Danae Columbus: Louisiana must commit more resources to early-childhood education

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Center for Developmental Learning vice president Frank Williams, Chair Holly Sharpe, speaker Dr. Tim Shanahan and Lusher CEO Kathy Riedlinger at a symposium Wednesday on the importance of early literacy. (photo by Danae Columbus for UptownMessenger.com)

Danae Columbus

Danae Columbus, opinion columnist

With an overall enrollment of more than 1700 students, Lusher Charter School CEO Kathy Riedlinger understands the importance of her students developing strong reading skills at an early age. That’s why Riedlinger, her elementary principal and two other Lusher leaders attended a symposium yesterday hosted by the Center for Development and Learning (CDL), a non-profit whose mission is to improve the life chance of all children, especially those at high risk.

National reading expert Dr. Tim Shanahan, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago and Founding Director of UIC’s Center for Literacy, told attendees that literacy has a strong impact on overall academic achievement. “Literacy also affects health, social participation, civic involvement and economic wellbeing,” Shanahan explained. Only 29 percent of Louisiana third graders read on grade-level, according to the Business Roundtable.

Research shows that third graders who test below average on literacy skills never catch up. “Low literacy is a self- isolating factor,” said Shanahan, a former first grade teacher and author of more than 200 publications on literacy. “These students are less likely to belong to professional organizations and are less active in church and athletic activities. They pull back to protect themselves,” he said. Shanahan told attendees that the amount of quality instruction a child receives is the single most important determinant in developing strong language and reading skills. Furthermore, early literacy is the key to helping the most vulnerable, least advantaged students get better prepared to succeed in school and life.

Louisiana has not done a good job of ensuring the state’s children – especially economically disadvantaged kids – are prepared to enter kindergarten. A lack of affordable, public child care programs for those ages birth to 4 is holding them back. Louise Stoney, co-founder of the Alliance for Early Childhood Finance and the Opportunities Exchange, recently told the state’s Early Childhood Care and Education Commission that Louisiana should improve services to these families, despite the state’s ongoing financial crisis. Earlier this year, State Rep. Stephanie Hilferty, herself a young mother, authored legislation that created the 38-member Commission. It is addressing access and quality of child care services, possible support by government and funding options – all for children from birth to 4 years of age.

Only 27 percent of children from birth to age 2 from poor families in Louisiana participate in public child care programs, such as the Head Start programs operated in New Orleans by Total Community Action. Participation increases to 35 percent for eligible 3 year-olds and to 93 percent of 4 year-olds. Clearly, more affordable child care slots much be made available for the youngest demographic. Yet, per-child costs are higher to serve that demographic. Therein lie the problem in finding the resources to create the affordable slots working families need.

Louisiana’s families must have more child care services because a majority of Louisiana mothers return to work within their child’s first year. A lack of available, affordable child care also causes many Louisiana parents to turn down a job promotion, seek part-time status or even quit working.

Dr. Shanahan and other literacy experts agree that the earlier a child is immersed in a structured learning environment, the more academic and life success the child will achieve. U.S. companies are experiencing a “skills gap” that will only become more acute and the economy continues to expand in the next 15 years, according to the Business Roundtable. More than 90% of Business Roundtable CEOs report that current skills shortages present a problem and predict greater demand for more highly educated workers over the next decade.

Learning to read is an integral part of the quality early childhood education every Louisiana child deserves. Instilling a joy of learning at the earliest age possible will build stronger families in the next generation.

“Early childhood literacy sets the foundational skills for children for a lifetime,” said Riedlinger. “The importance of early literacy cannot be stressed enough, with study after study showing how these skills contribute to a child’s future academic success. In an age where computers and phones are so easily accessible, we see the importance, now more than ever, of teaching our early learners that reading can be just as engaging and fun.”

Danae Columbus, who has had a 30-year career in politics and public relations, offers her opinions on Thursdays. Her career includes stints at City Hall, the Dock Board and the Orleans Parish School Board and former clients such as District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, City Council members Stacy Head and Jared Brossett, City Councilwoman-elect Helena Moreno, Foster Campbell, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, former Sheriff Charles Foti and former Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell.

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