As we conclude this month focused on beginnings, I am struck by the renewed interest in early childhood programs. In 1966, I began my career as a teacher in one of the very first Head Start day care centers, housed in the Plymouth Settlement House in Louisville KY. It was a quality program that changed the lives of the 3- and 4-year old children enrolled in our center. Those 45 children had an exciting learning environment, committed teachers, good food, and a safe place for a nap. Field trips and stories were the order of the day. Language skills blossomed, and curiosity was nurtured. I saw first hand how much an age-appropriate quality educational program can mean to young children as well as their families.
In this month of beginnings, universal access to pre-kindergarten programs was focused on in the State of the Union address, as well as in the NY Governor’s State of the State message. In our push to see that every child has the opportunities a sound education can bring, we ask, will this make a difference? My experience suggests that it will not unless it is followed by a quality K-12 education. As they turned 5 years old, my students left our center with its full day, 11-month educational program. I was horrified when I realized that they would then be enrolled in half-day, 9-month kindergarten classes in a school with many broken windows, and few resources, with teachers who were not supported with books and field trips, art supplies and science equipment. I feared that everything we had accomplished would deteriorate in this new environment. Since then, when I have thought of my students who would now have turned 50, I wonder what happened to them? Was their beginning truly a beginning? Or was it the end?
Much of what has been touted as education reform over the past decade has focused only on ends in the form of test scores. Individual accountability for students and staff is the order of the day. Head Start is criticized because it didn’t change the future. But true beginnings require continuity into the future, and this requires teams of educators and parents building on the beginnings and believing that they can only be successful if they collaborate. No teacher or parent is an island, solely responsible for any outcome. I was a better teacher because I worked with a team. We collaborated with parents, visiting in their homes and inviting them into the center. In the public schools I worked in and to which I sent my children and grandchild, classroom teachers and special educators worked side by side. Art and music teachers were as important as math and reading teachers. Everyone had a role to play, and we are all successful when a child was successful and happy in learning.
So what is a beginning? Is it a starting place, a place to build on? If we don’t build together, then all these beginnings will be dead ends.
How will you build on a beginning in your community, in your life?