Georgia district meets future students in cradle to prepare them for classroom

I wrote a few days ago about a longitudinal study of children enrolled in high-quality child care since birth. Nobel laureate and economist James Heckman said his study – which tracked the children to age 35 – found the window to raise IQ was birth to 3.

Earlier research by Heckman found preschool for 3-and 4-year-olds enhanced academic performance, but not IQ and cognitive ability. State pre-kindergartens target 4-year-olds, but the lasting IQ boost comes when programs start at infancy, said Heckman, explaining, “We found most of the growth in IQ in terms of cognitive skills has taken place by age 3."

The Heard County School System wants to capitalize on that window of opportunity. In this essay, Superintendent Rodney Kay explains how Heard is doing so with its Early Childhood Outreach Initiative, known as Baby Braves.  (The Heard County sports teams are the Braves.)

By Rodney Kay

We are a small school district about 40 miles southwest of Atlanta.  Mostly rural, we have a high number of economically disadvantaged children who attend our schools.

Disappointing state College and Career Ready Performance Index scores have led many districts to try to find the quick fixes, the low-hanging fruit to increase the score.  In my opinion, there is no quick fix.

Like all school systems in Georgia, Heard County has wrestled with the idea of improving student achievement. We have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on remediation programs, after-school tutoring, cram-and-slam study sessions and summer school. We have built remediation time into the daily schedules at most of our schools. Yet, we are still not satisfied with our results.

After lengthy discussions we came up with the following: High schools blame middle schools. Middle schools blame elementary schools. Elementary schools blame pre-K. Pre-K blames parents for not sending their kids to pre-K or for not having them ready when they arrive.

Here are some of the educational materials Heard County gives parents of babies.

I’m sure this blame game sounds familiar. Rather than spending remediation money at the high school, middle school, elementary school or pre-k levels to fix the problem, what if we spent the money reaching out to new parents and educating them on how to prepare their children for pre-K and school success?

What if we gave families books and other resources to engage in meaningful learning opportunities for their children?

What if  we connected these children and families to their elementary schools at birth and introduced them to their pre-K teachers four years in advance and hosted nights for them to get to know the school and the faculty?

We are doing just that.

The program is called Baby Braves, and each of the 156 children between birth and age 3 and their families living in our county have been personally contacted in their home by a representative of the school system.  At the meeting, we stress to families the importance of reading and having meaningful dialogue from day one with their child to help develop vocabulary. We emphasize to young parents the importance of putting down their phones and speaking/playing/interacting with their children. We explain the importance of getting to know their school administrators and faculty before they ever drop their child off for that first day of school.

The foundation has been laid. We have met with the parents in their homes and handed off the materials, and now we are preparing for our first big event -- the babies and their families are coming to the school.

Why bring a 1-year-old to the school?

  1. Meet/greet/fellowship with fellow toddlers for the potential to form play groups so the kids can begin to learn to interact with each other socially before coming to school.
  2. Meet/greet/fellowship with the administrators from their future elementary school.
  3. Meet/greet/fellowship with their future pre-K teacher. We hope the teachers will express face-to-face to parents the importance of their children having certain skills mastered before coming to school. We want parents to understand the importance of play and socializing with other children. We want to help them realize that engaging kids in technology doesn’t mean placing a child in front of an iPad or an iPhone for endless hours.

What if we improved children's readiness for reading before they ever entered our school doors?  What if we formed relationships with future students and their families in advance?

Resources are scarce everywhere. In Heard County, we believe it is more fiscally responsible to spend on prevention rather than trying to treat a problem 16 years down the road.

The success of this program will be measured in the year 2030 when our first Baby Braves are proudly walking across the high school stage. My prayer for those children is that we adults LEARN TO BE PATIENT ENOUGH TO SEE AN INITIATIVE ALL THE WAY THROUGH FROM BEGINNING TO END.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.