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<span style="font-size:0.7em;">Sponsored Discussion:</span><br /> W.K. Kellogg Foundation - Make Our Kids Great by 8!

On behalf of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, thanks for joining the conversation. The idea of building a continuum of whole child development beginning at birth and going all the way to third grade success is an idea whose time has come. Let's get started.

Why is it critical to connect birth and third grade?

Great question. Education starts at birth, not on the first day of kindergarten. Everything we know about brain development and children's relationships with people spotlights that the first three years are the most critical. Secondly, connecting those first three years to the pre-school years and then the first four years of elementary school assures the ongoing positive development of children's social, emotional, cognitive and physical strengths.

Without pre-natal nutrition and culturally based targeted parental education, our kids have limited opportunity. How does the Kellogg Foundation target infrastructure development in the impacted community based organizations with the greatest need?

I love this question because it highlights the Kellogg Foundation's unique integrated platform that looks at education and learning, combined with food, health and well-being and a family's economic security. And, in this way, our programs can emphasize the interrelated nature of nutrition, community health factors and other key elements that all impact a child's and a family's development.

How would you overcome the fact that low income children are exposed to a fraction of the daily vocabulary of a middle or high income child?  If parents don't possess a rich vocabulary, how would their children learn one, on a daily basis?

This question highlights the critical importance of shared book experiences for very young children. Even without a large speaking vocabulary, parents who read and share books--great children's books, of which there are many--naturally introduce a much larger vocabulary AND, delight children with stories and pictures that stimulate their imaginations as well as their logical thinking. Building vocabulary is painless and habit-forming. 

We keep hearing about the importance of success by third grade. Why is this important?

Why success by third grade? So many of the core learning foundations, especially the ability to read, are mastered by third grade. At which point it becomes a matter of reading to learn... also, a child's self image as being successful in the social environment of school is critical to their ongoing motivation and engagement in the learning community that is their classroom. Children can build strengths on strengths if they reach "half-time" feeling like winners (at age nine, a child is halfway to high school graduation).

I'm a busy parent, what are some quick things I can do on a daily basis to ensure my child is prepared for kindergarten and early school success?

Talk, talk, talk! Narrate your child's adventures. Ask them questions constantly about the world they are seeing and the new experiences they are encountering. A child's approach to learning and their innate curiosity about their surroundings are modeled and reinforced by their parents' and caregivers' inquisitiveness and constant interaction. Always read, share books every day, so that your child's most favorite ritual object is the latest book you're reading to them.

Why is early education so important for at-risk and disadvantaged populations?

Because we know that over half of the achievement gap is created in the first five years of a vulnerable child's life. The brilliance of the creation of the Head Start programs many decades ago was based on this insight. Early Head Start took these lessons and applied them to even younger children and their families. Sadly, only three percent (3%) of eligible, at-risk children are enrolled in Early Head Start. 

What do you say to those states that still do not have mandatory kindergarten? Should that be a national priority?

If I had a magic wand, I'd consider ending twelfth grade as we know it and perhaps eleventh grade as well and take those resources to offer universal pre-school to three and four year olds. At that point kindergarten would be at the heart of birth to eight and not a negotiated entry point. For the teens who got great early childhood development, were successful by third grade, by age 16 they would be ready for community service, apprenticeships, community college and a wide variety of real life, "grown up", experiences much like youth of a century ago. 

Can you provide an example of an effective early childhood education program that you've funded, and tell us why it's successful?

Let me start with Educare  which is a shining example of comprehensive, high quality developmental programs for children and their families. It built on the pioneering work of Irving Harris and the Ounce of Prevention Fund. I've already mentioned Early Head Start. I should also mention AVANCE and Abriendo Puertas as two programs we support that are doing great work reaching Hispanic families in the early childhood years. We're supporting Parents as Teachers through the Investing In Innovation (I3 grants) launched by the Department of Education last year, as well as some of their programs in New Mexico. At the University of Florida, their innovative, job-embedded Master's program promises to create a next-generation, high quality teaching staff by supporting current early childhood teachers to continually improve their skills. 

