It's no secret why children from poor and minority communities often start school at a substantial disadvantage compared to their peers from more affluent backgrounds. The reasons for the disparities are well known: poverty, family instability, lack of access to health care services and regular medical checkups and too few opportunities for high-quality educational and recreational experiences that help children reach their full potential. When children grow up with so many deficits during their crucial formative years, the effect on their ability to catch up later in life can be devastating.

That's why the Baltimore City Health Department has joined with the Maryland Family Network to open a new Early Head Start center in West Baltimore's Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, the first such facility entirely operated by the city. With about 45 low-income families and their children as clients, it will become one of nine Early Head Start programs in Baltimore serving a total of 420 children.

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The long-neglected community where Freddie Gray grew up is one of the city's most impoverished, with high rates of joblessness, vacant and abandoned properties, failing schools and crime. Early Head Start, which was created in 1994 as a follow-on to the hugely successful, war-on-poverty era Head Start initiative, aims to support low-income families, pregnant women, babies and toddlers up to age 3 by linking them with wrap-around medical, mental health, nutritional and educational services.

On a recent afternoon at the new center at 2200 N. Monroe street, parents and staff members spoke enthusiastically about the program. One mother of two recounted how much she had learned about the way her infant daughter's brain developed in response to the specific techniques and strategies suggested by the family counselor who regularly visited their home. Many of her interactions with her child were aimed at nurturing gross and fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination and object recognition. The mother said she had never realized how to systematically use play as a teaching tool. For her, the intervention of Early Head Start was a godsend.

City Health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen says one can hardly overestimate the need for early intervention in poor children's lives before they enter the regular Head Start program at age 4. As infants and toddlers, children's brains are already honing the basic cognitive, behavioral and social skills vital to success in school, and every interaction they experience with those around them can have an outsized influence on their development. Early Head Start provides a safe, inviting setting where they can anchor those experiences in consistent, nurturing relationships and stable, ongoing routines that absorb their energy and attention.

Child advocates have long maintained that society needs to invest more in early education to prepare children to be successful in later years. Economist James Heckman has suggested that "the road to college attainment, higher wages and social mobility in the United States starts at birth. The greatest barrier to college education is not high tuitions or the risk of student debt; it's in the skills children have when they first enter kindergarten." That is another way of saying that Baltimore's most intractable problems and greatest inequalities often can be traced back to its children's earliest years.

Families in Sandtown-Winchester understand that intuitively from their own experiences and those of their neighbors. We know, for example, that Freddie Gray and his sisters suffered from lead poisoning early in life, which led to multiple educational, behavioral and medical problems that cruelly limited his prospects. Though his was an extreme example of how early childhood deficits can steer young lives off track, there are hundreds of infants and toddlers across the city who are similarly at risk.

Timely intervention through programs like Early Head Start offers the most effective way for Baltimore to ensure those children get the support and services they need to grow into healthy, productive adult members of society. They don't deserve to share Freddie Gray's fate. If we've learned anything from his short, sad life it's that the effort to prevent more such tragedies needs to begin in the cradle.

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