Early childhood learning received considerable attention at a conference on rural education in Nashville Wednesday. Its importance to the overall success a student achieves in school was emphatically stated by many of the policy experts and advocates on hand for the event.
“If you don’t learn to read in this country by the first or maybe second grade, the chances of you graduating from high school are very slim,” said Dr. Lynne Vernon-Feagans of the University of North Carolina, representing the National Research Center on Rural Education Support.
“That’s especially if you live in a rural area, or especially in a rural low-wealth area. Those are the ones we target.”
The need to teach children to read at an early age continues to emerge as a central issue in any discussion of education, whether among educators, legislators, administrators or advocates. The role of early education was explored Tuesday and Wednesday as part of the Southeast Regional Rural Education Summit at Lipscomb University.
The State Collaborative on Reforming Education organized the event. The group was founded by Dr. Bill Frist, a heart and lung transplant surgeon and former Republican majority leader in the United States Senate.
But while much of the focus was on what Tennessee is doing, notably with its Race to the Top funds, speakers addressed the reach of early childhood education in rural areas beyond Tennessee. They include organizations like the Children’s Defense Fund, which operates nationally, or Save the Children, which is usually associated with catastrophic events in a foreign country.
Save the Children began in Appalachia in the United States in 1932, and in recent years, it has begun to focus more on literacy, physical activity and nutrition in children. It has developed a program called Early Steps to School Success, which provides services in the United States in rural areas.
“We are very proud of the gains made over the last few years,” said Sarah Belanger, a regional early childhood expert for Save the Children.
Tennessee’s efforts in early childhood education are due in part to the $501 million the state won in the federal Race to the Top competition last year.
“In our original grant, there wasn’t a lot written about early childhood, but since then we have been able to incorporate a lot of activities for it,” said Bobbi Lussier, assistant commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Education’s division on school readiness.
That division focuses on children from birth to age 8 (or 3rd grade). The state’s pre-kindergarten program, which involves more than 18,000 children, is handled there.
Lussier was enthusiastic in discussing the recently announced state website, ReadTennessee.org, meant to help teachers, parents and community leaders.
“There are those few moments in your life that far exceed any of your expectations or anything you dream of, and this website is one of them,” Lussier said.
“It will never be finished. We continually are adding resources. I can’t begin to tell you the wealth of resources here.”
Other participants in a break-out session on early childhood education included Barbara Lunnemann, also of Save the Children; Dr. Tammy Mann, president and CEO of the Campagna Center, a human services organization in Alexandria, Va.; and Dr. Cathy Grace, director of Early Childhood Development for the Children’s Defense Fund.
Mann said demographics in a rural community can change, such as when large numbers of people come from other countries, and communities have to be prepared for them. Grace noted that the Children’s Defense Fund does a lot of work with Native American communities, which are primarily in rural parts of the country. Grace said there has been a lack of attention to those communities.