Third Grade is the Breaking Point between the Haves and Have Not’s

>>DANIELLA GAMA DIAZ, PAIGE SIMPSON, DANIELLE LEVINEBy Ann Carroll     We tell our children “anything is possible.” You can be an astronaut, a rock star, or the President of the United States. Then we tell ourselves that what we’re saying is actually true. It’s an admirable theory and sure sounds great, but do we have the programs and policies in place to make sure that we’re not lying to ourselves and, more importantly, to our children?

A >>report by the Annie E. Casey foundation found that third grade forecasts children’s future success. Nationwide, only 36 percent of third graders are on track with their cognitive development—and even fewer third graders are on track in North Carolina. According to the NC Department of Public Instruction, 55 percent of our state’s children—and 70 percent of those from economically disadvantaged families—do not read proficiently by the end of third grade.

As a mom, it breaks my heart to know that a child’s success will be determined before they even understand what college is, let alone how to get there.

I look around my daughter’s kindergarten classroom, and I see it already happening. About half of her class seems to have come to school understanding how to behave in a structured setting. They had pre-reading skills and early math skills. They knew their letters. Why? Their parents had the means to send them to preschool, and not everyone can afford that.

At one point when both of our girls were in private preschool, we were paying $1,400 a month. If you can’t afford that, you’re at the mercy of the state, which has decreased funding and support for early childhood education in recent years. Since 2009, funding for Smart Start and pre-k has decreased by $101 million. As more kids get put on wait-lists to get into the state-sponsored programs, more parents struggle to string together adequate child care in order to work and pay the bills.

The newly formed NC Early Childhood Education Foundation has recommendations on what we can do as a state to close that gap. They say we need to focus on education from birth to age eight, and they have science to support it. Research from Harvard University and elsewhere confirms that neural pathways in the brain are not developed at birth and its early cognitive stimulation that will help build those pathways. Children’s early childhood education really does predict their success, and there’s really no making up for it later on.

Knowing that, I think of the handful of kids in my daughter’s class that have already been labeled as “problems” in the classroom. To be fair and honest, they do present a significant challenge because of their behavior and cognitive development. What’s sad is it’s not their fault, and they will spend their entire lives trying to make up for what their parents couldn’t afford to do.

Too often funding things like early childhood education becomes a partisan issue, but to me it comes down to what I’ve heard all my life: “pay me now or pay me later, but at some point you’ll have to pay me.”  If we don’t help these children get the educational foundation they need at an early age, chances are our public programs will be paying for them in the future. If I’m going to have pay taxes regardless, I’d rather give these kids a fighting chance. 

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