Grant will help area children

Published 10:52 pm Thursday, October 16, 2008

“One in five kids isn’t ready for kindergarten. Five out of five parents don’t think it’s their child.”

When those two sentences were published in recent advertising by Smart Beginnings Western Tidewater — a coalition of 67 members in public and private business, government officials, local school systems, early care and education providers, parents and community partners — they were meant to grab the reader’s attention.

A Partnership Grant in the amount of $496,354 from the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation will help the coalition promote quality early education for children in Southampton and Isle of Wight counties and Franklin who are ages 0 to 5.

Smart Beginnings Western Tidewater welcomed education, business, government and community leaders to their kick-off celebration Thursday at the Paul D. Camp Community College Regional Workforce Development Center in Franklin.

“There is no way to underestimate Smart Beginnings’ importance to this community,” said Rick Spencer, senior analyst with the Obici Healthcare Foundation. “This organization of caring professionals work in tandem with families and other organizations that help children embark upon the most important journey of their lives, the journey that seals their fate, the journey paved with a solid education.”

Spencer added, “undoubtedly, youth will encounter many outside attempts to sidetrack their journey through life. However, young people, their families, and the entire community must remain steadfast on this pathway to success. When they triumph, we all triumph and we all get the glory together.”

According to data from Smart Beginnings and VECF, the human brain develops more rapidly between birth and age 5 than at any period in a lifetime. Children who participate in high quality early education also do better in school, have better social skills, and fewer behavioral problems once they enter school.

In his address, VECF chairman Paul Hirschbiel spoke about what constituted a child being unprepared for kindergarten.

“We’re not talking about children who are at kindergarten who can’t read very well,” Hirschbiel said. “We’re talking about children who don’t know their alphabet, don’t know their numbers, don’t know their colors, have difficulty putting together three-word sentences. These are children that have serious issues.”

Hirschbiel warned that when “a child enters kindergarten behind, we know through lots of research, all too often (they) remain behind throughout school and into life. Also, that child becomes a financial burden on our society in many, many cases.”

The state of Virginia held back 9,000 children from kindergarten through the third grade, according to Hirschbiel, who added that quality early education could have reduced those numbers significantly.

“You’re talking about almost $90 million a year that we have spent on holding children back,” Hirschbiel said. “We don’t need to do that. We get this right up front, and they get to school ready, we will cut that down dramatically and save dollars, dollars, dollars.”

Connie Burgess, director of Smart Beginnings Western Tidewater, sounded upbeat about the task ahead for the coalition.

“We are looking at developing programs in our area, where we are connecting the services that we already have,” Burgess said. “(We are) looking at what we can do to bring everybody together to collaborate, getting those children ready for school.”

Burgess added that the coalition partners “know that because a child’s brain is developed 90 percent (from the ages of 0 to 5), that’s when those workforce development skills really set in, like team building, sharing, problem solving, those things are in place by the age of 5.”

Burgess echoed Hirschbiel’s comments that money spent on quality early education would save money that the state currently spends in other areas, and have a positive effect on society as a whole.

“It’s really shown already,” she said, “that if you can invest in early childhood it’s going to cut down on incarceration, it’s going to cut down on unemployment, it’s going to cut down on people that have to go on welfare. It’s a lot of (business and community) entities there that realize we have to invest.”