Courtesy of Expect More Arizona

 Books, blocks and painting supplies. Sometimes preschool classrooms look more like playrooms, but that’s intentional. Young children learn best through things like music and play and classrooms reflect that.

The value of these early learning opportunities cannot be overstated. In fact, 90 percent of a child’s brain is developed by the time they blow out candles on their fifth birthday cake. So by the time they march into a kindergarten classroom, critical opportunities for learning and development may have already passed by.

“Having positive learning experiences at a young age will last kids a lifetime,” according to Rachel Yanof, Executive Director at Achieve60AZ. “If we can ensure that more students this age are learning in healthy, high-quality, nurturing environments, they’ll be better prepared to face the future.”

Today in Arizona, a mere one in four 3- and 4-year old children are enrolled in quality early learning settings. The Arizona Education Progress Meter has a goal to increase this figure to 45 percent by the year 2030, and with good reason.

Why early learning experiences matter

Children who participate in quality early learning settings enter kindergarten prepared to learn and to interact with their peers. They know more words, are better able to communicate and have better relationships with both teachers and classmates. But the benefits don’t end there – research has shown that these early skills aid success for years afterwards.

Consider access to quality early learning a strategy to help ensure students are strong readers by the end of third grade, graduate from high school and have the skills they need to get a good job. Today, only 44 percent of Arizona third graders are reading at grade level and the high school graduation rate hovers at 78 percent.  Increasing access to quality child care will pay dividends throughout a child’s educational journey.

And it’s not just students who benefit. Studies indicate that investments in quality early learning can produce annual return rates of as much as $7-10 dollars for every $1 spent. Benefits range from decreased use of welfare and social services to better prepared workers. And with their children in a safe, quality learning environment, caregivers are freed to seek out employment or further their education. These benefits are especially important for families living in poverty.

“It’s nearly impossible in today’s economy for a family to thrive on one income,” Yanof added. “With their children in a safe, supportive place, parents have more flexibility to find better employment or seek the education that will improve their employability. This increased earning potential stabilizes the family unit and benefits the child in an entirely different way.”

Parents who already access high quality early learning settings for their children can also benefit from increasing access for other youth. When more students show up to kindergarten ready to learn, teachers spend less time on discipline and classroom management and all students are able to benefit from a positive learning environment. The class flows smoothly, and students have an even better experience than they would have otherwise.

Some groups are seeking solutions

To help students get a stronger start, many communities are investing in early childhood education. The City of Tempe approved a pilot program that has seen great results. In its first year, Tempe PRE reached 360 youth who come from families with an average income of $26,500. Students benefitted from experienced educators and the number who met or exceeded developmental expectations in math, cognitive abilities, language and physical learning doubled over the start of the year. The program will be good for business locally, as access to high-quality early learning settings is a significant determinant when companies are looking to relocate.

In Phoenix, the Greater Phoenix Urban League’s Head Start classrooms are benefiting hundreds of families, and the growth goes well beyond academics. While students learn through play and exploration, they’re also receiving much needed medical and dental care.

“In a state where poverty is high and funding for education is low, programs like these are making great inroads in helping our most vulnerable population,” added Yanof. “These children need more than academics, and their families are stronger as a result.”

High quality early learning has such a substantial impact on student growth that the Roadmap for P-20 Education Funding includes it as one of the seven short term funding priorities that should be addressed immediately in Arizona.

How every parent can help

“While I’m professionally focused on efforts to boost the number of adults in Arizona with training or education after high school, I know we can’t do that without first improving the early end of the education continuum,” added Yanof. “There’s a strong connection between early educational experiences and later attainment that Arizona can’t afford to ignore. As we improve access to these invaluable experiences, students will become better readers, which will make them more likely to graduate and more likely to pursue education after high school.”

Ensuring more Arizona kids have access to the quality learning setting they deserve is a community-wide effort. And investing when they’re young is preferable to waiting until they need additional support later on in school, or as adults. Early education costs less than remediation, welfare or incarceration.

Parents can help by supporting local efforts to increase access to early education, whether that’s through a vote or raising your voice with lawmakers. Even something as simple as advocating for your own child’s care setting to accept childcare subsidies – or even implement a sliding scale – so that more parents have access. Investing in a system that will drive change for years to come is something that will make our communities safer, stronger and more stable.

Expect More Arizona is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization bringing communities together to create positive change in education at all levels. Learn more at ExpectMoreArizona.org.

This checklist will help you recognize the key elements of quality and make a more informed decision when choosing a child care or preschool setting for your child. Quality early learning settings build on basic health and safety to include:

  • Teachers and caregivers who know how to work with infants, toddlers and preschoolers
  • Positive, nurturing relationships that give young kids the individual attention they need
  • Learning environments that encourage creativity and imaginative play
  • Hands-on activities that stimulate and encourage positive brain connections in children
  • Caregivers who provide regular feedback to parents on the development of their child

Visit QualityFirstAZ.com to learn more about quality early learning settings and find locations in your area.

 

 

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