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MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN: 'The Closest Thing to a Panacea'

Marian Wright Edelman | 10/9/2013, 3 p.m.
Marian Wright Edelman (Courtesy of childrensdefense.org)

"In 2009, the city adopted universal pre-kindergarten … and frankly, it is some of the best money that we could ever spend. Those who have to deal with truancy every day know exactly what I mean. Those who see children who wind up in special education because of failed educational opportunities, because of the social and economic conditions in which they live, know exactly what I mean. Those professionals who have to oversee the juvenile justice system know exactly what I mean. It pays for itself over time." — Mayor Vincent C. Gray, Washington, D.C.

This week there is some good news from Washington, D.C. in the midst of all the dismal Congressional news on the shutdown. Like many American cities, the nation’s capital faces deep challenges, including some neighborhoods where poverty, violence, and unemployment rates are rampant.

These major challenges plus the necessity of educating all the city’s children for the future made the District of Columbia ready for major changes. Over the last several years, they’ve made a series of decisions that have made the city a model of best practices for its youngest children.

When Mayor Vincent Gray spoke on early childhood education at a recent Children’s Defense Fund/Duke University Child and Family Policy Center conference, he shared some of the approaches our nation’s capital city is getting exactly right when it comes to preparing the next generation of workers and leaders for the future.

He said, “Ninety percent of brain development has already occurred by the time a child is five years of age, yet many children don’t start school before five years of age, which seemed like an incredibly lost opportunity to me.” The mayor helped lead the push for universal pre-kindergarten, and since it was adopted four years ago, the city has chosen to fund pre-K using the same formula as every other grade to ensure its availability.

As a result, more than 90 percent of D.C.’s 4-year-olds are now in school in a full-day program as are more than 70 percent of 3-year-olds.

That tremendous achievement is only part of D.C.’s early childhood education success story. The city’s Early Success Framework focuses on children starting at birth through third grade, and Mayor Gray explained that for the last year and a half the city has been examining the existing resources and agencies that already serve these children and their families to decide how efforts can be better coordinated and organized for maximum impact.

Public schools are also co-locating with community agencies that operate infant and toddler child development centers. As high schools are modernized throughout D.C., all of them are opening with state-of-the art infant and toddler classrooms. As the mayor explained, that’s just one more way the city is able to provide developmental programming for its children at the earliest stages and also engage parents right from the very beginning.

Since children do not come in pieces, I was pleased to hear that schools are being connected to the city’s health care system, and at the same time the health care system is emphasizing the successful developmental interventions that can be made with young children.

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