning Council.

Kids Count, a national surveying organization, says 19 percent of 5-year-olds in Georgetown County are not ready for first grade and 25 percent of third-graders are reading below state standards.

Those figures are not surprising in light of others:

• 31 percent of students reaching eighth grade do not graduate from high school in four years

• 58 percent of births in the county are to single mothers

• 37 percent of children in the county live below the poverty level

“My wish,” Ingle said, “is for quality child care opportunities, identifying special needs as early as possible and educating parents. Miss Ruby’s Kids is doing some of this, but we need so much more.”

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Madeline Ritchie has been working on early education locally for years. The Bunnelle Foundation hired her for the Early Learning Initiative that eventually folded into the Early Learning Council after she retired.

“I’ve been supporting early education since I was a teacher and elementary school principal in Knoxville, Tenn.,” Ritchie said. “I’ve always known we should start earlier.”

There was not a tipping point to bring early education to the fore locally. “It was just time,” Ingle said.

Early Learning Council representatives are planning to meet with state Sen. Ray Cleary and Rep. Stephen Goldfinch on Friday to talk about what the state can do better.

Ritchie said she is frustrated with the state’s education system and Superintendent Mick Zais.

“Every time I write to him, he says to contact First Steps,” she said. “He doesn’t have anything to do with preschool.”

First Steps in Georgetown County has dedicated most of its resources to identifying special needs students as early as possible.

Ritchie said she figures there are 2,000 children in Georgetown County who are not in a quality child care program. “Some don’t need to be there,” she said. “They are at home with a parent. But some are staying with their eighth-grade sister or a grandmother who can’t get out of her wheelchair. Research says you can change intelligence more between birth and 18 months than between 18 months and 18 years. The policy makers around here don’t see the importance of funding initiatives for early learning. These children who come to school behind never catch up. Ever.”

The Bunnelle Foundation hired Sheryn Waterman as a consultant to organize the Early Learning Council and start spreading the message about the importance of early education.

“We’re just fired up about the inarguable evidence and the need for our state and local people to put money into early childhood education,” Waterman said. “It’s gaining lots of ground.”

Waterman recruited Ellis, who got interested in the importance of early learning while her husband was coach at Auburn University, and Fedrick Cohens, principal at Kensington Elementary, to be co-chairmen of the Early Learning Council.

While the council provides no services, it champions actions by others and helps them work together for the benefit of families. Thirty-seven county child care providers and kindergarten teachers met for the first time last week. Some were home providers with three or four children. Others were from Head Start and the public schools. It was the beginning of a dialogue that will give child-care providers a better idea of what readiness for school means.

“There was a teacher there who said she’d been waiting 30 years for this to happen,” Ritchie said. “They were thrilled and couldn’t wait to meet again.”

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