Building the foundation for future success | AspenTimes.com

Building the foundation for future success

Tamara Tormohlen
Guest column

Aspen Community Foundation, Board Photo, Mar. 13, 2014

May in the Roaring Fork Valley is the Month of the Young Child, a time when, locally, we recognize the importance of quality early-childhood education. There are events for children, families and educators throughout the valley. The highlight of the celebration is the 25th annual Aspen Children's Parade on May 19, featuring 300 or so preschoolers from several area early-education programs.

Over the past several years, a wealth of information and research has emerged that demonstrates that high-quality early education can give all children — regardless of background or personal circumstances — a timely and vital boost, giving them the skills that prepare them to learn in school and succeed in life. This is especially true for disadvantaged children.

It may sound exaggerated to link preschool to success in adult life, but studies continue to show that the earliest years, from birth to age 5, are absolutely pivotal for brain development. The Harvard University Center on the Developing Child calls this early brain development "the foundation upon which all later learning, behavior and health depend."

And there are studies that have tracked low-income children from preschool into adulthood, and they've shown that, for every dollar invested in early learning, the returns range from $4 to $9. Not only did the program participants benefit from higher future earnings, but society also benefited from increased tax revenue and less expenditure on special education, welfare, criminal justice and other remediation strategies.

So with all this incredible evidence of the effectiveness and value of early education, shouldn't we be doing whatever it takes to ensure that every child has the opportunity to learn and succeed?

In the Roaring Fork Valley, many have been working tirelessly for years to promote and provide access to quality early-education experiences for children. Kids First in Aspen and the Early Childhood Network in Garfield County work diligently to help families find preschool programs, and they offer training for parents and providers. Dozens of early-education centers, preschools and in-home providers care for children day in and day out so that parents can go to work. And financial aid offered by Kids First (made possible by a citywide sales tax in Aspen), the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program and the Colorado Preschool Program, to name a few, provide needed subsidies to low-income families.

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For more than a decade, the Aspen Community Foundation has supported early-childhood education in various ways. About four years ago, the foundation commissioned a white paper on the early-education system in our region. We found that, while there were quite a few licensed early-education programs in the area, a good many children were still not able to attend. In fact, we only had enough capacity to serve one-third of the children in the region. And when we looked at the availability of space for low-income families, there were spots for fewer than 10 percent. And if that weren't enough, the child care programs were unevenly dispersed throughout the region, with fewer options the farther downvalley you go.

The bottom line is this: The most effective way to promote positive educational and life outcomes for children, particularly those who are disadvantaged, is participation in quality early-education activities. Unfortunately, not all children have access to these important opportunities.

These gaps and disparities were some of the reasons the Aspen Community Foundation launched the Cradle to Career Initiative in 2012, which has, among others, the goal of ensuring that all children are ready for kindergarten. There's been a lot of important work done recently to provide more children with quality early-childhood education, including mobile preschool classrooms and pre-kindergarten immersion programs as examples. We'll explore some of these approaches in my next column.

For more information about the Month of the Young Child, visit http://www.aspenpitkin.com/kidsfirst.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of the Aspen Community Foundation.

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