Alexandria in Action: Start early to make a difference

Alexandria in Action: Start early to make a difference

By John Porter

They’re back! To school that is. This time of the year is one of great anxiety for teachers and administrators across the country and one of enormous relief for many parents. If I had a dollar for every parent I have run into the past month who said, “It’s time for school to start,” I wouldn’t need to do any additional fundraising for ACT for the rest of the year.

It’s not that parents haven’t enjoyed being with their kids over the summer, it’s just time for things to return to normal, and school plays an important role in the process. For many, the start of school heralds the new year more than January 1 — a new beginning with a chance to either build on the past or start fresh.

The hope, of course, is this will be an exceptional year for every student. It also will be one fraught with the perils of growing up as well as with the joy of meeting new people, learning new things and enjoying all the new year has to bring.

If like past years, it also promises to be one of continued questioning of schools, particularly in relation to student performance. While many students will grow and develop as expected, others will find the road to academic success more difficult. The achievement gap, generally defined as the educational gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children, will again elicit much discussion, finger pointing and new ways to combat this ongoing issue.

While most of us are extremely concerned about this issue, we seem to address it in more of a Band-Aid approach than truly solving the root of the problem. Trying to play catch-up in high school, middle school or even late elementary school is not the answer. We need to do more, earlier if we truly want to make an impact.

According to University of Kansas researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley, children living in poverty are exposed to 30 million fewer words by age 3 than children from high-income families. In their study, Hart and Risley’s four-year research project noted this major developmental discrepancy as well as gaps in other skill areas, all of which have long-term effects on a child’s performance later in life. If the much-discussed achievement gap is this broad at age 3, the natural conclusion is that it only will widen as the child gets older.

But it’s not all doom and gloom, as many communities have embraced a proactive, common sense approach, which addresses these concerns head-on. From providing more early-childhood education opportunities to working with families to provide increased enrichment opportunities, things are beginning to change.

Locally, a group of concerned Alexandrians has been working for the past four years to address these issues and develop a systemic approach to ensure a better beginning for children in our community. In conjunction with the Children, Youth and Families Collaborative Commission and in line with the city Children and Youth Master Plan, the early care and education workgroup has been working diligently to coordinate research, shape strategies and create a more impactful early care and education system for our children.

The ECEW is working to make a difference earlier with a specific emphasis on what must happen in children’s lives even before they ever step foot in a school — thus providing a more equal footing and starting point for our children in the hope of eliminating the achievement gap.

Hats off to those in our community directly working on this issue and the many others who support this important work. This actually could be the answer we are seeking — not only to the perennial issue of student performance, but also to larger issues facing our country.

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The writer is the president and CEO of ACT for Alexandria.