Guest Column

The Next Frontier: Birth to 3

Now that Georgia’s Pre-K Program has celebrated its 20th anniversary, I am often asked about the “next frontier” in early childhood education in Georgia.

There’s no doubt that Georgia was a pioneer in Pre-K, a program that, according to a recent report of Year Two of a longitudinal study, significantly impacts language, literacy and math skills in Pre-K students.

But pioneers eventually settle and build…which is exactly what we’ve been doing these past years, especially through initiatives like the newly revised Georgia Early Learning and Development Standards (GELDS) and projects under the Early Learning Challenge grant that focus on high quality services and school readiness skills.

I believe that the next frontier in Georgia’s system of quality early care and education will be services for infants and toddlers, an area we are pioneering through the Georgia Program for Infant Toddler Care (GAPITC). When we look back on early education 10 years from now, the debate around the benefits of Pre-K will most likely be resolved.

I believe one day people will look at Pre-K the way we look at kindergarten today and ask, “Why didn’t we start earlier?”

That’s why NOW is our opportunity to focus on children from birth to age three to help prepare them for Pre-K. Children who come from lower income households or non-English speaking families often need the benefits of high quality early childhood education earlier in life.

Studies have shown that children who come from families on public assistance hear 30-million less words by the age of three than children from average income households.

Because verbal language helps build the foundation for future literacy, this puts these children at a permanent disadvantage.

DECAL has always acknowledged that parents and guardians are children’s first and best teachers. But because of economic realities, we know many families will depend on child care outside the home for approximately 370,000 children here in Georgia.

With this in mind, we must work with providers and teachers to “retrofit” environments from babysitting to quality early learning. Our research indicates that most infant toddler classrooms in Georgia are of low quality. That’s why we’re using our new Quality RatedSM program to improve these educational settings and GAPITC to train teachers to better understand child development and the most appropriate lessons for the youngest children in their care.

More language is a key, even for infants and toddlers. Many children enter Pre-K or Kindergarten with a deficit in words heard and understood, which is a predictor of their reading proficiency later in life. But to fully embrace this opportunity, our teachers need more training. In 2009, DECAL changed minimum requirements for infant and toddler teachers from a high school diploma to an early childhood credential giving them a better understanding of child development and how to teach children at very young ages.

This is great, as long as the teacher can afford higher education. Through our existing HOPE Grant and HOPE scholarship, DECAL’s supplementary Scholarships and Incentives programs, and additional funding through the Early Learning Challenge Grant, going back to a technical college or four-year university will more affordable than ever. The teachers I have met will welcome these opportunities to enhance their professional credentials so they can do an even better job of caring for children.

By continuing to work with teachers, providers, parents, guardians, early childhood advocates and stakeholders, I believe Georgia can close the achievement gap for our very youngest learners, and help meet Governor Deal’s challenge to have every child reading on grade level by third grade. Given that the majority of a child’s brain is formed within the first three years of life, that time is simply too valuable, and if we lose it, we can never get it back.

I thank Governor Deal, the Georgia General Assembly, other child-serving state agencies, children’s advocacy groups, hardworking early care and education providers, and Georgia’s families for working with us to ensure we don’t waste this critical time in the development of Georgia’s youngest citizens. By forging ahead into this new frontier, we’ll impact the future of our children … and our state.

(Bobby Cagle is Commissioner of Bright from the Start: Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning. Commissioner Cagle leads the agency responsible for the early care and education of hundreds of thousands of Georgia’s children.)

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