Original  URL: http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/local/articles/1102earlyed02.html

Early childhood education should be priority, advocates agree
Arizona Republic
November 2, 2003

It's as if the planets have aligned.

After decades of special interest groups pushing their own plans for education reform, groups as varied as their causes are agreeing that the No. 1 cause for Arizona should be improving early childhood education.

Business leaders, educators, non-profit agency directors, even pediatricians are working in an unprecedented way to focus attention on the education of the state's youngest citizens. These unlikely partners are meeting in forums and conferences across the Valley in an attempt to offer a united front.

Come January, the groups aim to pressure lawmakers for systematic reforms in early education, ranging from the quality of child care centers to the education of their teachers.

They believe that quality education for children from birth to age 6 is the foundation of the Valley's future economic and social success.

Jim Zaharis, vice president of Greater Phoenix Leadership, said business leaders see value in preparing their future workforce and community leaders, and that has them talking about education, especially early education. When the philanthropic, business and education leaders join forces, it "will be hard for the politicians to ignore," he said.

Pediatrician Grace Caputo sees doctors as an untapped resource in early literacy efforts. She hands out books to new parents when their babies reach 6 months old. She continues to pass out the books until they are 6 years old. And she is encouraging her colleagues to do the same.

"We have a unique opportunity to make an impact, to say that reading is important," Caputo said at a recent citywide forum on early education.

For those who have placed high priority on early education for years, the new attention is welcome. At Phoenix Day Child and Family Learning Center in south Phoenix, 83 percent of the children are from low-income families.

"We can't do it without support and funding," said Yvette Katsenes, executive director of Phoenix Day, which is accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, meaning it offers high-quality care.

Early education is no longer just the issue of "bleeding-heart liberals," said Bob Donofrio, Murphy Elementary District superintendent.

"It's about economics," he said at a recent education forum.

Gov. Janet Napolitano, who recently spent two days in North Carolina reviewing that state's early-education programs, is expected to announce her plans for Arizona's early-education future in January, in her State of the State address.

There is nearly a sense of giddiness among those who have been preaching the benefits of early education for the past 20 years. Carol Peck, a former school superintendent, said the fact that a Democratic governor, Republican school superintendent, business leaders and education foundations all agree that early-childhood education is the No. 1 priority is a rare moment in state history. It's time to pounce.

Peck, president and CEO of the Rodel Charitable Foundation of Arizona, has for years believed in the long-term benefits of educating children before they get to kindergarten.

Across the country, the push for more money to fund early education has picked up validity as doctors and scientists have published reports on brain research that says children are not born with a pre-existing brain capacity. From birth to age 5, they are developing social, emotional and cognitive abilities that influence the rest of their lives.

Arizona State University's Jill Stamm said that six years ago, when ASU founded the New Directions Institute for Infant Brain Development, no one was talking about brain development. Few even knew how a child's brain developed. Now, brain development is all the talk in non-profit circles, teacher workshops and politicians' roundtables.

How brain research translates into education policy will be pushed by the Arizona School Readiness Board, which reports to Napolitano.

The board has been charged with mapping efforts of city and state agencies, non-profit groups and education foundations to come up with a statewide plan. Longtime early-education advocate Irene Jacobs is heading the board. She promises the group will find a way to ensure there is no duplication of services, that child care centers will offer affordable, high-quality care and that it will look into incentives to centers and teachers for raising their education standards.