By Jack Kresnak
“Thump,” went the door in the conference room where two dozen policymakers, advocates and practitioners were learning more about the formative years of a child’s development – birth to five .
“Thump, thump,” the soft pounding continued as Lawrence Schweinhart of the HighScope Educational Research Foundation spoke about the “return on investment” generated by state tax dollars invested in high quality early childhood learning programs for vulnerable children.
The room we were in is where adults go to learn about the Perry Preschool Project, a high quality program which over the last half-century has proven how what happens to very young children before Kindergarten can have a lifelong impact – for good or ill. About a dozen state legislators were among the crowd gathered in Ypsilanti on Monday, March 21, in a legislative briefing organized by Michigan’s Children, HighScope, the Center for Michigan and the Early Childhood Investment Corporation.
Behind Schweinhart was a television set showing what turned out to be a live feed from the room next door – the room where the thumping was coming from.
When the sound on the television set was turned up, it became clear that the thump-thump sounds were boys throwing a ball at a stop-sign target on the door that separated the preschool from the learning room where the adults had gathered.
Over a span of nearly 50 years, literally thousands of people from around the world have sat in the chairs of that conference room watching the television monitor closely as trained professionals help preschoolers learn how to become creative in their play, to take responsibility for mistakes, to be considerate of others and to postpone gratification – all abilities that children need to succeed when they get to school.
The day began with introductory remarks by Michigan’s new Lt. Governor Brian Calley who spoke movingly about the challenges he has faced with his young children, including a 4-year-old daughter with Autism. He said he and his wife decided to do whatever it took to help their daughter be a successful as possible.
“What if we had that attitude with every kid?” Calley said. “What if we said we’re just going to be successful. We’re going to do whatever it takes.”
Judging from his own experience, Calley said, “the earlier you start the more successful you are.” Calley said that Governor Rick Snyder’s budget, while austere, largely protects funding for early childhood programs.
“The goal was to set a balanced budget and to demonstrate where our real priorities rest,” Calley said.
Schweinhart’s power-point showed that a few thousand dollars invested in a child through a high-quality early learning program saves taxpayers up to $300,000 over that person’s life time in terms of wages earned, taxes paid and crime and justice system costs that are not incurred.
On average, for every $1 invested in high quality early childhood programs saves society $16, and it helps children come to the K-12 system ready to learn and far less likely to have to repeat grades or to drop out of school. An economic study showed that in 2009 Michigan’s investment in early childhood programs saved $1.1 billion in spending on remedial schooling, special education, poor health, higher dropout rates and criminal justice costs.
That’s why Michigan’s Children is asking Governor Snyder and the state Legislature to hold the line on funding for early childhood programs – as a key strategy in turning around our state’s economy. We’re happy to hear the Governor agrees with that, and his statements about developing a “P-20” mindset – which he describes as Prenatal to age 20 – in state government policy decision making.
Joan Lessen-Firestone, director of the early childhood unit of Oakland Schools, explained recent research into brain development among young children. “The experiences that fill babies’ first days, months and years have a decisive impact on the architecture of their brains and the nature and extent of their adult capabilities,” Firestone said.
Firestone showed several slides depicting the fast development of synapses in a baby’s brain that reach a peak at age 6, and then begin to be pared back by age 14. She also showed slides of CAT scans of the brains of children with different early childhood experiences that showed clear disruptions in the brain of a child who suffered traumatic experiences as a toddler.
There also were charts showing the disparities in vocabulary among three-year-olds, depending on whether their parents were from the professional class, working class or on welfare. Typically, by age three the children of professional parents have vocabularies of well over 1,000 words; working class parents less than 600 words and low-income parents less than 300 words.
That means that those children start school already lagging behind their higher-income peers, Firestone said.
“It is easier to build the brain of a young child, than repair the brain of an adult,” Firestone said.
At a lunch, the bi-partisan group of legislators, business leaders like Phillip W. Fisher and Phil Power, engaged in a thoughtful discussion about how to focus limited state resources into the area where it will do the most good for the most children – early childhood.
“Starting early on you, see very positive results,” said Rep. Mark Ouimet, R-Scio Township, who helped begin the Success by Six project in Washtenaw County several years ago. The project, financed in part by public funding, brought together different public and private organizations to build a cohesive system of help for vulnerable children from prenatal care for pregnant women and infants and toddlers up to age five.
“Then we took a step back, saw who is doing this piece best and who is doing that piece best and we went back to make sure funding follows,” Ouimet said.
As the policymakers and others were meeting in the next room, everyone was confident that the young children in the Perry Preschool in the next room were getting the best possible early childhood learning experience.
But the question for all of us – both policymakers and the general public – is how do we ensure that all young children have “whatever it takes” to become ready for school, academic success and eventual career? What will it take to make that happen? When can we expect our state to open opportunities for our young people to succeed, and stop shutting doors in their faces?