GAR and Partners, Significant Contributions

Greater Support for Early Learning
Posted on 02/25/2019
Image of Editorial(A Michael Douglas editorial in Beacon Journal)

Kirstin Toth shared a long article in the New York Times Magazine with the board of the GAR Foundation. The foundation was looking to invest time, energy and money in early education. The senior vice president of the foundation thought the article pointed the way. The headline framed the challenge: “Why are our most important teachers paid the least?”

That was a year ago. On Jan. 31, the foundation announced the launch of STARS: Supporting Teachers and Ready Students, a $618,000 initiative to enhance early childhood learning in Akron. The two-year project takes aim at the problem identified by the Times report: Community-based preschools and day care centers in our poorest neighborhoods have much potential to enhance young lives, yet they lack the resources to make the sustained difference so many want to see.

The foundation mapped the city, highlighting preschools and day care centers in the areas of greatest poverty. Twenty-five were invited to participate, and 24 accepted, involving 228 teachers and 1,400 students, ages 3 years old to 5 years old. The plan calls for providing teachers with professional development and training in high-quality learning practices, with each gaining an associate degree in child development.

The Early Childhood Resource Center will supply the training and coaching. The Summit Education Initiative will collect and organize data. The Kent State University Center for Public Policy & Health will conduct an overall evaluation.

Why focus on teacher development?
The answer starts with what science has discovered about the brain, that 90 percent of its development occurs by age 5. Thus, it follows to intervene early, especially with those children who face severe poverty, their surroundings a big obstacle to learning.

What the Times article brings to the front is the research showing that one-on-one exchanges between teachers and students are crucial to success. That means the most effective teachers make their students feel safe. They help them with their emotions and controlling their behavior. By doing so, they put a child in position to learn. This is hard work, requiring, among other things, knowledge, insight, creativity, quick thinking and deft personal skills.

Or much more than the prevalent assumption about babysitting suggests.

With so much at stake, 60 percent of children entering kindergarten in Akron Public Schools are not ready to learn, the GAR Foundation concluded: Let’s do what we can to equip teachers with what they and their students need. Another part of the thinking goes to improved skills leading to more respect, higher pay and less turnover. Many preschool teachers themselves live in poverty.

There are other things in play. The state has an initiative called Step Up to Quality, a program to enhance early learning centers. It links public funding to a rating system of one star to five stars. Fail to gain three stars or more by 2025, and a center’s public money will be in jeopardy. The GAR Foundation has the goal of all participants in the STARS initiative reaching five stars. For now, the majority rates at one or two.

Mike DeWine pledged as a candidate that he would make a major commitment to early education and child care. Thus, expectations are high for his first budget plan, due March 15. The governor has talked about expanding eligibility for publicly funded child care to 150 percent of the federal poverty level. (A strong case can be made for 200 percent.) He has discussed investments in quality along the lines of the GAR approach.

The governor also has proposed a tripling of those served by home visits, an evidence-based program to help parents with parenting.

So the timing of the STARS initiative is precise, and in another way, too. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the analysis accompanying the Elevate Akron economic development plan is how the black community has been excluded from advances in the local economy. That must change if the city and region want to perform better for the long term.

To get there involves sustained investment and attention on many fronts, especially in training and education. None is more important than mobilizing to see that disadvantaged children have opportunities equivalent to those of their better-off peers. The STARS initiative bets on the power of teachers to help at the decisive start.
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