Early-childhood education has new meaning

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D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s administration is preparing to be the county’s role model for early-childhood education through programs for children as young as 6 months.

Education officials are working on a partnership that builds on universal pre-kindergarten in the District and leverages the abilities of community-based organizations that formerly ran pre-K programs.

The city is calling on the community groups to re-focus their expertise to children younger than 3, although the program differences and higher costs than pre-K could pose challenges, officials said. As part of a multiyear effort, the administration is working with D.C. Public Schools and the Office of the State Superintendent for Education to figure out which organizations can serve as effective partners and how much financial assistance the city can give to the programs.

“This is the very, very beginning,” an administration official said on background, noting that no one is authorized to provide official comment at this stage. “This is about laying out a framework and laying out a charge.”

The first several years of a child’s life are considered the most important for brain development and should ensure greater success in later grades, officials said.

When he was D.C. Council chairman, Mr. Gray pushed legislation in 2008 that expanded the city’s educational offerings to 3- and 4-year-olds, coinciding with a national trend to serve students before they reach kindergarten. The pre-K offerings became popular and were cited as part of the reason why some parents from neighboring states sneak their children into D.C. schools without paying tuition.

Mr. Gray focused on early childhood in recent public remarks about education, a priority of his administration alongside jobs and economic development, fiscal stability and public safety.

“I don’t have any reservation in saying at this stage that the District of Columbia is an absolute leader in early-childhood education,” Mr. Gray said at a Nov. 16 briefing in the Hillcrest neighborhood of Ward 7. “We are the only city in America, to my knowledge, that has a universal pre-kindergarten program.”

He also signaled that the city would be shifting its focus toward infants and toddlers with a rollout of announcements in coming weeks.

The mayor punctuated the trend at his State of the District address in March, when he noted the EduCare Learning Center had broken ground in Northeast “and what we learn will inform other early-childhood services across the city.”

“I think we will be a role model for the nation in how we work with very young children,” he said in his Nov. 16 remarks. “And ultimately, to me, that is the answer in how we ensure that increasingly large numbers and percentages of our children actually are successful in our public education system.”

Dennis van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, said he supports efforts across the country to stimulate the minds of children before they enter school.

“I think it’s absolutely critical,” he said.

Mr. Van Roekel said some school districts offer instruction to parents on activities they can do with their young children, especially in underprivileged areas where children have less-enriching summer or preschool experiences.

“Think of all these kids who come to school and have experienced nothing,” Mr. van Roekel said. “How do they know what their passion is or what they enjoy?”

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