One year after starting early childhood education at Indian Oasis Elementary School in Sells, 87 percent of students met or exceeded expected growth in language arts, 78 percent did in math, the program doubled in size, and earned a three-star Quality First school rating.
Teachers provide a caring environment, high expectations, align Creative Curriculum to Arizona’s College and Career-Ready Standards and develop ways to help students who did not master a concept at 80 percent or better, said Dr. Edna Morris, principal of the school in the Baboquivari Unified School District.
“We have waiting lists for our program through the word of mouth that has spread among the (Tohono O’odham) nation based on the growth our 4-year-olds have been able to accomplish,” Morris said.
Early education is a critical issue in Arizona, because of “our increasing number of children ages 0 to 5, growth of children in foster care and consistently low education rankings compared to other states,” said Tara Jackson, president of Arizona Town Hall.
In November, more than 170 Arizonans – business leaders, educators, judges, economists, health officials, nurses, parents, community leaders, school board members, city council members, nonprofit leaders, attorneys, and student leaders – discussed early childhood education during an Arizona Town Hall and developed recommendations for sustainable funding, consistent standards, collaboration and coordination, outreach, recruitment and development of educators and calls to action for Arizonans. The recommendations are being publicly released this week.
“Everybody has a stake in early childhood education,” said Anne B. Rawlings with First Things First’s Yavapai Regional Partnership Council. “When children are given the resources they need during those first five years, statistics show they do better in school, the workforce later on, and become more contributing citizens. That affects everybody.”
“The need to invest more in impactful programs, including restoring funding to all-day kindergarten, was probably the most consistent and loudest cry (from Town Hall participants),” Jackson said.
Investments in early education yield a high public return and benefits remain into adulthood, according to Rob Grunewald of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis who presented at the Arizona Town Hall. Studies show that for every $1 spent on early education, there are $5 to $15 in benefits over time, including significantly higher earnings and lower welfare costs, Grunewald noted.
“We spend now to invest in children’s future. We don’t see the results immediately,” Jackson said. “We need to look out for all Arizona children as we do for our own. It’s a good economic decision.”
Pima County Superior Court Judge Richard Gordon who attended the Arizona Town Hall said early childhood education “becomes especially important in Child Protective Services or foster care cases because we’re dealing with a very fragile segment of our society.”
Early childhood education provides these children with the tools they need going forward, and “one of the only stable parts of their life – a place to go every day that doesn’t change,” said Gordon, who serves on the Juvenile bench.
“When they can go to school and see their friends, see their teachers, and see that part of their life not changing – with great role models in that part of their life – I think it’s important,” Gordon said. “I try so hard, if at all possible, to not let that part of their life change.”
Parents seek high-quality early education, but in rural areas those programs may be hard to find or their child may not be eligible, said Roxanne Thomas, who is a stay-at-home mother to her two-year-old son in Kayenta on the Navajo Nation.
“I believe that I can do a better job at educating my son during these very important crucial years,” Thomas said.
“It would be challenging to find someone in my area who could teach my son baby signing, the Dine language, apply Montessori Methods, use restitution as a means of discipline and more,” Thomas said. “There are no services in our community that would be able to teach him this at his current age, so we had to take the initiative.”
Thomas’ desire to teach her son other languages early could help his development. Dual-language learners develop executive functions – predictors for success like staying on task and thinking outside the box – much faster than others and increase their processing speed, noted Dr. Adele Diamond, keynote speaker at the Arizona Town Hall and a University of British Columbia professor of developmental cognitive neuroscience.
The Bureau of Indian Education FACE Home Base program provides one visit a month from a parent educator for children from birth to 2 ½ years, Thomas said.
“In Arizona there’s very little early education available until a child is 3 years old,” Rawlings said. “In the last few years it’s getting a little better, but our outlying areas are woefully short.”
At 3 years old, children can apply to Kayenta Unified School District’s ABC program, Navajo Nation Head Start, or attend Kayenta Community School’s Center Base classroom four days a week for six hours a day with an adult attending class too, Thomas said.
Access to more high-quality programs that proceed at children’s pace are available to all children, remain affordable and are not income-based would help parents, especially in rural areas, Thomas said.
In Sells, Morris attributes their program’s success to their four highly-qualified teachers and paraprofessionals, parents who volunteer in classrooms and collaborate with food service and transportation, their superintendent and the business office.
“It does take an entire village to raise a child,” Morris said.
Eleven early education outreach programs are planned statewide in coming months to educate, engage and empower Arizonans, Jackson said.
“The programs give community members an opportunity to engage with each other in a constructive way to identify local issues and create solutions that they will follow through on,” Jackson said.
One group might partner with their Chamber of Commerce to offer books and educational toys in stores so children can learn area while parents shop, while another might contact elected representatives to urge them to make policy changes, Jackson said.
“The potential actions can be big or small and will vary by person and community,” Jackson said. “Together they add up.”