Originally created 06/30/03

City looks to Smart Start to discourage crime early



SAVANNAH, Ga. - Many think there is a strong connection between crime and education, or rather the lack of it.

In Savannah, which has had high crime rates and struggling schools in recent years, at least a few think the link is even stronger.

Some think that means an early start on education makes especially good sense here.

So when someone asked local United Way President Gregg Schroeder last year whether his organization could help fight crime by doing more to improve early childhood education, it made sense to him.

The timing was right.

This week, about 200 state officials, business leaders, service providers and educators will gather in Savannah to roll out Smart Start Georgia, a statewide initiative seeking to improve early childhood development.

The hope is that the sooner childhood-education and quality-of-life needs are met - even as early as just after birth - the more crime will be reduced.

State leaders rolling out Smart Start Georgia cite voluminous research on the benefits of early intervention in steering youth away from crime. The key premise is that learners become earners and that earners have the self-respect and independence that make criminal conduct less attractive. According to one study, $1 spent on education saves $7 on incarceration.

Advocates of the program say it's a risk-free investment but acknowledge that results won't be seen for years.

For the fiscal year starting Tuesday, Smart Start Georgia will receive $7.5 million from the state and $2.2 million from the Whitehead Foundation, an Atlanta-based charity.

The multiyear program will offer child-care providers financial incentives and help them improve their educational programs and services.

The United Way of the Coastal Empire will administer $425,000 in Smart Start funds this year through about 25 licensed child-care providers in the tri-county area.

To participate in the program, at least 25 percent of families served by providers must qualify as lower income through the Chatham County Department of Family and Children Services.

The program involves multiple state and private partners as well as leaders in business and early education.

The public-private partnership will be more effective than agencies working by themselves, said Charlotte Rehmert, the director of Chatham County DFCS. Working together, she said, the partners will leverage more resources and inspire wider and deeper commitments.

"Our families need this kind of support," she said. "To help families transition from welfare to work, they have to have quality child care."