The Importance of Early Childhood Education

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"For generations, kindergarten was considered the beginning of a child's learning," said Dr. Nkechy Ekere Ezeh, founder and CEO of the Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative (ELNC). "But that's no longer the case."

The period from birth through age 5 is when children develop language, thinking, physical and socio-emotional skills they will utilize throughout their lives. The importance of these developments is recognized during Month of the Young Child in April, an opportunity to focus public attention on the needs of young children and their families, and to recognize the early childhood programs and services that meet those needs.

"During these years, every experience that a child has helps to create the architecture of the brain," said Dr. Ezeh. "The quality of a child's preschool experiences can be a key predictor of their success in school and life."

Ezeh has 25 years of experience in child development. She's a mother, teacher, professor of education and advocate for improving policies for children. Her experience and work have taught her that high-quality early childhood education is important to not only a child's development but also a community's growth.

She notes, however, that two major barriers prevent children from access to the early education that's so critical to their success in life: race and poverty.

ELNC helps break down these barriers.

Can you tell us about ELNC and its work?

ELNC is a trusted, place-based early learning collaborative that provides funding, innovative shared support services, and advocacy to its partner organizations rooted in vulnerable communities.

Through its successful dual-generational model, ELNC and its partners provide family support and high quality, culturally relevant early childhood educational services to at-risk families. With the recent addition of its infant and toddler program, the ELNC model is able to serve the whole early childhood continuum of care from birth through age 4.

ELNC opened its first three preschool classrooms in the fall of 2012, serving 32 children. This school year, we will serve a total of 408 children between the ages of 0 to 4 in our 10 partner sites. Over the past five years, we have served 1,709 children.

It would not be saying much, however, if we could only claim to have increased the number of children attending preschool and not be able to demonstrate tangible benefits.

Each year, our children are assessed three times. Data consistently shows that, on average, our children increase their scores by a minimum of 40 percent and as much as 70 percent across the six developmental domains—social-emotional, physical, language, cognitive, literacy and mathematics.

These results have not come easily! They are the result of intentional strategies based on our core beliefs.

• Every child deserves a fair chance at success in school and life.
• The economic security of families is crucial to creating the optimal conditions through which children can develop, learn and grow.
• People have the inherent capacity to solve their own problems and that social transformation is within the reach of all communities.
• Racial healing and racial equity are essential if we are going to accomplish our mission to create conditions in which vulnerable children can succeed.

What started in 2012 as a demonstration project in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is now a successful model that can be replicated within any community, based on the specific needs of the vulnerable families living there.

Why is high-quality early education important?

A high-quality early childhood program provides a safe and nurturing environment while promoting the physical, social, emotional and intellectual development of young children.

From my experience, we can make three arguments about the importance of quality early childhood education.

• The Scientific Argument: The brain forms the most synapses in the first 24 months of life. This is the most important period of time for brain development.
• The Economic Argument: Early investment yields a significantly higher return on investment than any other time in the life cycle.
• The Equity Argument: Investing early levels the playing field and also prevents the emergence of large inequalities, such as the number of words spoken. As a result, economically disadvantaged children benefit most from early childhood interventions.

While our society has placed much emphasis on the first two arguments, the argument for equity is long overdue and it is the basis of our core mission and community call to action.

What barriers to high-quality early education do young children face?

From my observations and experience, two major barriers prevent children from accessing high-quality early education.

1. Race.

High-quality early childhood developmental opportunities are essential for the academic and social development of children.

Past research stresses that children who attend center-based and preschool programs, on average, enter kindergarten more prepared than their peers who do not. Black children, in particular, have unprecedented lacked access to early education opportunities, driven in part by the accessibility of Head Start and Early Head Start programs. However, Latino children—the nation's fastest growing 3-and-4-year-old demographic—are less likely to attend preschool, and for many children of color and children from low-socioeconomic households, the quality of early childhood education they receive may be less adequate than the educational experiences of their white and higher-socioeconomic peers.

2. Poverty.

Unfortunately, we live in a society where one's zip code determines the quality of early childhood education and school that they attend. Outside of school contexts—specifically, issues related to poverty and living in under-resourced communities—are critically important in shaping children's early development. By developing a deeper understanding of their students' realities, teachers can appropriately respond to their students' needs. Studies suggest that socioeconomic status is one of the strongest factors explaining variances in child development outcomes.

How can the community get involved?

The community can be involved in three major ways.

1. Pray for us—or however you send positive vibes to others.

I believe in the power of prayers. Our work is racial equity work and it can be emotionally daunting.

2. Support.

Our programs are funded by a mix of public/private sources. We receive federal, state and local funding, but it is not enough to cover the extra cost of our two-generational model. We need funding for our Empowering Parents Impacting Children (EPIC) component of our model. ELNC considers parents to be the primary driver and decision maker in their children's educational development. We also know that for some parents, who are struggling to meet their family's basic needs, this can be a daunting responsibility.

3. Join.

Through our Community Leaders Readers Initiative, we invite community leaders from all sectors to come into one of our classrooms and read a favorite story to our children. This break from your daily routine is twice as beneficial as any therapy session and costs nothing!

Courtesy of West Michigan Woman.

 Dr. Nkechy Ekere Ezeh, founder and CEO of the Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative (ELNC).NkechyEkereEzehHeadshot

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