Early Intervention Key to Learning Process

To help the poorest children in Memphis and America, the school system needs to make education from 0 to 3 years old a priority.

The average child in America will spend less than 10 percent of his or her life in school through the 12th grade. If we are serious about education reform, we need to understand what's happening to our students the other 90 percent of the time, and adapt to those realities.

Home stability is a huge component. In Memphis, there are at least three types of home environments, not unlike those in all major urban areas in America.

There is the stable family, with parents having an education beyond high school and at least a middle-class income. The home is educationally enriched with a variety of books and other learning tools. Summers often involve educational camps and travel opportunities. Students from such an advantaged home life normally will succeed in a public school that provides standard coursework and a traditional array of accelerated and remedial opportunities that meet any special needs.

Then there is the relatively stable home that has fewer benefits accruing from parental education and income. You'll find fewer books and other educational opportunities. Children in these homes can keep pace with students in the previous group by, for example, having their parents agree to review homework and report cards and attend parent-teacher conferences, and by those parents supervising the use of books and educational tools made available by the school system.

Addressing the needs in the third home environment is in my opinion the only way to truly improve public education in major cities. Public educators must be involved because these children do not enjoy the benefit of a stable environment. A child often moves from caregiver to caregiver several times in the course of a single school year. Whoever is charged with the child's care at any given point is likely to be poor and minimally educated. There are few books in the home.

Public schools need to provide families in this last group with a range of services, including prenatal care, caregiver instruction and tutoring. Longer school days, weeks and years should be considered. Chicago's "Cradle to Classroom" program, for example, focuses on unwed teen mothers beginning prior to delivery. Staff members arrange for access to prenatal care and make monthly home visits. After birth, the program sends trained mentors into the homes on a weekly basis. The mother is taught how to play cognitive learning games with her infant, beginning in the child's very first month.

Educators also must help these families with the adjustment from preschool programs to elementary school. Most poor children will continue to need the extra comprehensive services that programs like Head Start have provided to that point. These include continued assistance in vocabulary development, tutoring and homework assistance, as well as support services provided by nutritionists, social workers, psychologists and people hired to encourage caregiver involvement. The federal government has recognized the need for such a comprehensive approach by funding the creation of what they call "promise neighborhoods."

In Memphis, the nation's poorest city, three-quarters of the children qualify for federally subsidized school meals, start school academically two years behind and are less than half as likely to achieve proficiency throughout their school years. Their chances of attending college are less than 1 in 10.

We need to understand how poverty increases family stress, leads to poor nutrition and medical care, and, importantly, means children are talked to and read to less and end up with vocabularies that are about half that of middle-class children. Research tells us that it is essential to brain development that babies are spoken to, read to, cuddled and allowed to engage in physical play. National Institute of Health studies have indicated the foundations necessary for higher learning -- working memory, vocabulary, spatial recognition, reasoning and calculation skills -- are essentially set by the time a child reaches puberty.

Studies also show that early education prepares students intellectually and socially, improves academic success and reduces dropout rates and the need for special education programs and grade repetition. Equally important, such programs can increase the likelihood that students will pursue higher education or training, which helps lower delinquency, arrests, teen pregnancy and welfare reliance. If we can enroll poor children by age 2, this has been shown to be especially effective. The Dallas Independent School District employs "learning centers" to provide supplementary help to the disadvantaged, including extended school days and school years. Los Angeles has nine "ready for school" centers and 100 "early education" centers.

To help the poorest children in Memphis and America, the public school system needs to make education from 0 to 3 years old an integral part of its mission. And the private sector should be involved in creating and supporting these programs, so that everyone in a community is doing their part in ensuring that such programs are of high quality.

Marcus D. Pohlmann is a professor of political science at Rhodes College. He has studied Tennessee's urban schools, and the Memphis City Schools in particular, for more than 10 years. That work has culminated in published analyses such as "School Consolidation: State of Tennessee" and "Opportunity Lost: Race and Poverty in the Memphis City Schools."

This article was originally published by The Commercial Appeal at http://www.commercialappeal.com/news/2011/nov/18/guest-column-early-intervention-key-to-learning/.