Gates, state take lead on early learning

Leaders in government, business and philanthropy today will announce a new partnership aimed at preparing the state’s youngest children for success in school.

Gov. Christine Gregoire and William H. Gates Sr., of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, will lead the public-private partnership, called Thrive by Five: The Washington Early Learning Fund. The group will start with $9 million, with more funds added in the years to come.

The money will go toward staff training, parent education and support, and boosting the quality of existing preschool programs. For the most part, it will not pay for new child-care facilities.

But the partnership will fund early-learning centers in White Center and in another community yet to be named in Eastern Washington. Those two communities will serve as models for high-quality child care as the state moves forward with its focus on early learning.

The Puget Sound Educational Service District, a regional education agency that supports school districts, will run the initiative in White Center, where the early-learning center is expected to open in a couple of years. The goal is to educate all 3,000 of the community’s children from birth to age 5, through the center and other resources.

“It’s really like a dream come true,” said John Bancroft, of the educational service district.

Bancroft, who will direct the initiative, said the community needs more support for its children. Only about 25 percent of the White Center children eligible for subsidized preschool programs are being served, Bancroft said. And he said White Center suffers from a lack of affordable, high-quality child care.

Bob Watt, vice president of government and community relations at Boeing, said the state was once a leader in early learning and was among the first to create its own subsidized preschool program. Now, that program, called ECEAP (Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program) has not kept pace with demand, he said.

“I think it’s fair to say we’re behind many states,” said Watt, a board member of Thrive by Five.

The business community is supporting the early-learning effort, Watt said, because it’s seen as a sound investment in the future workforce. The economy needs creativity, imagination and discipline from its workers, he said, and some of those skills are learned in those early years.

According to a study by Harvard University professor Jack Shonkoff, chairman of the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, much of a child’s development takes place between birth and age 5. What they learn in that window can determine how they fare both in school and in life, says the study, which was prepared for Thrive by Five.

Children who come to kindergarten healthy, and with strong social and cognitive skills, are more likely to finish school, and less likely to be unemployed or commit crime, according to the 2004 Perry Preschool study, which spanned 40 years.

“The fact is that kids who start behind tend to stay behind,” said Greg Shaw, director of early learning for the Gates Foundation.

And yet in Washington, about half of children show up unprepared for school, according to a recent survey of the state’s kindergarten teachers. With the proper supports in place, experts say, the state could cut that number significantly.

“We know this,” said Watt, who co-chairs the Washington Early Learning Council. “We just have to choose to do something about it.”

The state started to gain momentum around early learning last summer. Gregoire declared early learning a priority, and the Legislature created the Early Learning Council. Earlier this month, at the recommendation of that council, the state opened a new Department of Early Learning, the first cabinet-level agency to be created in decades. The state also has introduced online tools to check the quality of child-care providers.

Gregoire spokeswoman Holly Armstrong said it was a huge boost to the state’s early-learning effort to see the Gates Foundation step in, and then to see other business leaders and philanthropists support the work.

“This is not something government can do alone,” Armstrong said.

After years of focusing on a K-12 initiative, the Gates Foundation announced in December it would invest up to $90 million in early learning over the next decade. The goal is to find and fund programs that work, and perhaps duplicate them elsewhere.

“It’s a significant investment, and, frankly, those investments are contingent on seeing progress and seeing improvement,” said Shaw. The project in White Center is particularly exciting to Shaw. The early-learning center will serve also as a hub for other child-care centers in the area and for parents educating their children at home.

But before any of that happens, Bancroft said, the Puget Sound Educational Service District must find out what kind of support parents want and need. It may be home visits from teachers. It may be a higher-quality child-care center.

For the next several months, staff members will meet with parents and community leaders to ask the question. They will then submit a community plan to Thrive by Five and other funders by the end of the year.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company