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Gloria Bonilla Santiago Headshot

Early Education Gives Poor Kids a Chance to Succeed

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Education -- most especially pre-school programs which have been on budget chopping blocks throughout the country -- is inextricably tied to the recovery of our nation's economy.

It's like the song "Dem Bones" that is taught in preschools to help children learn basic anatomy -- each part is connected to another part to make the whole thing work. Only in this version, the lyrics wouldn't be about the connection between toe bones, heel bones and foot bones. It is more like this: Quality educational programs that begin early in life have the potential to close gaps in school achievement that exist between poor minority children and their middle class counterparts.

In the United States today, we spend less than five percent of our education dollars on preschool programs. I would argue that -- similar to the health care system in our country -- we need to invest in "preventive" or early education to produce "healthier" educated citizens who will contribute to rather than drain our nation's coffers.

What we have is a case of pay me now, or pay me later.

Research proves the tremendous value of early childhood education, especially for children from poor families. In fact, the National Institutes of Health found that every $1 spent on preschool programs could generate more than $11 in economic benefits over the course of a child's life.

Even a pre-schooler can see that it is a wise investment to make in our country and in our children's future.

In urban areas, early education is not a luxury; it is a necessity for children from poor and ethnic families if they are to overcome academic and socioeconomic disadvantages that will dog them without early intervention. Without it, these kids will start school already "behind" causing years of learning challenges and fostering the kind of relationship with education that leads to high drop-out rates.

Taking it a step further, these are the kids who remain wound up in the cycle of poverty that more than likely leads to reliance on public assistance, involvement in criminal activity and a poor quality of life for the next generation.

I write this as we prepare to open the Early Learning and Research Academy affiliated with Rutgers University and LEAP Academy Charter School in Camden, N.J. -- a city where two out of every five residents live below the poverty line. When our little folks arrive in September, we will have achieved LEAP-style education intervention from birth to high school graduation.

Our program is working: all our students graduate from high school and go on to college. Many of them came to us without early learning, and not all are able to overcome the deficit. Our goal is to provide children from one of the poorest cities in America with a positive relationship with education so they can be productive, self-sufficient and successful adults.

If we can change the equation in Camden, then similar paradigm shifts can occur in other impoverished parts of the country, too. The endgame: We will create a strong self-sufficient workforce to fuel a strong economy.