MEC urges investment in daycare

Published 6:59 pm Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The human brain is as active as it will ever be during the firstfew years of life.

Dr. Laurie Smith, director of the early childhood developmentand research program Mississippi Building Blocks, said the brainforms 700 new neuron connections each second during the first threeyears of life. So important are the early stages of braindevelopment, cognitive differences in brain function can bedetected as early as 9 months old, she said.

Whether that mental growth is stimulated or stifled in the earlyyears shows up plainly later on.

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“By 2 years old, what we’re seeing with our dropout rates andother issues is actually something I can predict before they everenter school,” Smith said.

Smith presented her findings and argued the case forpre-kindergarten education Tuesday as part of a presentation by theMississippi Economic Council, which visited a joint session of theLions and Kiwanis clubs on its 10-city Next Steps Tour. The tour isintended to spur private business leaders to invest in enhancingearly childhood development programs in the 1,740 licenseddaycares, church nurseries and family kid-watching programsscattered throughout Mississippi.

Around 85 percent of children in the state attend some form ofpre-school daycare or another, and Smith’s program is runningstudies on children selected randomly from those programs todetermine how much brain power is being generated or wasted inMississippi. She pointed out that Mississippi ranks abysmally lowin state spending on pre-school programs when compared to otherstates, with an annual contribution of only $3 million.

MEC is promoting the private development of childcare enrichmentprograms as a means to strengthen tomorrow’s workforce. Ensuringchildren have the capacity to learn before entering school ischeaper and more efficient than trying to save dropouts at themoment of truth, before they go on to become a burden on societyinstead of a contributor to it.

John Williams, who works closely with the tour-sponsoring W.K.Kellogg Foundation, said turning out smarter children is also amatter of national security.

“Just as we need highly trained people to join the workforce, sotoo do we need them to defend our country,” he said. “When kids areeither high school dropouts or unable to register for the militarybecause of drug problems or obesity, they are not ready, and willnot be a part of our future defense forces.”

Laura Oldanie, with the Washington, D.C.-based Committee forEconomic Development, said breakdowns in child care causeabsenteeism in the U.S. that leads to an annual loss of $3billion.

Steve Williams, with the Center for Education Innovation, saidchildren from poor families run the highest risk of failing todevelop the cognitive skills necessary to learn in school and needthe most enrichment in pre-school daycare programs. And despiteyears of education reform, dropout prevention measures and theestablishment of school accountability measures, Mississippi stillranks 50th in the U.S. in education, he said.

“The fundamental reason for that is Mississippi is a povertystate,” Williams said. “The single greatest barrier to learning ispoverty.”

MEC President Blake Wilson urged Brookhaven businessmen to pulllocal daycare providers together and to investigate the manyenrichment programs available in Mississippi. He invited bothgroups to look into Mississippi Building Blocks,

“It’s not some lovey-dovey thing. It is a focused, scientificresearch project aimed at making a difference,” Wilson said.