Early Teaching Helps Children Later

With the recent decision to consolidate our schools, as well as an influx of money from the Gates Foundation and the federal government's Race to the Top, this should be a pivotal moment for our community.

However, the Urban Child Institute recently published the 2011 Data Book: The State of Children in Memphis and Shelby County, which offers frightening evidence of the growing number of children in Memphis and Shelby County who are not ready to enter kindergarten.

While a significant amount of money is being channeled into improving the number of skilled teachers in our schools, very little focus is being put on improving the readiness of children entering kindergarten.

Even the best-trained teacher cannot make a significant impact if her students are not ready to learn.

This Data Book, however, is filled with information that, if acted upon, could provide a key to improving our schools and building a "stronger Memphis."

These ideas could make a real difference in the lives of many children. Additionally they could "build a better workforce, reduce crimes, and expand the economy." Rarely do we have access to such important concrete data as we have been given in this publication.

The Data Book clearly indicates that if we wait to begin teaching until a child enters school (whether at age 4 or 6), we will miss the most crucial time in the development of that child's brain, which is from 0 to 3 years of age.

A table contained within the Executive Summary of this publication clearly demonstrates that "Investments in children's first three years provide bigger economic returns than investments that begin later in life. … Our current spending patterns are out of alignment with our knowledge of child development. … Most spending on children's education begins too late."

Preparing children for kindergarten is an integral part of the education process. Educational resources are badly needed to help parents learn to nurture their children from birth.

Because the Urban Child Institute is aware of how many impoverished mothers have never seen examples of positive nurturing, it has developed videos and training sessions to teach caregivers to "Talk, Touch, Read and Play" with their children.

The next step is to make these training sessions and videos available to more caregivers. This could be accomplished in many ways.

One possibility would be to open a day care co-op where caregivers would learn to "Talk, Touch, Read and Play" with their own children and then be guided by trained specialists to do the same with other children.

For each hour they spend working with children in the day care under the guidance of specialists, these caregivers could be given an additional hour of free day care for their children.

The public day care facility could be staffed by a combination of trained and certified professionals, as well as carefully screened and well-trained volunteers. These preschool educators could supplement the education delivered by the child's caregivers.

Perhaps our newly combined school system could be divided into subdistricts based upon the needs of the children. These subdistricts would be given some discretionary funds to spend on the greatest needs in their subdistrict.

Since a greater number of suburban children are ready to learn when they enter kindergarten, this might not be how they would want to spend their discretionary funds. However, this type of parent-child training would make a significant difference in the more impoverished areas, and funds would be better spent on very young children and their caregivers than at any other time in the children's learning.

While it is easy to say it is too expensive to educate children from 0 to 3 years of age, as well as their caregivers, this is not a luxury.

Our community pays for the high number of undereducated and unemployed individuals in many ways, including through our jails and hospitals. To accomplish "Every Child, College Bound," we should begin with "Every Child, School Ready."

Barbara Pohlmann received her undergraduate degree from Cornell College and her master's degree in educational psychology from Columbia University's Teachers' College. She has taught in both public and private schools in Iowa, Maine, New York, Ohio, Arkansas and Tennessee.

This article originally appeared in The Daily News at http://www.memphisdailynews.com/news/2011/sep/21/early-teaching-helps-children-later/