Growing up in West Los Angeles, I was extremely fortunate when it came to the quality of experiences in early childhood and public school education. My hands-on mother was so passionate about education that she left the comforts of her job as city planner to become an elementary school teacher after room parenting in my kindergarten classroom, and she hasn’t missed a day of work teaching grades kindergarten through three since. I was the first-born child to two involved parents that primed me for preschool and kindergarten. As the oldest of three children, I had the luxury of watching my younger brothers also experience high quality public education in the more privileged public schools within Los Angeles Unified School District. Now, as a graduate student studying social work, I look back and realize how truly fortunate I was. I see how my early educational experiences paved the road for later opportunities and successes in higher education, the work force, and in life. It saddens me that in 2015, quality education and enrichment for children preparing for school readiness is still a luxury that so many are not afforded, and some even blocked from.

What is your earliest memory? When did you first feel affected by your environment? I cannot track down the moment, or age, I first began to learn, absorb material, or be affected by my environment. Learning and experience cannot be tied to a single starting point or age that is the same for all. How can we expect to successfully provide our children with the tools they need for later success in school and life if we leave this up to umbrella policies that assume all the critical periods of important learning and need for education begin at age 5, and don’t provide care for them before then?

Experiences in early childhood, from birth on, have been shown to impact development across the life span. To enhance quality of life, maximize success for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and protect our youth’s future, we must invest in quality education for children ages 0-5. Research has linked the delivery of quality preschool programs to at-risk, vulnerable young children between 0-5 years to huge social and economic benefits. Providing early tools for success to every child, starting first with those who need it most in economically or socially disadvantaged communities, doesn’t just make sense, it makes dollars according to cost-benefit analyses. Young children from economically disadvantaged, vulnerable communities do not begin their education from a common starting point with their peers—they start from makeshift starting lines drawn miles and miles behind their more fortunate cohort, the stretch of their race plagued with obstacles and debris they must overcome, with little to no tools to do so. At-risk young children need a head start in education. Funding quality education for our nation’s most vulnerable children, before age 5, has shown promising social and economic rewards for individual, community, and the nation. Studies show early education programs can lead to fewer students with special education needs in later years. The Center for Disease Control estimates 44 percent of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder were diagnosed by age 3, highlighting the need for education, enrichment, resources and intervention in the time between 0-3. In addition to fewer students identifying with special education needs, studies show less instances of students held back, a decline in dropout rates, as well as fewer arrests later on.

Long-term benefits include a more skilled, educated work force, reduced costs in criminal justice, reduced prison population, increased career achievements, increased school achievements, and less healthcare costs left to the taxpayers to pay.

Public education looks very different depending on one’s zip code, school district, and income level. Often, lower income areas and families living in poverty are those that need the greatest amount of assistance in early childhood interventions, educational and enrichment programs, and yet are last to receive such. A report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation published reports of child poverty in California at a devastating 27 percent. Children living under poverty experience specific types of vulnerabilities and need early intervention for resources, education and support before kindergarten.

The need for equal access to quality early education programs for low-income and disadvantaged children is more than a moral imperative or ambitious dream, and can no longer be ignored if we wish to improve the lives of our children, families, and communities. Only when we recognize the value of our children can we move forward to a more promising, more healthy, stable, and fair future where equal opportunity and equal access to quality, substantive education are not just lofty dreams nor the outcries in congressional committee hearing floors. The road to success in educational pursuits and life opportunities does not begin at kindergarten.

Marissa Laham is a graduate student at USC and a Santa Monica resident.

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