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Education: Push for early learning reaches down to infants

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Chance Harbaugh received his diploma last week. He’s seen many changes in his three years at the Pawleys Island Civic Club Child Development Center. But there is more change ahead for the pre-school program and advocates of early learning hope it is mirrored elsewhere around the county.

Chance started out at the Pawleys Island center when he was 16 months old, said Lillian Reid, the center director. “It was a pleasure to watch him grow,” she said.

The center will begin accepting even younger students this summer through an Early Head Start grant from the state’s First Steps program. The grant funded renovations and furnishings for a mobile home next to the center that once housed the Pawleys Island magistrate’s office.

The program will have space for four infants and four toddlers. “It’s a well-needed program,” Reid said.

The Early Learning Council of Georgetown County has been a voice in the wilderness on pre-kindergarten child development for the past few years. Carolyn Ellis, who co-chairs the council, has watched the organization grow from preaching to the choir to leading a movement. “When we start early and put into the pipeline early good stuff, you get out of the pipeline what you want. Everybody knows that,” she said during a program for business leaders titled “Investing In Tomorrow’s Workforce” at the Bunnelle Foundation recently. “The question for us is do we make that a priority.”

Ellis has learned to talk in terms the business community can understand: return on investment. “For every dollar spent on early childhood education,” she said, “we get $17 in payback: productivity, reduced costs of incarceration, welfare, that sort of thing. Children in quality child care are less likely to end up in special education. They are going to need fewer hours of remediation in school.”

A child’s brain is like a sponge until about age 3.

Dr. Amanda Drosieko, a pediatrician in Murrells Inlet, says the very early stage of human brain development is called “plastic” because the brain is moldable. By age 3, Drosieko says, a child’s brain has attained 80 percent of its growth and by age 5, 90 percent. “Neurons in the brain grow like limbs to contact other neurons so transmission can occur,” she said. That growth, called myelination, is most rapid in a child’s first two years. In her practice, she cares for a family with three children under age 5 who speak English, Spanish and Polish. “They can switch language without even thinking,” she said. “Trilingual under the age of 5: It’s a perfect example of how the brain wires early.”

Drosieko encourages parents to give children whole milk during their first two years of life because the fat helps with myelination. Chubby, is seems, is easier to fix than a slow-developing brain.

The last hope for slow-developing students is to be reading at grade level by third grade. Lucy Woodhouse, CEO of Black River United Way, says 30 percent of third-graders in Williamsburg and Georgetown counties can’t read to that standard. The United Way has committed $120,000 toward third-grade reading readiness this year.

Cynthia Bennett, assistant vice president of education and workforce for the S.C. Chamber of Commerce, says business leaders see the cost of re-educating high school graduates and want to take an active role in making things better. “They want an educated workforce,” Bennett said. The state spent $21 million last year on remediation for 41 percent of technical college students.

Bennett said the No. 1 issue for employers is developing highly competent workers. Eighty-five percent of jobs in the future will require training beyond high school. And it’s not just poor reading comprehension and math that’s holding the workforce of the future back, she said. It’s the soft skills like paying attention, being on time and making eye contact that open the door to the more important skills of critical thinking and problem solving. “Students who do not read on grade level by grade three,” Bennett said, “are four times more likely not to graduate.”

It isn’t the children’s fault, she said. Contributing factors include:

• 42 percent of the state’s children live in a single-parent household;

• 28 percent live at or below the federal poverty line;

• 14 percent have parents with less than a high school education;

• 13 percent are born to teen mothers;

• 10 percent are born with low birth weight.

“Those numbers are sad for South Carolina,” Bennett said. “There are ways to improve, beginning with stressing the importance of reading during the first five years of a child’s life.”

Bennett said $14 billion in new investment is coming to South Carolina, helping to create 146,000 jobs. The state’s workforce is growing 8 percent faster than the nation’s as a whole. “New jobs,” she said, “will require higher level skills.” The state won’t be able to lure industry with its reputation for low wages forever.

The state legislature has taken note and made early child care credits available to employers of low-income people. The problem, according to Bryan Boroughs of the S.C. Institute for Child Success, is that hardly anyone is aware of the funding. Top-rated child care costs $200 a week. Employers willing to cover part of that cost for at-risk employees get a credit on their state taxes for half of what they spend. “Last year statewide, business claimed only $60,000,” Boroughs said. “That’s absolutely nothing.” Even Ellis admitted she needed to learn more about child care credits available to employers.

Boroughs said legislators want to do the right thing. “They use their constituents as a proxy to gauge what’s important,” he said. “A dominant priority is an economic driver.”

Good employees with child care problems hurt business productivity, he said. “A third of working mothers,” he said, “have no regular place for young children to be while they are working. That’s terrible.” He said legislators are working on three fronts. “Reach Out and Read” provides books to doctors so they can encourage parents to read to infants. Georgetown County has been on the cutting edge of this trend with Miss Ruby’s Kids providing books and volunteer readers in schools. The “Reach Out and Read” books will be available to all children eligible for Medicaid. Nurses are visiting these same homes to educate parents, and First Steps is being reorganized to promote earlier learning.

The Pawleys Island Child Development Center will also add a classroom of earlier learners on its own. While the Early Head Start grant renovated part of the former magistrate’s office, volunteers from Pawleys Island Community Church upgraded the rest of the building. “We needed another classroom,” Reid said. “We didn’t think it would happen so soon.”

The American Academy of Pediatricians, Drosieko said, is making strides to help disadvantaged parents understand brain development. “Genes determine how the brain is wired,” she said, “but our experiences determine how we use and develop certain areas of the brain. I look at it as muscle memory.”

Drosieko said research has shown children with iron deficiencies don’t learn as well, so nutrition has an important place in early learning. “The key to jump starting these young minds,” she said, “are these programs. Studies show that when children have access to quality education they are healthier and do better in school. This builds healthier communities.”

Because of its high number of economically disadvantaged people, Georgetown County has qualified for funding for pre-kindergarten for 4- and 5-year-olds. There are 700 children in those public school programs, but the school district is beginning to build relationships with private day-care providers to foster even earlier learning. Fedrick Cohens, director of family literacy and early-childhood education for the Georgetown County School District, says the relationships are good. “We work closely with those day-care owners and child-care providers to make sure they are doing all they can do to help prepare children for those formal kindergarten learning experiences.”

Superintendent Randy Dozier said he would be happier if the centers ran the same curriculum-based program the public schools run. “It’s kind of like the B team football running the same plays as the varsity,” he said. “We support those programs.”

Head Start, Dozier said, is another issue of concern. It’s a huge program with waiting lists at all locations, and next year all its care-givers must be certified. “They are never going to make it,” he said. He would prefer to implement a system like Beaufort County’s where there is continuity at all ages. In Georgetown County, there is no requirement for a day-care center to provide a structured program. To improve, Boroughs said, a day-care must provide the “magic sauce” of face-to-face interaction.

The school district runs some programs for 3-year-olds, Dozier said. Parents in job training and the GED program can get free child care at the district office. Other young childrern get early exposure in summer programs. “There are tons of kids out there getting no service,” Dozier said. “Social interaction makes them more productive.”

Cohens said children benefit from early learning all the way to adulthood. “It improves our lives culturally and economically,” he said. “If we want the best opportunities for children from zero to 3 and on up, we’ve got to start early.”

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