Why do you think state governments continue to cut funding for early education even though it is effective?

Some say that most elected officials, who are mostly men, are still seeing early childhood as merely a time for care and nurturing. It is that. But it is also perhaps the most critical time in a person's life for the foundations of lifelong learning. And all the personal and social skills required to sustain learning are developed and shaped as the building blocks for future success. James Heckman, Nobel laureate in economics, has demonstrated the tremendous return on investment that early childhood programs create. But something more is still needed to persuade our policy makers that the best investments they can make are in our youngest children. In addition, many of the challenges facing our K-12 system would be alleviated if all our children arrived at the schoolhouse door not only ready to learn, but actually as experienced and enthusiastic learners.

Please make the case for why the business community should want to invest early childhood initiatives.

Our partners at the Council for a Stronger America are helping us do just that. In recent years, leaders from the military, law enforcement and the business community have become some of our most vocal and passionate partners in carrying this message to policy makers. They see the connection between high school graduation rates and children's lack of preparedness when they enter the K-12 system. It will be hard to double high school graduation rates in the next ten years if significant percentage of our ninth graders only have fourth grade reading skills. The logic of starting early and sustaining steady, solid skill development is undeniable. We hope more leaders from the business community will speak up and lend their voices and clout to what we think is one of the most strategic changes our society could make to create the citizens and workers for our country's success.

What do you feel are the strengths and weaknesses of the current department of education plans for funding early childhood?

The great news is that the Department of Education now has identified "early learning" as that occurring between birth and age eight. Also, that department is collaborating with the Department of Health and Human Services (where Head Start funding has traditionally been placed) to support the development of early childhood continuums that link social, emotion, physical and cognitive development. The Early Learning Challenge Grants, recently announced, have also brought increased emphasis on stimulating state-based early childhood programs that connect the worlds of "zero to five" with the early grades, especially K-3.

What's the bigger issue right now--access to early education or quality of programs?

Thanks for asking this question. We should always go for both. The quality of a program brings great teachers together with children in the right ratio, knows how to involve, support and stimulate parent engagement and takes an integrated approach to the child and family's development. When people try to increase the quantity of "childcare", but don't take seriously the opportunities that will be missed if you ignore quality, children still arrive in kindergarten unprepared to learn and without the social skills to take advantage of their new classrooms.

How can we as a  nation devote serious attention to early childhood education in the midst of a recession?

Not investing in early childhood is just another example of creating deficits today that we will have to deal with in the future. So many of the social and health costs that are driving our public spending could be greatly reduced if all our kids graduated from high school ready for a career, college and citizenship. There is no way to achieve this without starting at birth. It may take a generation, but it took us many more than that to get where we are today.

My daughter is going to enter kindergarten next year. As a parent, what are the one or two things I should be doing at home - or looking for at her day-care provider or the school she will be attending - to make sure she is prepared to read?

I've already mentioned about talking, reading and asking questions. Parents also need a way to know how to evaluate their daycare providers. More and more states are creating quality rating systems. These specify the criteria that parents can use to assess the effectiveness of programs. Even more important, all parents need easier ways to understand the developmental milestones from birth to age five that their child should be navigating. One of the key components of early literacy is to be sure your child has a powerful relationship with books, is in love with stories and storytelling. This is the natural motivation that will lead most children to learn how to read when they're ready. 

Please identify the Kellogg Foundatons priority areas for funding early childhood initiatives during the next 1-2 years.

We have chosen to focus an increasing amount of our annual funding in four priority places. The states of Michigan, New Mexico and Mississippi. The city of New Orleans. So, we'll be looking to develop strong programs in these places. At the same time, we'll continue to look for partners outside those places as well, who are driving innovation around early childhood. I'd be remiss if I didn't suggest that if you are part of an organization with a great idea about early childhood, you can share it with us on our website: - look for grantseeker information. I appreciate all the great questions today and sorry we couldn't respond to more during our hour together!

We're looking forward to having many conversations with you and others next week during NBC's Education Nation (September 25-27) in New York City, where early childhood is a key topic. Thanks again.

- The Washington Post