Laura Ofobike

I was watching a gymnastics competition on television, admiring the strength of those tight and incredibly lithe bodies when something caught my ear from the chatter of the commentators. Someone was saying how young they start training, how long and hard, and how important it was that they developed early the correct posture, techniques and so on.

Catch them young, and good habits learned early become second nature. That would go for a great many other endeavors besides gymnastics and sports, I thought. Like school.

As scientists find out more about the human brain and the phenomenal mental and emotional growth that occurs from birth through age 5, it becomes more apparent that early training, purposeful stimulation in the use of the mind, is a moral obligation that is every bit the responsibility of parents as of the community.

Not to suggest for a second that early childhood education is some novel concept. Rather, the fascinating thing is how the new understanding is changing how and when children are prepared for structured learning. Few people would argue seriously anymore that first grade is early enough for structured learning and kindergarten is not essential.

The growth of pre-K enrichment programs further shows the growing appreciation of what we gain if we can “catch them early” and what we lose if we do not. It stands to reason that policymakers now talk about education as a cradle-to-career, if not a cradle-to-grave, system.

But early childhood education is that part of the education continuum that garners a multitude of fine words but little respect in terms of resources. Listen as policymakers count off the benefits to society in providing all children good early education, particularly children whose homes and neighborhoods do not expose them enough to the positive experiences that stimulate mental, emotional and social growth:

In Ohio, every dollar spent on early childhood yields a10 percent return on investment every year, said state officials applying for a federal grant in 2011. Upfront costs reduce bigger costs downstream. Put up the effort and money for effective early education, and you narrow the skills and achievement gaps and reduce the need for remediation, retention and dropout programs later. You lower the social and economic costs of high rates of adult illiteracy, joblessness, incarceration and poverty.

These are some of the reasons that should compel — and increasingly are compelling — communities to forge extensive partnerships to fill in the gaps, expanding access to learning opportunities where families and neighborhoods cannot afford them.

Take the Early Childhood Initiative the Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority launched in 2007. The housing authority practically serves as landlord to roughly 3,000 children under age 5, about 10 percent of that age cohort in Summit County (which would make a good-sized suburban school district).

With that many children in its sphere of influence, so to speak, the agency has used the access to homes and residents to build trust and to develop activities and programs that prepare toddlers for a smooth transition to school. Parents as Teachers, an evidence-based curriculum that is one component of the initiative, helps parents understand child development and how to engage their children in learning activities. Monthly family events organized around educational themes have helped build a supportive environment for discussing early education issues.

In the economically depressed Summit Lake neighborhood, a $4 million federal award to AMHA is funding construction of the Summit Lake Family Opportunity Center, which will have space for two kindergarten and four Head Start classes, along with adult education and job-readiness programs.

Collaborations among the authority, a variety of county agencies and schools are helping put a floor of opportunity underneath children who otherwise lack those advantages. But none of it is cheap, and grant money runs out all too fast. As Gov. John Kasich prepares to unveil a new education budget, it remains to be seen how much respect early education really commands.

Ofobike is the Beacon Journal chief editorial writer. She can be reached at 330-996-3513 or by email at lofobike@thebeaconjournal.com.