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Editorial: Smart Start a good investment

Helping families

Ashley Honeycutt of Salisbury Pediatric Associates shares a book with 4-year-old Wyatt Graham in Smart Start's 'Reach Out and Read' program.

Ashley Honeycutt of Salisbury Pediatric Associates shares a book with 4-year-old Wyatt Graham in Smart Start’s ‘Reach Out and Read’ program.

North Carolina’s Smart Start program has proved to be a keeper. Statewide, the early childhood program is 23 years old. Locally, Rowan Smart Start recently celebrated 20 years of helping local children and families.

Going forward, will the program also be able to celebrate better resources?

State funding for Smart Start has gone from $231 million in 2000-01 to $147 million in 2014-15. Many things changed in North Carolina over that time, but a shrinking need for early childhood help was not one of them. The population went from 8 million to 10 million, and poverty grew from 13.1 percent to 17.2 percent.

The state has been growing and, unfortunately, so has poverty.

Children are the hardest hit when families struggle to survive. Several studies have found that inadequate nutrition, housing problems, exposure to violence and other stresses hamper brain development at the very time children’s brains should be growing and developing the fastest. As a result, kindergarten teachers encounter students who are unable to read their names, recognize letters of the alphabet, count from 1 to 10, hold a book properly or use scissors.

“If you miss out on what you can learn your first five years of life, some children don’t ever catch up,” longtime educator Martha West said recently after receiving  the Shirley P. Ritchie Champion for Young Children Award at Smart Start Rowan’s 20th anniversary celebration.

Smart Start helps children get a strong start in life. A network of partnerships covering all 100 counties, Smart Start focuses on children from birth to age 5, working to improve early education and support services. That includes Smart Start Rowan.

In 2014-15, for example, 607 home visits to 91 families provided Rowan County parents with education and support on how to be their child’s first and most important teacher. Eighty-one local workshops were offered to improve child-care professionals’ knowledge and skills. NC Pre-K and Public Pre-K provided high-quality experiences to 386 4-year-olds at 19 sites in Rowan.

Researchers at The Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University concluded that Smart Start and NC Pre-K increased third-grade reading and math end-of-grade scores and reduced special education placements.

Helping families in need make the most of their children’s first five years should be a top priority. The surest road out of poverty is a good education. When children start out behind, though, the road can be rough and incomplete. North Carolina can do better than that.

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