Right from the Start gives children a leg up

Research has already proved the benefits of early childhood education. Kids who enter kindergarten ready to learn are more likely to graduate from high school and go on to lead productive lives. They are less likely to commit crimes and end up in prison.

We know that children who can’t count to 20 or read simple words before entering kindergarten will fall behind their peers and never catch up. Children who lack modest reading skills in third grade probably won’t make it through grade 12.

We also know that a child’s parents play the critical role in preparing their children for school. Parents are a child’s first teachers.

And yet, despite years of studies into the benefits of pre-kindergarten education, Thurston County kindergarten teachers report that about 24 percent of their students come to school unprepared to learn.

The South Sound statistic represents a nationwide problem, which President Barack Obama says he is determined to fix. In his State of the Union speech this month, Obama proposed a major expansion of early childhood education programs. Detractors quickly questioned the estimated $10 billion price tag of his proposal to “make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America.”

But there are efficient and effective means of achieving this goal. A pilot project going on right now in Thurston County could be the model for a national program.

The United Way of Thurston County and the Thurston Early Learning Coalition spent a year with community professionals creating a solution for school readiness in the South Sound. In December 2010, they launched the product of their work: Right from the Start.

The heart of the program is a resource center inside Rochester Primary School, where a bilingual coordinator empowers parents with the means and the skills to begin their child’s education from birth until they enter school.

United Way smartly sited Right from the Start in Rochester. A state assessment of kindergartners in 308 schools last fall found that while the results from early learning initiatives are encouraging, children from low-income homes were less likely to be ready for school.

Between 55 percent and 60 percent of Rochester Primary School’s students qualify for free and reduced lunch. The school serves a ethnically diverse community and has a large kindergarten population. More than 190 children are enrolled in nine all-day kindergarten classrooms.

The Right from the Start program coordinator reaches out to families, sometimes going door-to-door, but most often connecting with parents of young children at the local food bank or clothing exchange. While the coordinator gives parents techniques to encourage their children to learn, she also helps them take care of their family’s basic needs. That’s important because parents consumed by acquiring necessities won’t have time to focus on educational activities with their children.

So far, the program is showing encouraging results. Right from the Start has engaged more than 300 families since its launch in December 2010 and has made strong connections in the area’s Latino community.

Children don’t wait until they start school to begin learning. From the moment of birth, a child becomes a manic learning machine dependent on a parent or parents to keep it fueled and well-oiled.

The genius of Right from the Start is its focus on educating and supporting parents, who will affect their child’s educational future in those first five years.