The increasing trend to start our children's education much earlier than in the past has made the so-called "first" grade in our elementary schools a misnomer when it comes to where the learning cycle begins.
For years, kindergarten is where youngsters have acquired the learning and social skills necessary to start their education. San Diego Unified saw greater potential for that grade level when it expanded kindergarten to a full day program five years ago in order to begin teaching five-year-olds to read.
Now, research shows that children can and need to be ready to learn even earlier. And local educational leaders are stepping up to the plate with local initiatives to bring that to pass in our county.
The research shows that, in the preschool years, young children need to develop their vocabulary, acquire the ability to hear the sounds that make up words, and learn about how print and books work. U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige has said that these skills should not be taught in isolation, but "should be integrated into challenging content that explores the fundamentals of science, mathematics, and social studies in enjoyable and meaningful ways for young children."
Ironically, the very children who can benefit the most from high-quality early learning experiences are those who are most at risk in obtaining such opportunities, according to Paige. It's one thing for schools to have the need for early learning, still another to furnish the resources needed to teach early learners.
To that end, Paige's department two weeks ago announced that the San Diego County Office of Education will receive a $1.7 million federal grant to help prepare low-income children throughout the county to begin school. Project MENTOR will work with 250 early childhood educators who serve more than 2,000 four-year olds living in high-need communities throughout the county. Educators will receive at least 40 hours of training in early literacy, mathematics and parent education that focuses on incorporating school readiness skills into the child's everyday lives.
First 5 California is a statewide program that uses tobacco tax monies to fund school readiness programs for children under five years of age. The program offers young pre-schoolers and their families the services they need before starting kindergarten, including preschool classes, family literacy programs, speech therapists, nurses and community outreach workers who link families with health or social service agencies. Just some of the local First 5 initiatives include preschool programs in National City and University Heights and parent education classes in El Cajon and Escondido, all designed to improve school readiness among children in neighborhoods where there are low-performing schools.
In addition to providing a solid academic start, these pre-school efforts also help identify children who many need services to address any lags in development that could negatively impact school success later on, according to Jane Henderson, a First 5 California director.
The $400 million allocated for First 5 school readiness programs statewide includes $24 million to pay for four-year programs focusing on parent participation, academics and community involvement in San Diego County. And the programs are localized for each site. Bill Boggs, a local school readiness coordinator for the program, said while the programs have a common focus, they are different in order to respond to the specific needs of the communities they serve.
While schools within San Diego Unified have taken part in these and other early childhood learning efforts, the district recently announced an intensive effort to apply proven pre-school learning strategies in some of its more academically troubled schools.
With a $10.76 million tobacco revenues grant in hand, the district announced late last month that it is embarking on a fund-raising program next month to raise the additional $4.6 million it needs to provide pre-school learning opportunities for up to 3,600 eligible four-year olds who would attend the district's 30 lowest-performing schools. The fund-raising effort is being coordinated through the San Diego READS nonprofit organization that raised $5 million in cash and in-kind contributions a few years back to purchase 1.5 million books for district classrooms. The district is furnishing $900,000 for the additional classrooms necessary to accommodate nearly twice the present number of pre-school children who have attended these schools.
The funding will provide materials, teachers and professional development to equip them to succeed in teaching this age level. An underlying philosophy of the program is to move the pre-school educational efforts away from the district's central office to the school site level, thereby integrating it with K-12 and making the program more responsive to the localized needs of children.
If successful, these young people will be equipped with the literacy and other learning skills necessary to collectively improve the schools' test scores in later years as they progress through the grades.
Early childhood learning is a concept whose time has come in terms of doing a better job to prepare future students to become successful learners. To quote one educator: "If we don't invest in the early years when we can reap the benefits, we will pay for it down the road."
Given the stakes, we cannot afford not to invest. The earlier, the better.
Hovenic is president and chief executive officer of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce Foundation and executive director of the Foundation's Business Roundtable for Education. E-mail her at email@example.com.