Education

Reaching parents fast with early education message is key

The 3-year-old Pre-K class at Weis Elementary School in 2016. Credit: Shannon Nickinson.

If preschool enrollment is the new frontier that America must face on the road to economic prosperity, there’s some bad news from the front.

We are behind the competition — far behind.

The authors of Cradle to Kindergarten say that 55 percent of the nation’s 3- and 4-year-olds attend a formal preschool.

In Mexico, it’s 64 percent; in China, it’s 75 percent; in the United Kingdom, it’s 91 percent; Austria, France, Japan, Israel and South Korea all outpace the U.S. in this measurement.

The cost of care is certainly part of the reason why.

Care.com is estimates that childcare in Florida on average takes up 29 percent of a median family’s income. Nationally, it’s 31 percent. This Florida parent can tell you that childcare was nearly the equivalent of the mortgage payment in our monthly income, especially for those years under age 3.

The Studer Community Institute’s Pensacola Metro Dashboard uses the median single-parent family’s income in our area as the basis of its cost of childcare metric. (Some 38 percent of families in Escambia County are led by single parents, U.S. Census data tells us.)

Considering the average cost of care for an infant and a toddler in our county, childcare consumes 49 percent of a single parent’s income.

So when you run the numbers, it’s no wonder that in families where money is tight, the options for high quality preschool shrink.

Fast.

But opting out of a preschool experience is shortchanging our 3- and 4-year-olds at a time when they need a great educational environment most.

Data from the Florida Office of Early Learning shows that only 63 percent of Escambia County’s 4-year-olds are enrolled in the free, voluntary prekindergarten program that is their constitutional right.

That’s a gap of 1,319 children.

That participation rate puts Escambia County 51st out of 67 counties in Florida.

Among 17 peer counties (with a population of 309,000 and 165,000), 16 that have higher participation rates also have higher kindergarten readiness rates. Collier County, which has a higher participation rate has a readiness rate of 65 percent, one percentage point less than ours.

A Washington Post story about the book, “Cradle to Kindergarten,” highlights the economic issue this poses for us as a nation.

Studer Community Institute can shed some light on what it means for just this slice of Northwest Florida. Overall, 66 percent of our kindergarteners were ready for school based on the most recently available data.

Data from the Florida Office of Early Learning tells us that 80 percent of Escambia County children who go to preschool are ready for kindergarten when the time comes to start school. Half of the children who don’t go to preschool are ready for school.

That’s a big problem.

For the children who are among those who aren’t ready for school, the problem is deeply personal.

Those children will get it almost immediately.  Their classmates know things that they don’t. They will know the feeling that some of their friends got something special — and they didn’t. They will have the feeling that they aren’t good enough or smart enough.

Some of them will be able to catch up; but many won’t. That opens them up to a world of academic struggles, diminished expectations, fewer job prospects and fewer chances to build a good life for themselves — and for the future children they may have.

That’s why the work of the Studer Community Institute is so important.

From the Brain Bag lessons new moms and dads are getting in the first 48 hours of parenthood to the parent outreach classes we are hosting at childcare centers and housing campuses in the community, we are preaching the gospel of early learning.

Since the Brain Bags began rolling out, more than 1,800 moms have been given a lesson in the importance of early brain development before they even left the hospital. They also left that hospital with some of the tools they’ll need to begin that great construction project — building their child’s brain.

We helped two of moms in our Parent Outreach Program register their children for preschool this week. We helped another child enroll in kindergarten at Global Learning Academy.

They may seem like small steps.

But that’s the only way we know to begin the journey of 1,000 miles. One step, one child, one family at a time.

And that’s why we want you to walk those miles with us.