Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Monday November 4th, 2013, 4:59pm

Report: Investments In Education During A Child's First 8 Years Of Life Crucial To Academic, Overall Success

A new national report argues that high-quality, early childhood programs that target the first eight years of a child's life, and include supports for parents lead to better success in school and adulthood. 

To help make its case, the report issued Monday by the Annie E. Casey Foundation highlighted a recent analysis of the Early Childhood Longitudinal study, which found just 36 percent of third graders had developed age-appropriate cognitive knowledge and skills. The longitudinal study started tracking 13,000 children who were enrolled in kindergarten during the 1998-1999 school year.

The newly-released analysis showed low-income and minority children were the furthest behind in meeting or exceeding the national average on math, reading and science assessments by the time they reached third grade.

Only 19 percent of third graders in families with incomes below 200 percent of the poverty line had met these cognitive knowledge and skills benchmarks, compared to 50 percent of third graders in families with higher annual earnings.

Additionally, just 14 percent of black children and 19 percent of Hispanic children met the cognitive milestones by third grade, compared to 48 percent of white children.

According to the Casey Foundation's report, young children who do not hit these crucial developmental targets often have problems catching up in school and graduating on time. It is also less likely for such children to attain the future financial success and stability needed to support their families, the report noted.

“These first eight years serve as a vital foundation for children’s success in school and later in work and life," Voices for Illinois Children President Gaylord Gieseke said in a statement in response to the new report. "Unfortunately, too many Illinois children don’t get off to a strong start due to economic, language and other barriers.”

In 2012, 44 percent of Illinois' nearly 1.5 million children, or 650,000, aged zero to eight were living in low-income households, according to the Casey Foundation's report, "The First Eight Years: Giving Kids a Foundation for Lifetime Success."

Low-income, black and Hispanic children also fared worse than higher-income and white children by the age of eight in areas involving social and emotional development, engagement in school and physical well-being, including an appropriate body weight and "excellent" or "very good" overall health.

“All children need nurturing and plentiful opportunities to develop during their crucial first eight years,” the Casey Foundation's President and CEO Patrick McCarthy said in a statement. “Today's complicated world can strain families' ability to ensure their children are receiving all the stimulation and care they need to develop to their full potential.”

The First Eight Years report offered some federal and state policy recommendations on how to better prepare children for success, also noting the need for more parental support that would assist them in providing better care to their children. The report also calls for increased access to high-quality programs for children ages zero to eight, starting with investments for low-income kids. Finally, states should create comprehensive, integrated strategies to "address all aspects of children's development and support their transition to elementary school and related programs for school-age children."

Gieseke said Illinois has made some major strides related to these policy suggestions.

Regarding parental supports, Illinois' Child Care Assistance Program, funded by the Illinois Department of Human Services, helps low-income, working families pay for child care. Home visiting programs such as Healthy Families Illinois and Parents Too Soon also offer a number of preventive and supportive services for at-risk and expectant families or those who already have young children.

Concerning high-quality early learning opportunities, Illinois' Early Intervention program provides a range of supports for families with children under the age three with diagnosed disabilities, developmental delays and for those who have a risk of significant delays.

In September, the Illinois State Board of Education also updated and enhanced its Illinois Early Learning and Development Standards for preschool, which was first published in 2002.

The state has also moved forward with developing comprehensive, integrated programs thanks to two federal Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grants awarded last year. The grant dollars are being used in part to help serve the most at-risk kids, improve early learning programs and achieve greater integration across various funding streams and agencies, among other efforts, according to Voices for Illinois Children.

Preschool programs can also significantly boost young children's development, especially for those in low-income families, the report noted.

Back in 2006, Illinois was the first state to set up a preschool for all program, now serving the most at-risk kids ages three and four.

But from 2009 to 2011, 55 percent of low-income Illinois children ages three to four were not attending any preschool program, compared to 39 percent of their more affluent counterparts, the report showed. Nevada had the highest number of low-income children, 78 percent, who were not enrolled in preschool during this time period, while New Jersey had the lowest non-enrollment figure at 45 percent.

Gieseke explained that the Great Recession and Illinois' continued fiscal issues "have stalled progress and eroded investments in early childhood programs."  

In fiscal year 2009, for example, more than 95,000 Illinois children were participating in state-funded preschool programs, but that number decreased to 74,000 children in fiscal year 2013 due to budget cuts, Gieseke said.

The report's authors stressed that states and the federal government should make early childhood programs that target young children and their parents a top priority.

"The findings in this policy report suggest that high-quality early childhood programs that include supports for families have a powerful and lasting impact on children as they progress through school and into adulthood," the report reads. "Now, we need to act on the national imperative. Every day that we delay is a day in the life of a child who could be benefiting from critical interventions." 

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