05/01/2012 04:24 pm ET Updated Jul 01, 2012

Lifting Up Our Youngest Learners

It was during my time as a middle school teacher in a low-income community in the Bronx that I first realized the critical importance of early childhood education, particularly for students from under-resourced backgrounds. Despite being incredibly bright and determined, my fifth-graders entered my classroom several grade levels behind their more affluent peers. For many of them, this gap began to emerge before they even started elementary school, in part due to limited access to strong early learning programs.

Studies show that as young learners grow older, the gap in their academic achievement widens, relative to their more affluent peers. While pre-Kindergarten isn't the silver-bullet solution, University of Chicago researchers found that early interventions can make a trajectory-changing impact on achievement gaps that originate during the early childhood years, before kids step foot in their kindergarten classrooms.

Here in Illinois, the good news is that our state has been a leader in advocating for early childhood education, particularly for kids growing up in poverty. Through offerings from Preschool for All to Head Start, Illinois ranks in the top third of states for the number of eligible 4-year-olds enrolling in early childhood programs -- and first for the number of 3-year-olds enrolled. We also are lucky to have organizations across our community, including the Ounce of Prevention Fund and Illinois Action for Children, serving as advocates for our state's efforts for young students.

I'm proud that Teach For America is working alongside these efforts by providing an additional pipeline of talented, diverse teachers for early childhood centers. Chicago is home to more pre-Kindergarten Teach For America corps members than in any other region of the country. In partnership with their school communities and families, our teachers are deeply committed to ensuring their students are equipped with the tools they need to succeed in elementary school and beyond.

In my role as executive director of Teach For America-Chicago, I often get to see the resulting impact when these interventions for your young students come together. On a recent visit to It Takes a Village Early Learning Center near downtown Chicago, I was inspired by the pre-Kindergarten classrooms I saw in action. There was an excitement for learning, determination in exploration, and a love of discovery among the 4-year-olds in these rooms. It was the kind of learning experience that I know would have made such a difference for my own students.

We know that early childhood programs rooted in rigor and results with an emphasis on the whole child -- their intellectual, social and emotional development -- are critical. We also see time and time again, that our city's most effective pre-Kindergarten centers share a commonly held conviction that people are the lynchpin of their success. Ensuring we have effective teachers and talented school leaders are fundamental strategies to help these schools achieve transformational impacts.

On the heels of the Week of the Young Child, we're excited to provide one source of talented educators to support ongoing efforts to provide our youngest and most vulnerable learners with an excellent start to their education. As a community, we must continue our commitment to raising the bar for our early learning centers and closing the school readiness gap for our city's future leaders.