Early Childhood Years Imperative

Virginia Secretary of Commerce and Trade Jim Cheng
Four of Gov. Bob McDonnell’s cabinet secretaries joined a retired general, two legislators and almost 200 business and community leaders for a summit at The Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen last month – but the focus wasn’t “business as usual.”

Instead of discussing bottom lines and economic indicators, participants studied diagrams of the human brain and statistics on early child development and attended break-out sessions about preschool access and child care subsidies. Speakers – who included Gerard Robinson and William A. Hazel, Jr., MD, state secretaries of education and health and human resources – zeroed in on topics such as child health and preschool quality.

And when Terrie L. Suit, assistant to the governor for commonwealth preparedness, shared good news via videotape from the U.S. Department of Defense, it wasn’t about a military installation or the base realignment program.

Instead, Suit’s announcement highlighted Virginia’s status as one of 13 states recently chosen to participate in a nationwide pilot partnership providing military families with quality early childhood programs.

Why were generals, cabinet members and high-powered business leaders talking about infant and toddler brains and pre-K education?

It makes perfect sense, said Jim Cheng, secretary of commerce and trade for the commonwealth; early education is a workforce issue.

Readiness for school is essential for success in school, said Cheng, and well-equipped students act as springboards to workforce development and economic growth.

Retired Brigadier General John W. Douglass went a step further.

Readiness for school, said Douglass, has become a national security issue as well.

A Great Resource
Cheng, who spoke at an Oct. 20 kick-off breakfast attended by state delegates Betsy Carr and Joe Morrissey, came to promote VaJobOne. An initiative of the summit sponsor, the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation, the coalition of business leaders has embraced school readiness as a tool for workforce development and seeks to advance early childhood initiatives and shape public policy accordingly.

Born in Taiwan and a world traveler since youth, Cheng emphasized the global nature of economic competition, described visits to manufacturing plants and the growing demand for skilled technicians, and underscored the need to inspire more youth to pursue engineering and science careers.

“If we lose them,” said Cheng, “we lose a great resource, and may lose the competition against the world.”

Referring to studies that have established a rate of return of up to $16 for every dollar spent on early childhood education, Cheng said, “As a businessman, I’ll take a 16-to-one return.”

Demographic Surprise
One of 90 retired military leaders who has taken up the cause of early childhood education through the organization Mission Readiness, Douglass recalled that as an active general, he focused on such concerns as weapons development and worried about “technological surprise.”

“But what’s happening to us now,” he warned, “is we’re coming up on a demographic surprise.”

When he graduated college in 1963, said Douglass, 70 percent of prospective recruits qualified for the military. Today only 25 percent would qualify – even though the pool now includes males and females. The three most common barriers for potential recruits are failure to complete high school, criminal records, and physical fitness issues such as obesity.

“So if we had a draft today,” he said, “only 10 to 15 percent of males would be eligible.”
Once the nation gets behind the demographic curve, it becomes very difficult to catch up, added Douglass. Yet if current trends continue and thousands of disadvantaged preschoolers arrive at Virginia kindergartens unready to learn, only three in ten of those at-risk preschoolers will eventually graduate high school.

“And that,” said Douglass, “is unacceptable.”

Prescription for Health Kids
In a presentation by Colleen Kraft, M.D., associate professor of pediatrics at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, summit participants learned about just one disadvantaged preschooler – a little girl named Lia seen by Kraft in her practice – and how early intervention helped turn her around after a poor start in life.

Such intervention is crucial, said Kraft, because of what is known about brain development in the preschool years; research tells us that by age five, the brain achieves at least 85 percent of its development.

But without better access to quality health care and education in those early years, she lamented, too few children will be reached in time as Lia was.

“I can write a prescription for Amoxicillin for an earache, and can get it filled in any pharmacy,” Kraft said.

“But what I want to be able to write is a prescription for a positive social-emotional development program, and have it filled in a child care center. I want to write a prescription for an obesity prevention program and have it filled at a preschool. I want to write a prescription for healthy mother-child interaction and have it filled by a home visitor.

“These are the prescriptions,” said Kraft, “that need to be filled if your goal is healthy child development.”

In his keynote, Tom Chewning, VECF board chairman and former executive vice president of Dominion, summed up that early childhood education is “more than just good will. It has moved from a moral imperative to a national health issue, and a military and national security concern.”

He noted that some 15 percent of Virginia students arrive at kindergarten unequipped with what they need to succeed and already at risk of becoming drop-outs.

“If you were a farmer,” said Chewning grimly, “and you lost 15 percent of your crop every year, you wouldn’t last long.”

Why Can’t We?
More than one speaker at the conference noted that Virginia has long lagged behind other states in early childhood initiatives, and that the issue has become far too politicized.

“Red states are doing it,” said Paul Hirschbiel, immediate past chair of VECF. “Blue states are doing it. This is a nonpartisan issue.”

VECF President Scott Hippert expressed frustration that Virginia is still “creeping along” in comparison to other states.

“Why can’t we do this?” said Hippert. “We know for every dollar [invested] we’re going to make or save 16. So what is the problem? When does Virginia start investing?”

But Hippert also said he was encouraged by attendance at the summit, and by the enthusiastic participation from political leaders and members of the business community.

“We’ve had four cabinet secretaries at the seminar; our foundation board has five members of the General Assembly,” said Hippert. “We had two legislators at breakfast. The state’s commerce department is on our side – that’s pretty incredible. And the Department of Defense is with us.”

Chewning echoed Hippert’s assessment that awareness of the issue is growing.

“We’re beginning to see a real recognition of the need to invest more and smarter – that this is not a short-term issue, it’s a perennial issue. It’s taking a life and developing it to the fullest potential,” said Chewning. “No business is more important to the state of Virginia than this one.”

“Early childhood development,” reiterated Hippert, “is the engine that drives education, which drives prosperity, which drives the work force, which drives the national security.

“We have to stimulate brains at a very young age. [When we do], we will save this state millions, if not billions of dollars -- while helping Virginia’s kids.”
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September 2017
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