Charleston Gazette-Mail

A new school year is upon us, and too many children in the Mountain State's vast pockets of poor rural areas are not getting the essential learning skills they need to be ready for kindergarten and life. Without the foundation of a high-quality early education, they will likely never catch up to their wealthier peers, further cementing the achievement gap and continuing the cycle of poverty.

It is critical that state officials across West Virginia invest in early childhood education programs such as home visiting, child care, Head Start and preschool. They are the most effective way to lift children and families out of poverty.

This includes children like 2-year-old Elisabeth and her younger brother, Hudson, who used to live in a home without books. Their parents, Paul and Faith, were struggling readers who were self-conscious to read to their two young children. But the family's recent move to one of America's poorest counties — right here in West Virginia — would unexpectedly change that.

Paul and Faith, feeling isolated and alone in their new rural surroundings, actively sought support and guidance for their growing family. They enrolled in Save the Children's Early Steps to School Success program, which, through home visits, book exchanges and parenting groups, offers kids and families essential building blocks for language, literacy and numeracy skills. The program — a rare family resource in an area crippled by poverty — also helps equip parents like Paul and Faith with the skills to successfully support their children's growth and development.

Today, the young parents read with their children every chance they get, incorporating books into Elisabeth and Hudson's play, nap and bedtime routines, as well as during long trips to the store. "Daddy, I read you new moo cow story," Elisabeth said proudly, looking up at Paul on a recent afternoon.

In a state where one in four children grow up in poverty, many families do not have access to the type of programs that helped Paul and Faith build a culture of reading — and learning — in their home. Disadvantaged children who don't participate in high-quality early education programs are 50 percent more likely to be placed in special education, 25 percent more likely to drop out of school, 60 percent more likely to never attend college, 70 percent more likely to be arrested for a violent crime and 40 percent more likely to become a teen parent.

High-quality early learning programs also save taxpayers money in the long run. Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman's 2016 findings show the rate of return on investments in early childhood development for disadvantaged children can be 13 percent per child per year, attributable to improved outcomes in education, health, sociability and economic productivity.

At the start of every school year, we see the positive impact early education programs like home visiting has in our school districts. Our partnership with Save the Children and its home visiting program has helped fill our classrooms with children who are ready for kindergarten and beyond on day one of class. We can help close the achievement gap in our state and break the cycle of poverty if we continue to invest in high-quality early childhood education programs for more children like Elisabeth and Hudson — children who can go from a world without books to one with a bright future.

Joan Haynie is the assistant superintendent of Clay County Schools, and Kelli Whytsell is the superintendent of Calhoun County Schools.

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