ACT for Alexandria

Alexandria in Action: Start Early to Make a Difference

THEY'RE BACK—to school that is. This time of the year is one of great anxiety for teachers and administrators across the country and enormous relief for many parents. If I had a dollar for every parent I have run into the past month who said, "It's time for school to start," I wouldn't have to do any additional fundraising for ACT for the rest of the year. It's not that parents haven't enjoyed being with their kids over the summer, it's just time for things to return to normal, and school plays an important role in the process. For many, the start of school heralds the new year more than the first of January—a new beginning with a chance to either build on the past or start fresh. 

The hope, of course, is this will be an exceptional year for every student—one of academic and social growth. It will also be one fraught with the "perils" of growing up as well as with the joy of meeting new people, learning new things and enjoying all the new year has to bring. If like past years, it also promises to be one of continued questioning of schools, particularly in relation to student performance. While many students will grow and develop as would be expected, others will find the road to academic success more difficult. The achievement gap, generally defined as the educational gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children, will again elicit much discussion, finger pointing, and new ways to combat this ongoing issue. While most of us are extremely concerned about this issue, we seem to address it in more of a "band-aid" approach than truly getting to the roots of the achievement gap and actually trying to solve it. Trying to play "catch up" in high school, middle school or even late elementary school is NOT the answer. We need to do more, earlier, if we truly want to make an impact. 

According to University of Kansas researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley, children living in poverty are exposed to 30 million less words by the age of three than children from high income families. In their study, "The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3," Hart and Risley's four-year research project noted this major developmental discrepancy for children from poverty as well as gaps in other skill areas and experiences, all of which have long term effects on a child's performance later in life. If the much-discussed achievement gap is this broad at age three, the natural conclusion is that it will only widen as the child gets older. 

However, it's not all "doom and gloom," as many communities are embracing a more proactive, common sense approach—one which addresses these concerns head-on and early. From providing more early-childhood education opportunities to working with families to provide increased enrichment opportunities, things are beginning to change. 

A recent study by Sean Reardon of Stanford University and Ximena Portilla of MDRC, an education and social policy research organization, notes a sight closing of the gap with both poor and wealthy students being better prepared for kindergarten and the readiness of poor children improving faster than that of their peers. They note that low-income parents are spending more time reading with their children and providing them with enrichment opportunities, such as trips to museums, zoos and libraries. They also credit more books and computers in the homes of lower-income families as playing a part in this "growing parity."

Closer to home, a group of concerned Alexandrians has been working for the past four years to address these very issues and develop a systemic approach to insure a better beginning for children in our community. In conjuction with the Children, Youth and Families Collaborative Commission (CYFCC) and in line with the Children and Youth Master Plan (CYMP), the Early Care and Education Workgroup (ECEW) has been working diligently to coordinate research, shape strategies and create a more impactful early care and education system for our children. In addressing the CYMP's strategy 2.1—"Support the development and alignment of, and access to, and early care and education system that prepares young children to enter kindergarten"—the ECEW is working to make a difference earlier with a specific emphasis on what needs to happen in children's lives even before they ever put a foot in the door of a shcool—thus providing a more equal footing/starting point for our children and the hope of elimintaing the achievement gap. 

Hats off to those in our community directly working on this issue and the many others who support this important work. This actually could be THE answer we are seeking—and not only to the perennial issue of student performance but to the larger issues facing our community. 

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 By John Porter, ACT President and CEO

Special thanks to the Alexandria Times for publishing John's monthly column.