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Early childhood education can ensure success later in life

When we try to organize busy leaders to accomplish a goal, we often liken it to herding cats. But the truth is, herding cats is pretty simple if you have a bowl of milk.

For leaders of the county’s government agencies, non-profits, school districts, business community and faith-based organizations who want to achieve the goal of boosting school readiness for kindergarten students in their communities, we can now — for the first time — gather around a new “milk bowl.”

This is the Early Development Index, a valid population measure of school readiness for kindergarten students that drills down into five developmental areas known to impact school performance, such as language, communication and cognitive skills, communication skills and general knowledge, social competence, emotional maturity and physical health and well-being.

EDI is a game-changer for those of us trying to mobilize our communities to improve school-readiness. For many years, researchers have shown that providing high-quality early childhood opportunities is the magic sauce to success. Put bluntly, if children experience high-quality early childhood opportunities in their first five years or so, it’s nearly impossible to stop them from being successful in life. The positive outcomes are astonishing.

Conversely, when young children lack these opportunities, they are much more likely to suffer from poor health, are more likely to drop out of high school and more likely to be arrested for a violent crime. These negative outcomes are equally staggering.

But mobilizing community leaders to improve school readiness suffers from an age-old problem: simply knowing that something is good for our health, like regular exercise, doesn’t mean we’re going to do it.

Over the past year or so, a number of organizational leaders in Santa Ana — including myself — have gathered around the EDI milk bowl to try to improve school-readiness. The index has helped us tackle this age-old problem in three innovative ways.

First, EDI is much like a weight scale. Instead of pounds, however, the EDI measures levels of school readiness in our neighborhoods, schools and cities. The index EDI tells us where we’re at with school-readiness — the good, bad or ugly. And, as with any effective weight loss program, we begin by acknowledging where we’re at: we own it, don’t moan it. This is our starting point, our baseline.

The second way is by literally moving us forward. It prompted us to ask, “Where do we want to be in the future, say, five years from now?” Our collaborative thus established five-year, measurable goals starting with our baselines. For example, in 2016, some 67% of entering kindergartners were ready in basic literacy. Over the next five years, we want to raise this to 85%, surpassing the county average.

Having a measurable five-year goal is critical for a collection of busy leaders. That’s because it gives us all a common destination. This is the first time we, as a community, have set a common and measurable school-readiness destination point. And, because EDI data are collected regularly, we can also regularly check our progress along the way.

The index EDI has helped us in a third way. We have been using EDI mapping functions to examine school-readiness levels by individual neighborhoods. Already the data are challenging many of our assumptions about certain neighborhoods. Some of the more “challenged” neighborhoods are doing better than the less “challenged.”

Based on this neighborhood-level analysis, we have selected a set of neighborhoods to begin our work. We will convene the whole set of leaders from different sectors to help us achieve our collective school readiness goals.

If you or your organization would like to learn from our efforts, or to join us, we’ll gladly make room around the milk bowl for you at our stakeholder meeting on Dec 4. Contact Paola Padilla at paola@delhicenter.org or (714) 481-9640.

The most important point, however, is that you can also use the index EDI to gather busy leaders in your community to improve school readiness in your neighborhoods and cities.

Indeed, the Children and Families Commission of Orange County has launched a public website that allows community members and organizations to access the groundbreaking EDI data. Check out: http://occhildrenandfamilies.com/edi/.

RIGO RODRIGUEZ is a member of the Santa Ana Unified School District Governing Board and a board member for Delhi Center in Santa Ana.

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