Why investing in early learning pays huge dividends

Just a few weeks ago, former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan addressed a packed conference hall of Leadership Florida attendees. As a member of Education Class III and a big cheerleader for public education, I was eager to hear what he had to say.

A quiet hush hung over the room as nearly 500 people listened intently.

Secretary Duncan is the author of, “How schools work — an inside account of the failure and success from one of the nation’s longest-serving secretaries of education.” Sitting up straight, holding my pen tight, I hung on his every word. In rapid-fire succession, he confirmed what my board and I believed to be true.

For a moment I felt completely defeated. Like many, including our stakeholders and donors, there is nothing we wouldn’t do to help our students and teachers. Then, just as I tried to digest the dark statistics, I was encouraged again by Secretary Duncan’s words.

“The greatest payout in early learning is the development of social emotional skills. It has a lasting effect on a child’s life. Just look at incarceration rates.”

Caught in a reflective moment, I remembered how our board made a bold step to leverage public-private partnerships to fund a summer bridge program for 4- and 5-year-old children who had completed a Voluntary Pre-K program. The six-week educational experience reduces the summer slide for some of our most vulnerable learners who will be entering kindergarten at a Title I school.

The STEP into Kindergarten program has increased social and emotional skills and early learning thanks to incredible teachers, who return every year to the program, and the school principals who support it on their campuses.

STEP into Kindergarten teachers like Julie Wright explain, “I can tell you as a teacher that has been involved since the second year of the program — it really does make a huge difference. The children from the program come in with an added confidence and comfort from having that extra preparation. It is also nice to be able to have many of those students in the class so they already know me as a teacher and have that comfort level.”

In closing, Secretary Duncan summarized and reflected why our organization is committed to opening doors to student success: “We are not preparing students for a specific job. We are preparing them for volatility and change.”

Click here to learn more about the Education Foundation of Indian River County and STEP into Kindergarten.

Cynthia Falardeau is chief executive officer of the Education Foundation of Indian River County. 

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