Bright from the Start: Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning is committed to nurturing Georgia’s youngest children, keeping them safe and healthy and enriching their lives. Early education is valuable and critically important because a child’s most significant brain development occurs in the first five years and forms the basis for future learning.
DURING A RECENT visit to Augusta, I saw firsthand how parents, providers, teachers, the faith community and local officials share this interest in helping our children build a solid educational foundation. During my visit I had the privilege of meeting with state Rep. Wayne Howard, state Sen. Hardie Davis and Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver. I visited Augusta Technical College, visited with Paine College Provost Dr. Samuel Sullivan and a three-star Quality Rated child care program at Georgia Regents University. I also had the pleasure of reading to pre-kindergarten classes at Wheeless Road Elementary School.
This year marks the 21st anniversary of Georgia’s Pre-K Program, recently ranked by the National Institute for Early Education Research as one of the top state programs in the nation based on quality standards, teacher qualifications and enrollment. The program is funded by the Georgia Lottery, and I assure you that this year’s allocation of approximately $312 million is more than money well-spent; it is an investment in the future of our state.
BUT DOES IT work? Researchers at the FPG Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill recently issued their report from the first phase of a pre-K longitudinal study that will continue to follow these students over a number of years. This study, requested by the Georgia Legislature, measured child outcomes and classroom quality and identifies areas of strengths and challenges. Children in the program, on average, showed significant gains in language, math and behavioral skills. The full report can be found at decal.ga.gov/BftS/EvaluationGAPreKProgram.aspx.
We are proud of the newly revised Georgia Early Learning and Development Standards for children from birth to age 5. Researchers agree that learning through play, or experiential learning, is the best way to teach children to age 5. Likewise, many of our middle and high schools are discovering that their pupils learn more and perform better through applied learning experiences, rather than the traditional method of teaching children sitting in rows of desks that many of us experienced.
While Georgia’s Pre-K Program is extremely important to the child and valuable for the state, many children will enter Georgia pre-K already behind. Decades of research show that tremendous amounts of learning, probably the most of any period of their life, happens between birth and age 3, before a child ever steps into a Georgia pre-K classroom.
As such, it is vitally important that we improve the quality of the early learning experiences in all child care settings serving approximately 375,000 of Georgia’s youngest learners on a daily basis. While in Augusta, I learned that, unfortunately, many students entering kindergarten this year will have had no experience in a child care setting or in a Georgia’s Pre-K classroom.
QUALITY RATED, Georgia’s new system to assess, improve and communicate the level of quality in early care and education programs, was launched to parents July 1. It is, by design, a voluntary system now embraced by more than 1,300 child care programs in Georgia, more than 23 percent of the industry.
Similar to rating systems for other service industries such as restaurants and hotels, Quality Rated uses one, two or three stars to indicate early care and education programs that meet a set of standards exceeding the state’s minimum licensing requirements. My strong belief is that as parents learn more about Quality Rated and ask their child care programs about it, the marketplace will drive greater interest and participation, even without making the program mandatory or becoming a burden on the industry.
It’s really a no-brainer. Simply by participating in Quality Rated, child care programs become eligible for free professional development, technical assistance and financial incentive packages supported by funding from foundations and businesses. Once a child care program receives its star rating, they receive tiered bonuses, determined by their level of quality, through the state/federal reimbursements they receive from Georgia’s Childcare and Parent Services Program, which provides subsidized child care for low-income working families.
What can you and the families in the CSRA do to help? Go to our website at www.qualityrated.org and help us spread the word about this vitally important initiative. Even better, families should ask their child care providers, “Are you Quality Rated?” And if not, ask, “Why not?”
GEORGIA’S PRE-K program, started by former Gov. Zell Miller, was put on a sound financial footing for the future two years ago through the wise leadership of Gov. Nathan Deal and our legislators across the state. This was accomplished using only lottery revenues, with no additional taxes required. Likewise, Gov. Deal’s newest initiative to improve the quality of early childhood education, Quality Rated, is designed to ensure that we make the most of every learning opportunity for our children and send them to kindergarten ready to read and succeed. Again, this effort has been accomplished with no new taxes and with private investments in excess of $6 million during its first two years.
All Georgians can be proud that our state is a national leader in early childhood education and care. Georgia’s pre-K program and Quality Rated will continue to help ensure the best future for our children and our state.
Thank you again, Augusta, for your hospitality during my visit.
(The writer is commissioner of Bright from the Start: Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning.)