Durham bus tour stresses importance of early childhood education

jalexander@newsobserver.comFebruary 14, 2014 

White Rock Child Development Center teacher Eve Russell Nelson teaches students Korynn Stallings (left), 5, and Helen Vasquez Hernandez, 4, how to identify the letter B by having them circle all the “b’s” in a sentence.

JONATHAN ALEXANDER — jalexander@newsobserver.com

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    Poverty is The Durham News’s Story to Watch in 2014.

    More than 44,000 Durham residents live in poverty, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics. More than 21,000 children in Durham Public Schools qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. A 2013 UNC study found that poverty in Durham’s poorest areas grew worse between 2000 and 2010, and since 1970 Durham County has had the highest poverty rate among the state’s most urbanized counties.

    In his “State of the City” address Feb. 3, Mayor Bill Bell set reducing poverty as a “key priority” and called on local governments and citizens to join in a collaborative effort to reduce poverty in Durham, “neighborhood by neighborhood, year by year, starting in 2014.”

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— On a community bus tour last week, the director of Durham’s Partnership for Children stressed the importance of early childhood education.

There are 2,000 days between when children are born and when they attend kindergarten, said Laura Benson, executive director of the organization. During that time, the brain is rapidly developing and children are able to retain the information they learn.

“High-quality early childhood education is important for all children,” Benson said. “Our focus is on children who are at the best opportunity to benefit.”

One in four children in Durham County is born into poverty, and the county’s overall 18 percent poverty rate has been growing, even as state and national poverty rates fell to about 12 percent in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Mayor Bill Bell made fighting poverty in Durham the focus of his “State of City” speech Feb. 3.

“Children in poverty experience a high level of toxic stress,” Benson said. “Poverty inhibits children to be ready for school. ... If we benefit children in poverty, we benefit all children in Durham County.”

The tour stopped at El Centro Hispano, a community based organization that helps Latino children and parents in the Durham area; White Rock Child Development Center, a pre-K program; and Welcome Baby, a family resource center that supports parents and children between birth and 5 years old.

All three organizations receive state money through Durham’s Partnership for Children. However, Benson said there is still an enormous wait list for families who want to enroll their children. She said there were 1,200 applications for 4-year-olds but only 827 at-risk children are attending high-quality early education programs through Smart Start, N.C. Pre-K, and Early Head Start because of funding availability.

“We cannot miss our opportunity in making our investment there,” Benson said. Early childhood development prepares students for kindergarten, which will lead to a healthier nation and more students ready for the workforce.

“We need all stakeholders in the community to be about the business of school readiness,” she said.

Matt Sears, a parent of a child in a pre-K program, who was on the tour, said he is a big supporter of early childhood education. A candidate for Durham Public Schools Board of Education, he hopes to advocate for it on the board.

“There are so many studies on the return of investment we make on young people when we support pre-K,” Sears said.

Alexander: 919-932-2008; Twitter: @jonmalexander1

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