05/24/2012 03:34 pm ET Updated Jul 24, 2012

Helping At-Risk Children Succeed in School: There's No Such Thing as Too Early

How do we help children from lower-income families achieve their full potential in school and life? One fact is sure: Start early.

According to neurological research, babies are born ready to learn. The first few years of a child's life are a time of explosive brain growth. In fact, 90 percent of brain development happens before kindergarten. Since birth to five years old are the most critical years for a child to develop mentally, physically and emotionally, a quality early education can play a major role in helping children achieve the developmental milestones needed for success in school and beyond.

An abundance of research supports this notion. A University of North Carolina study shows that higher quality early care classrooms lead to better outcomes for children including increased school readiness, greater language abilities, higher math and reading scores, and increased non-verbal skills. Noted economists Flavio Cunha and James T. Heckman reported in 2007 that children whose early education experiences drive them to succeed in school also develop strong job skills, such as problem solving, critical thinking and collaboration.

Prompted by the overwhelming evidence that investments in early childhood education yield tremendous returns, the United Way of Greater Houston and ExxonMobil in 2002 created United Way Bright Beginnings. Together we set out to transform child care quality for low-income children in our community using a 360 approach -- staff training, best-in-class curriculum, appropriate indoor and outdoor equipment, parental involvement, and teacher retention tools such as wage supplementation and educational scholarships.

Now after 10 years and 5,000 children served, we know it is working. The University of Houston Institute for Urban Education last month released the results of a four-year study that shows United Way Bright Beginnings alumni in public schools performed better than their peers on 45 of 51 achievement tests. During the most recent school year, they also scored better than peers on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) Reading and Math measures for grades three, four and five. In addition, more Bright Beginnings alumni achieved TAKS "Commended Status," which is described as "high academic achievement; considerably above state passing standard." [1]

If you visited one of our 18 Houston-area United Way Bright Beginnings centers, you would not find these results surprising. The first thing you notice is that these are happy, active places where children are engaged in hands-on activities that spark interaction and curiosity in a supportive environment of side-by-side, personalized mentoring by teachers.

Among the best investments United Way Bright Beginnings has made is the training and educational opportunities we provide to our teachers and center directors. That knowledge continues to benefit many subsequent students. To date, the program has helped 288 center teachers earn child development associate certificates; 29 teachers earn associate degrees in early childhood; 15 center teachers earn bachelor's degrees in early childhood education; and 12 center teachers earn master's degrees in early childhood education. Along the way we have improved teacher retention by 46.5 percent.

We don't know yet how many of our United Way Bright Beginnings alumni will graduate from college, but we do know we're helping to set these children on that path. A well-known scientific study, The Abecedarian Project, and others have found that the long-term effects of quality early education include completion of more years of education, a greater likelihood of attending a four-year college and a decreased likelihood of needing public assistance.

Early education makes good economic sense too. The Bush School of Government and Public Service in 2006 found that every $1 invested in high-quality Pre-K education in Texas returned $3.50 per participant to the community.

Meanwhile, the urgency to help children grows. Recent U.S. Census data reveals that child poverty is at its highest levels since 1993. We must not lose the opportunity to provide these children with an early education that increases their long-term chances of breaking free from poverty.

Lady Bird Johnson once said: "Children are apt to live up to what you believe about them." If we believe every child deserves a chance to achieve his full potential, then access to quality early education needs to be a priority for all children, especially those most at risk.

[1] Institute for Urban Education. (2010). Achievement studies, United Way Bright Beginnings, HISD. Houston: Institute for Urban Education, University of Houston.