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Marjorie Kostelnik

Marjorie Kostelnik

People sometimes say there’s no such thing as a sure bet. However, one thing we can count on is that young children, families, and communities benefit when there is community-wide access to affordable high-quality early childhood education programs for children from birth to age five.

Unfortunately, Lincoln is facing a shortage of early learning placements for our youngest children. According to 2017 U.S. Census Bureau Lincoln has one of the highest percentages (78 percent) of children under the age of 6 years having all parents in the workforce. This means if a child is in a two-parent household, both parents work; if a child is in a one-parent household, that parent works.

These families need safe, stimulating environments in which staff are well prepared and supported, so family members can work, participate in job training or go to school while their children benefit from high-quality early learning experiences. And, although we have many fine programs in the community, we do not have nearly enough, nor are they distributed throughout the city in locations that best meet family needs.

Consider also that in Lincoln, the average cost of childcare is between $10,000 and $14,500 per year. This outpaces the cost of one year of a public college education – a steep price for any young family just getting underway but especially difficult for families who fall below or near the poverty level.

In Lincoln, more than 3,665 children younger than 5 live in such families. Lack of reliable, high-quality programs impede parents’ opportunities to grow their incomes, expand their skills and advance their careers. Conversely, the presence of such programs in communities is associated with attractiveness to potential employers and new employees.

It’s not just adults who miss out when high-quality early learning is not available. These settings provide children with experiences that optimize their development and learning in all domains – cognitive, emotional, language, physical and social.

In fact, the first five years of life are especially important because they are when children’s brain growth is most sensitive to their experiences, both positive and negative. As children’s neural networks become more prolific, the weight of the brain actually increases, tripling in size from birth through age 2 and reaching 90 percent of its mature weight around age 5.

For those reasons, the experiences that fill a young child’s life have a decisive impact, for good or ill, on that child’s brain architecture over the long term.

Four decades of research have shown that well designed child-centered early learning programs help children develop the abilities needed to succeed in school and later in life. This is true for children of varying income levels, but especially for children facing significant obstacles to learning and skill development because of poverty.

For example, Nobel laureate James Heckman showed that young children from low-income families enrolled in such settings from birth were less likely than non-program children to repeat a grade or to be referred to special education and more likely to graduate from high school on time. He found that every dollar spent on high quality, birth-to-5 programs delivered a 13 percent annual return on investment to the community.

How to address program shortages and the "opportunity gaps" they create for children and families has been the focus of the Early Childhood Prosper Lincoln strategic plan. Important strategies being pursued include increasing the number and distribution of early learning openings in Lincoln as well as helping to defray the costs of such programs for low-income families.

In support of this plan, on Tuesday, Feb. 12 -- Abraham Lincoln’s birthday -- the Lincoln Community Foundation is hosting a giving day to support the first-ever Lincoln Littles Early Childhood Initiative. This initiative will provide funds to defray the cost of tuition for children in low-income families to gain access to high-quality early learning services.

This will be one special day when people like you, who care about the littlest residents in our city, join forces to help more children in need receive a quality early childhood education. To contribute to this worthy cause on Lincoln Littles giving day, connect to www.lincolnlittles.org.

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Marjorie Kostelnik is co-chair of the Prosper Lincoln Early Childhood Oversight Committee.

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