Sunday, July 27, 2003

Building brighter kids: Cincinnati's call to action

Everybody wins when children do well

By Linda Cagnetti
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Danielle Jones, 5, from Florence, participates in a number writing exercise.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
| ZOOM |
Suppose people in Greater Cincinnati decided to worry more about preschoolers than potholes. Suppose we were as passionate to build kids' brains as we are to build sports teams? What if we all vowed that every child here would start school healthy and ready to learn?

If this has never occurred to you, please listen up. The message is beginning to resonate nationwide: Science and communities can build brighter babies and better students and everybody benefits.

We're learning a lot about how the brain develops. Consider that 90 percent of brain growth occurs by age 3 and that by age 3, a child's brain is three times more active than an adult's brain. It follows that if we do the right things in the first five years of a child's life, we can grow more successful students. Then we have a better chance to nip the poverty and underclass cycle and raise kids who grow up to be better thinking, productive adults who improve their community. Studies show that environmental factors and experiences between the ages of 0 and 5 help determine brain structure and thus shape the way children think, learn and behave for the rest of their lives. The new brain science is demanding a fresh examination of how we do schools, day care and education policy, and how we spend both public and private money on these things.

Enter "Success By 6." This is part of a national movement in early childhood development. Greater Cincinnati recently introduced a local version. It's a long-term "road map," initiated by United Way of Greater Cincinnati, Cincinnati Community Action Now (CAN) and many community agencies and leaders. The goal is to "ensure that all children ages 0 to 6 are healthy and ready to succeed by the time they start kindergarten." They spent almost a year crafting a mission and action plan designed now for Hamilton County, with hopes to eventually expand region-wide. (Boone County has a Success By 6 up and running, along with efforts in 350 other cities, all tailored to local needs).

Jim Zimmerman, chairman of the board of Federated Department Stores, is chairman of Hamilton County's Success By 6 steering council. He acknowledges that Cincinnati already has many long-standing organizations addressing early childhood needs. But, he explains, "Success By 6 is the first high-level, broad-based and very visible effort to establish overall community goals and outcomes to address the successful preparation of all our pre-school children. This is a 'movement,' not another specific program." It aims to educate and galvanize leaders and citizens around the need to improve the support every young child gets.

Success By 6 will focus on children's physical health, social development and cognitive readiness for school. "We are going to measure what we do" to make sure it works, he said. It has four goals:

• Raise community awareness and create a demand for quality.

• Assess every child before kindergarten to determine school readiness and get help for children who need it.

• Improve early childhood health care and education.

• Streamline and coordinate existing services and advocate for money as needed.

Many local kids don't have the language and literacy skills to start kindergarten at the same level as others. Twenty-five percent fail the state's fourth-grade proficiency test, and in Cincinnati's inner-city about half of the African-American students never graduate from high school. Some have untreated health problems; many lack social, behavior and cognitive skills needed to benefit from teaching and to meet testing standards.

Child experts already know much of what's needed. But why should a whole community get into the act? Because it's right and it's smart. People rooted in human decency, fairness and generosity, like so many Cincinnatians, believe that every child should have a decent beginning in life. Practically, "school readiness" is a matter of good investment and self-interest for all Greater Cincinnatians.

An educated, productive citizenry is more prosperous and hopeful. Spending dollars and energy up front in children's first five years saves more dollars at the other end on remedial education, dropouts, welfare, prisons and more.

Success By 6 may help us re-think public education and child care by focusing on birth to age 5. The mission speaks to everyone responsible for the success of young children - parents, grandparents, childcare providers, health care and social workers, neighborhoods, relatives and friends.

Meanwhile, there are several things all of us can do on our own:

• Educate yourself about brain development research and the implications for child-rearing.

• Be informed so you can participate in the growing debate about redefining education and childcare in this community.

• Take good care of the babies and preschoolers in your own life and help friends, neighbors and others around you do the same.

Get involved, informed

• Success By 6, Convened by United Way of Greater Cincinnati for Hamilton County; call (513) 761-7100 or (www.uwgc.org)

• Success By 6, Boone County, Ky.; (859) 334-2240 or (859) 282-2375

• Success By 6, Miami-Dade County, Fla.; (www.teachmorelovemore.com) .

Tell us what you think

What is the biggest challenge or problem you face with kids age 0-6?

What kind of help do you most need or want from the community?

What advice do you have for leaders of Success by 6?

Send us your thoughts in a letter, 250 words or fewer, by noon Wednesday. Please include your name, address, neighborhood and a daytime phone. Send to: Success by 6, Editorial Page, Cincinnati Enquirer, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati, Ohio 45202, fax (513) 768-8610, e-mail letters@enquirer.com. We'll share some of the responses with our readers.


Linda Cagnetti is an editorial writer for The Enquirer.

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