Research has shown us, over the last 35 years or more, that quality early childhood education makes a significant difference in the future success of young children.
The early education investment for children in poverty, like those in Head Start, demonstrates even greater impact, with numerous long-term studies confirming that children who have the benefit of quality, early, continuous early learning are more likely to graduate from high school, attend college, avoid high-risk behavior and obtain lasting careers.
However, few low-income families can afford the enrichment experiences or price of quality settings their economically advantaged peers can afford. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports fewer than half (48%) of poor children are ready for school at 5 years of age as compared with 75% of children from moderate- or high-income households.
Our school district partners and, specifically, kindergarten teachers report they can tell quickly which children have had preschool experience within a few days of the start of the school year. Academically, children who have participated in Head Start have greater achievement in receptive vocabulary and phonetic awareness, the early building blocks for literacy.
Head Start children are also advanced in early math and science as well as problem solving, collaboration and creativity.
Unique to early childhood programs in general, Head Start/ Early Head Start provides comprehensive two-generation services, offering parents a key role in shaping their child’s learning, ensuring health, wellness and success.
However, of the 7,220 children birth to 5 years old living in poverty in the Lehigh Valley, only 16.7% of those qualified infants, toddlers and preschool aged children can have a Head Start experience due to funding limitations.
Though the evidence is clear that Early Childhood Education is essential for every child, the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic has made the need for comprehensive early learning, especially for vulnerable children, even more vital. Families with low-paying jobs, those performing essential services, and persons of color already experiencing health inequity have been the hardest hit with COVID-19.
The subsequent consequences of home, food, technology insecurity and parent-turned teacher situations have created a level of persistent stress that may have a permanent impact on the developing child’s physical and emotional health as well as their ability to socially engage with learning relationships.
However, for the first time in our community’s history and mirrored across Pennsylvania, we find that families are not enrolling their children in Early Head Start/Head Start, Pre K Counts and other quality early learning programs. In our Child Care Works program, which provides financial assistance to low-income working parents, there are 30% fewer young children enrolled compared to the same time last year.
Our school district partners report very low participation of kindergarten children which, combined, causes us to ask, “Where are the children?”
Our Children and Youth partners see a dramatic decrease in reports of suspected abuse, only adding to the question — “What is happening to the children?”
Due to a high level of unemployment, fear, need to stay home to educate and care for older children, or due to general isolation and disengagement — fewer families are taking advantage of these programs right now.
In December 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on Head Start’s success in mitigating the spread of COVID-19 by providing comprehensive, safe child and family services while at the same time offering a lifeline to struggling families.
The young children in our communities need our help right now, not just to help them prepare for school but to make sure they are staying safe, healthy, nourished and loved. We all need to pay close attention to those who are going without, those who are disconnected, and work to reengage them as quickly as possible in early care, preschool, school and preventive health care.
And we must meet them where they are, engaging families in a way that meets the holistic needs of children who are coping with adverse experiences on a daily basis, growing up in a world pandemic.
As we get the world back on track, we can take a step towards getting our children back on track by encouraging parents with young children to enroll in quality early childhood education and care today.
Community Services for Children is here to help. For more information on enrolling in Early Head Start or Head Start, or services offered by the Early Learning Resource Centers program, contact us at www.cscinc.org.
Paula J. Margraf is CEO and president of Community Services for Children, a nonprofit that offers early childhood education and family services in 17 counties of Northeast Pennsylvania.