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December 22nd, 2009 - Heide Brandes

OKC Educare program provides education, care for children to jumpstart their future

In an attempt to give Oklahoma City\'s poorest children that help at an early age, the Oklahoma City Educare facility opened last summer at 500 SE Grand, providing education, child care and other services for kids ages 5 and younger.

The formula makes perfect sense: The earlier children start to learn and develop, the more successful they will become in life.

In an area where approximately half of schoolchildren graduate high school and only half of those finish higher education, any plan to boost the success of students in order to benefit a marketable workforce is worth attention.

In an attempt to give Oklahoma City's poorest children that help at an early age, the Oklahoma City Educare facility opened last summer at 500 SE Grand, providing education, child care and other services for kids ages 5 and younger.

As the state's second Educare facility (the first being in Tulsa), Oklahoma City Educare serves 200 at-risk children year-round. In addition to enrollees, support staff works with pregnant women and newborns in receiving health services.

"Ultimately, Oklahoma businesses need employees - need good, quality employees," says Bob Ross, chair of Oklahoma City Educare. "They need employees who are smart, who have critical thinking skills. And right now in the Oklahoma City Public Schools, if only half are graduating high school and only half of those are continuing on, there is a need."

Partners in the Educare project are Oklahoma City Community Action Head Start, Oklahoma City Public Schools Pre-K, Sunbeam Family Services Early Head Start and United Way. The partners combine responsive caregiving with educational environments in an attempt to deliver positive outcomes for children and their families.

"Educare is a flagship in quality early childhood care," says Ross. "It's focused on the most disadvantaged families to prepare them for school and beyond. The idea behind it is based on research that proves the earlier you start, the better the outcome."

The program also provides comprehensive mental health service delivery system for infants, young children and families. It's a model that Ross says can be used statewide to spread "best practices" to early childhood centers statewide.

"If it's done right, these kids will be better prepared for education," he says. "They read at level, do mathematics at level. By the time these kids are in third grade, we should be able to show a difference compared to children who haven't received this kind of early childhood education."

Nationally, Educare supporters aim to create 12 to 15 centers in a network reaching across 10 to 12 states that will provide a national research sample of nearly 2,000 children and families.

Oklahoma's public schools offer half-day and full-day pre-K and kindergarten programs, yet low-income families still face the challenge of finding affordable and quality child care for toddlers younger than 4.

Nearly a decade ago, the state instituted a program that pays for one year of pre-K, and since, 70% of 4-year-olds in Oklahoma attend public preschool. Oklahoma also dictates that the teacher/student ratio is 1 to 10 and that the pre-K teachers hold a bachelor's degree.

Already, the state is seeing results. According to a report from Georgetown University, Oklahoma 4-year-olds who went through a year of pre-K performed 52% better on a letter test than those who didn't. In some schools, especially those with a large number of low-income or Latino children who qualify for free or reduced lunches, kindergartners are showing leaps in abilities that they didn't have a decade ago.

"Oklahoma really is cutting-edge in early childhood development, thanks to our governor and first lady," Ross says. "The hope is by investing early, you change the trajectory of the lives of at-risk children. You won't have to pay for expensive remediation, the children will continue on to higher education, will wait to get married and have babies, and will earn higher salaries."

By the time the national Educare network is fully built, the private sector will have invested more than $100 million in capital construction, sending a strong statement about leveling the playing field for young ones growing up in low-income families.

Locally, the Inasmuch Foundation and the George Kaiser Family Foundation raised funds for the $9.3 million needed to build the Educare facility. Its partners contributed to the $3 million operating budget with the hopes of an additional $1.2 million in endowments.

Other state agencies are taking notice, especially those with an investment in business development.

"Educare is a tremendous example when you talk about workforce development and how it starts with early education," says Matt Robison, vice president of small business and workforce development for The State Chamber. "It is a tremendous asset to the workforce of Oklahoma. So much of the time, there is such a desire to see an outcome right away, but with childhood development, we won't see this outcome for another 15 to 18 years."
But with an earlier focus on education, Robison says businesses and the state have high hopes.

"Whether you're educating earlier at home, in public schools, private schools or special programs, as long as children are receiving a well-rounded education that makes them ready to go to work, it's absolutely supported," he says.

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