In a perfect world, all children would begin kindergarten ready to learn.
They would have loving parents and caregivers who read to them every day, teach them how to play with others and help them learn numbers, letters, shapes and colors.
Unfortunately, ours is not a perfect world.
While some children enter kindergarten able to read simple words and sentences, other children start school without ever having had a book read to them. These children may not recognize their colors, letters, numbers or shapes. They might not have learned social skills to play appropriately with other children, and they may be completely awestruck by a pencil, crayon or pair of scissors. They might have difficulty using eating utensils, and they may not know how to wash their hands. While many children starting kindergarten have traveled outside the state or country, many others have never left their immediate community.
The disparity in readiness among children starting school is one of the most difficult challenges facing public schools in West Virginia and across the country. Study after study has shown that parents' educational and income levels have a direct correlation to children's academic success. As West Virginia ranks at or near the bottom in parents' educational and income levels, our public schools are faced with trying to help children overcome enormous socioeconomic obstacles.
In reality, many of West Virginia's children are behind before they ever start school.
Studies have shown that children who are not reading well by the end of the third grade in all likelihood will still be struggling by the end of the ninth grade. If these studies are correct, then children who are two years behind in their cognitive and social development when they start kindergarten must essentially progress six years in a four-year period -- just to keep pace with their classmates.
For this reason, early childhood education programs are essential if West Virginia is ever going to break the cycle of poverty. While many states have sufficiently funded education from kindergarten through adult, most states are just beginning to recognize the importance of the formative years before kindergarten. Recent brain development research has proven that the quality of a child's early experiences sets the stage for future learning and development.
"Early Learning: Lessons for a Lifetime," a publication produced by the West Virginia Governor's Cabinet on Children and Families, asserts that the state's early childhood programs "fall short of reaching children who need them." According to this 1997 report, "only one-fifth of children under age five attend a preschool program, such as Early Intervention, Head Start, pre-kindergarten programs, and licensed child care centers." In addition, "although half of West Virginia families use child care while at work, over 80 percent of the settings aren't licensed or monitored."
These statistics are startling to all who care about children and the future of West Virginia. All families -- especially those who need it the most -- should have access to quality and affordable early childhood programs -- programs that can help prepare children for school.
In the 1990s, several states facing similar challenges, including North Carolina and Georgia, developed comprehensive initiatives to ensure that children enter public schools ready to learn. Realizing that investing in early childhood programs produces long-term dividends for children, families and society, these states jumped to the forefront of this emerging issue. These states determined that it is ultimately much cheaper to ensure that every child gets a good start in life, than to pay for remedial programs, alternative schools and prisons later.
Governor Cecil H. Underwood introduced legislation in the 2000 session to create the West Virginia Educare initiative, which would respond to many of the issues addressed in the "Early Learning: Lessons for a Lifetime" report. West Virginia Educare was developed to provide standards and funding to ensure that families of children birth to kindergarten can access services that are high quality and affordable. Although the legislation did not pass in this session, funds were wisely appropriated to pilot the initiative through the Governor's Cabinet on Children and Families.
This pilot program is a start -- a wonderful beginning -- but much more must be done in the formative years to help West Virginia's children reach their full potential. Available resources should be coordinated and directed to this effort. The future of our state and the next generation of West Virginians is at stake.
In our imperfect world, we cannot afford to ignore our youngest children and their families any longer.