Early childhood education shows promise in preparing kids for school. At-risk children who go through an early education programme close the gap with wealthier peers, researchers say.
Omaha, Nebraska, Sept 2012 - Just shy of his third birthday, Dominic Chiarello had a vocabulary that was just “yes,” “no” and “potty.”
After a year in preschool in the Educare Centre of Omaha, the 4-year-old Nebraska boy wants to be an astronaut and blast off into space. "I want to shoot up into the sky like a firework," says Dominic, thrusting his fist into the air.
“He’s exploding,” says his mother, Audra Chiarello, of Omaha. “He’s constantly telling me all the new words he has learned at school. Just the other day, he said, 'Mum, my hair looks atrocious.' He's using so many big words and has become a talking encyclopaedia. I can't keep up.”
The Educare Centre, part of a nationwide programme begun in 2000 in Chicago, aims to help the city's poorest preschoolers close the achievement gap with richer children through all-day, year-round care and education. The goal is that when economically disadvantaged kids reach kindergarten, they'll be able to keep up with their middle-class peers.
Educare relies on the belief that when children receive quality education early on, they're more likely to achieve academic success, graduate high school and go on to college or seek career training. The curriculum aims to develop language, literacy, mathematical and social skills.
The programme has gained support from philanthropists, including The Buffett Early Childhood Fund run by Susan A. Buffett, daughter of Omaha-based billionaire investor Warren Buffett.
Omaha has two Educare centres, next to the Indian Hill and Kellom elementary schools. Children are enrolled as early as 6 weeks old. Classrooms are small: For example, the class size for toddlers (birth to age 3) is three teachers to eight children.
Data from Educare programmes in six cities — Chicago, Denver, Milwaukee, Omaha, Seattle and Tulsa — show positive results in preparing at-risk children from birth to five for later academic achievement, according to researchers at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Their finding states "kindergarten-bound children who entered Educare before age 2 scored 98.5 on school readiness tests. That is at the national average and exceeds typical scores of at-risk children. This pattern persists even after controlling for risk factors such as maternal education, race and teen parent status."
Educare centres have popped up across the country — in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Oklahoma, Maine, Washington and Wisconsin. Nationwide, Educare enrols at least 2,000 children, from birth to 5 years old, and employs 700 teachers and staff, according to Educare officials.
In Nebraska, the cause's champion is Susie Buffett, who has focused her personal philanthropy in improving early childhood education. Her foundation is part of a collaborative effort with Omaha Public Schools and the local Head Start to fund the Educare Centre of Omaha.
“There are too many poor kids in really horrible childcare situations for the first five years of their lives,” Susie Buffett said. "So we went around the country looking for who was doing the best work … and we just copied them — and partnered with them.”
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