By Kate Santich, Orlando Sentinel
ORLANDO, Fla. — For Florida’s 1 million children growing up in poverty, kindergarten — and even pre-K — is too late to start giving them the help many will need to grow into capable, productive adults.
That’s the warning of a growing statewide effort to help parents and policymakers pay attention to the critical development years from birth through age 3.
“What’s most shocking to me is how soon the deficits show up,” says Vance Aloupis, statewide director of the Children’s Movement of Florida — a nonpartisan, grass-roots coalition pushing for increased investment in the first five years of a child’s life.
For children born into homes with few books and to parents whose own education may be limited, Aloupis says, “you can already begin to see deficits at 9 months old.” By that point, kids should make speechlike babbling sounds.
Researchers have known for decades that children’s brains begin to form about three weeks after conception. From that point to age three, brain growth is intense and unparalleled: 85 percent of the brain’s architecture is developed by age three, 90 percent by age five.
But the message has been slow to reach parents and caregivers — those who can take greatest advantage of that precious and short window. In Florida, where one in four children lives below the federal poverty line and one in nine lives in extreme poverty, child-welfare advocates say few options are available to low-income parents who need quality child care or help in knowing what to do on their own.
More than 35,000 Florida parents are on wait lists for state-subsidized child-care programs that emphasize social and academic development.
Meanwhile, the state’s universal pre-kindergarten program — overwhelmingly passed by voters and open to every four-year-old, regardless of family income — fails to meet seven of ten nationally recommended quality standards, such as child-to-teacher ratio and class size.
The situation is no better for the federal Early Head Start program, aimed at low-income infants and toddlers. It reaches about 4 percent of the children eligible, largely because of limited funds.
Karen Willis, CEO of Orange County’s Early Learning Coalition, said lawmakers have sent a mixed message.
“We have said there’s a substantial public interest in making sure all children in the state have access to voluntary pre-kindergarten,” she notes. “So why don’t we do that for birth to age three, particularly for very low-income children, when we know that the vast majority of brain development takes place in that time?”
On the other hand, Florida has one of the highest pre-kindergarten-enrollment rates in the nation: nearly 80 percent of four-year-olds participate. And in June, Governor Rick Scott signed into law a $54-per-student boost for the program — its first in six years.
There has been other progress, too. At Orlando’s BETA Center — a nonprofit that helps pregnant teens and young, at-risk families — moms and moms-to-be learn about nurturing their children’s development even before birth.
“I learned the earlier you start, the better,” says 20-year-old Danielle Brooks, who moved to the center ten months ago with her newborn daughter in hopes of bettering both their futures. She is already trying to make up for not reading aloud to her baby when she was pregnant by reading aloud nightly now — and asking her toddler questions on the subject matter.
“Even though she doesn’t seem like she pays attention sometimes, I know she’s listening and picking things up,” says Brooks, who takes a bus at dawn each weekday to Valencia College, where she’s studying to be a physician assistant. “I can see it in how she responds to me and how fast she is developing. It’s amazing.”
BETA’s president and CEO, Ruth Patrick, says the parenting classes not only aim to strengthen parent-child bonds, building emotional development, but to stimulate the child’s intellect.
“We know that waiting until pre-K is too late,” she says. “If children aren’t exposed to language and colors and sounds and patterns, if they don’t learn to play with others, they’re missing out in ways that make it very difficult to catch up later.”
Pastor Scott Billue, who runs the Matthew’s Hope homeless ministry in west Orange County, sees the consequences of that deprivation daily. And it’s why he’s working to open the Firm Foundation preschool this fall.
“We are seeing these children lacking physically, mentally, spiritually and socially,” Billue says. “We even see a lack of motor-skills development. When you eat everything from a bag while living in a car, you don’t even learn to hold a fork.”
In a matter of a few months, he has raised three-quarters of the $100,000 cost of the preschool’s first year, in part because of a $25,000 grant from Universal Orlando Foundation. The school will employ the Montessori education model, two teachers with psychology degrees and one with a master’s. It will not, Billue vows, be merely a baby-sitting service.
“As an education system and as a nation, if we are not careful, we will be raising the next generation of homeless people,” he says. “And I don’t want to be any part of that.”
Photo: Mastcharter via Flickr