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Why early learning matters

April 28, 2012
By Ruth Ascher - United Way of SW Minnesota , Marshall Independent

Early childhood education is a foundation for strong schools and a strong economy. It prepares tomorrow's workforce for global competition while ensuring that the children of today's workers enter school ready to succeed.

It's critical to economic development. And it supports school success. Studies show that children entering kindergarten with skills they need to succeed are more likely to graduate high school and become productive workers.

We live in a nation where one-quarter of our nation's youth fail to graduate high school within four years. As high-tech jobs become the backbone of our nation's future, we need a workforce ready and able to succeed in our new, knowledge economy. One can make the case that America's best economic stimulus is education.

America's top economic thinkers call for stronger support for early learning. Nobel Laureate economist James Heckman says investing in early education pays off, especially for very young children from low-wage families.

Return on investment (ROI) includes higher graduation rates, better job skills, increased home ownership, and less chance of criminal activities.

There are some key strategies for focus:

It seems too simple to be true, but the simple act of parents regularly reading to their children from birth onward is one of the best ways to build school readiness. Early language and literacy (reading and writing) development begins in the first three years of life and is closely linked to a child's earliest experiences with books and stories.

The interactions that young children have with such literacy materials as books, paper and crayons, and with the adults in their lives are the building blocks for language, reading and writing development. Research shows that this has a critical role in shaping brain development.

United Way of Southwest Minnesota has for over six years invested in early literacy for our area's children by being the local champion and by sponsoring the Dolly Parton Imagination Library program. Throughout our service area approximately 2,400 children, ages birth-5, receive a quality, age-appropriate book in the mail each month at no cost to their family. This encourages parents to take the time to read to their children and reduces barriers for families who might not otherwise be able to afford the books.

The United Way Success By 6 Initiative sponsors literacy enrichment and mobile learning activities like the summer Wild about Reading programs in area parks. Winter Read-a-Rama's, and other literacy building events help build a love of reading and take the children "beyond the book" with related school readiness building activities. Other mobile learning projects take school readiness tools directly to the children who might not have an opportunity to participate.

Another Success By 6 project is to put school readiness kits into the hands of all children who attend Kindergarten Round-ups. This year more than 800 children received a bag with a book, dry-erase board, crayons, scissors, glue, alphabet letters and numbers, information for parents and more.

Parent engagement is another key strategy for school success. Annually, the Success By 6 team sponsors a quality parent education training for families and for educators. In March, approximately 600 individuals learned strategies for dealing with challenging parenting issues and positive ways to teach children to be independent leaders who can stand up to peer pressure. Planning is under way for another top-notch program to be held March 19, 2013.

How is this made possible locally?

When interested and caring people get involved and mobilized on an important issue, great things like those mentioned above can happen. Some of the donations to the annual United Way of Southwest Minnesota campaign are invested into these early childhood initiatives. Events like the 5th annual Power of the Purse event on Tuesday sponsored by Women United for Early Childhood are specifically planned to raise funds for these programs.

Volunteers can join us and read to children this summer in the parks, join the Success By 6 initiative committee, take part in the Stuff the Bus school supply drive this summer and much more.



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