Md.'s perfect early education equation

Column: Md. must implement innovative programs that start at birth and continue through age 3.

Not all that long ago, early childhood education meant the first three grades of elementary school. Very few schools had kindergarten programs and even fewer offered pre-kindergarten programs. Today, all Maryland school systems offer kindergarten programs and pre-kindergarten programs for at least the most disadvantaged 4 year olds. It is now time for Maryland to continue to lead the way in early childhood education by expanding innovative programs that start at birth and continue through age 3.

New technology allows us to scan the human brain in more detail than ever before. Seminal research in the neurosciences has shown that brain development begins before birth, and much of our learning foundation is cemented in the first few years of life. Brain circuits are wired in sequence, with vision, hearing, and touch beginning prenatally, followed by language development. Unless sensory and beginning language development has occurred by the first year, more complex learning cannot follow. Additionally, research shows that for infants as young as 11 months, the absence of positive social interaction and the exposure to "toxic stress" (physical or emotional abuse, neglect, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness, or the effects of poverty) can negatively impact a child's ability to learn. To give every child the best chance for future success, early childhood education must focus on both the child and the family, and must start, well, EARLY.

One would think the best solution would be to establish more birth to age 3 programs within the traditional school structure. However, while that might be one viable option, research shows that the highest quality and most effective early childhood programs take place in specially designed learning centers that integrate education, family and health-related services and employ child care staff possessing very specific skill sets designed to foster healthy brain development and positive educational outcomes for infants. We know very young children often do not benefit from an environment that is highly structured with rigid rules. Infants and toddlers develop language and social skills when they are free to play, explore their environment, and interact with trained, caring adults who know how to structure those opportunities in purposeful ways.

In 2001, Judith P. Hoyer developed and implemented the model that now bears her name. "Judy Centers" are innovative community partnerships that provide a wide spectrum of programs to children, from birth to age 5, and their families. These Centers operate 10 to 12 hours per day, year round and integrate education and special needs intervention programs, with health care, adult education, parenting classes and family literacy programs. Today, there are 51 Judy Centers across the state. Most recently, five centers opened in Baltimore City with significant funding provided by the philanthropic community through the Baltimore Community Foundation. Independent evaluations have documented that the Judy Centers are one of the most successful early childhood programs in the nation. It is now time for us to take this model to "scale" across Maryland and across the nation.

As we move to expand this model, we will need a much larger cadre of individuals prepared to work with Maryland's birth to age 3 population. I want to highlight the University of Maryland, College Park, teacher preparation model that offers two distinct credentials in early childhood education: one for age 4 to grade 3, and the second for birth to age 3. This model fully recognizes the different skill sets necessary to work with the very youngest children. Teaching candidates are also dually certified to work with both the typically developing child, as well as the special needs child. Between birth and age 3, our youngest children demonstrate huge developmental differences. The more adept teachers and child care providers are at identifying these developmental differences, and the earlier appropriate interventions can be introduced, the more likely every child will enter school ready to learn and on an equal footing with their peers. I want to encourage every teacher preparation program in Maryland to adopt the UM model.

Maryland can solve the "perfect equation." High quality learning centers that integrate educational, family and health-related services for children and families, + individuals fully prepared and certified to work with the birth to age 3 population = EDUCATIONAL SUCCESS!

Nancy S. Grasmick is a presidential scholar at Towson University and a former Maryland superintendent of schools. Her email is ngrasmick@towson.edu.

Column: It is now time for Maryland to continue to lead the way in early childhood education by expanding innovative programs that start at birth and continue through age 3.

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