Arizona Education: Early Childhood Education

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We’ll take you to a program that helps kindergarteners and first-graders learn how to read and then we’ll discuss early childhood education with Arizona literacy director Terri Clark and Sam Leyvas, chief executive officer of First Things First, an organization which works with children before they even get into school.

TED SIMONS: Coming up next on "Arizona Horizon," we'll discuss the many aspects of early childhood education. And we'll get the latest science news with our good friend and physicist Lawrence Krauss. Those stories next on "Arizona Horizon."

VIDEO: "Arizona Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the Friends of Eight, members of your Arizona PBS station. Thank you.

TED SIMONS: Good evening, and welcome to "Arizona Horizon," I'm Ted Simons. A Maricopa County judge today ruled that the City of Phoenix does not have the local authority to change the way pensions for retiring employees are calculated. The City had unilaterally changed the formula for pension payments in an effort to stop pension spiking, which allows employees to count unused sick leave as part of their pension money. The move prompted several unions to file suit claiming the city a broke contractual obligation. The judge sided with the unions. Mayor Greg Stanton says the City will appeal the decision.

TED SIMONS: Tonight's edition of "Arizona Education" focuses on early childhood education. "Read On Arizona" is a partnership involving public and private agencies working to get more children ready for kindergarten and reading at grade level. They are offering free reading screenings set up by the Arizona Literacy and Learning Center. Producer Christina Estes takes us to Burton Barr Library for more on the program.

LINDA BARR: We screen the kids in grades K-3 because we want all the kids ready for reading by third grade. Sometimes there are holes in their learning and the testing that we do can pick up those holes.

TEACHER: You're close, that one's called a safety pin.

CHILD: Oh, yeah, I've worn those before.

CHRISTINA ESTES: The free screenings are done by certified teachers and trained volunteers. They cover single letters and words along with vocabulary.

TEACHER: Do you know the name of this instrument? It's called a harp.

CHRISTINA ESTES: And awareness.

TEACHER: Listen to the word park. Now take away the P sound and what word is left?


TEACHER: Nice job.

LINDA BARR: We know that fluency, the rapid naming piece, is a high predictor of successful reading.


LINDA BARR: It's really neurological, it's wired. It's a job of seeing a symbol, converting it to a word, and then being able to say the word rapidly. And kids who have difficulty with that usually are not successful readers.

CHRISTINA ESTES: After the kids are screened, they get to choose a free book. And their parents get a personalized report. This sample shows a child's current reading level and predictions for third grade and eighth grade.

TEACHER: She seems to have a lot of sight words down.

LINDA BARR: They are very relieved to know what's going on and also to have their concerns validated. I can't tell you how many parents will say thank you, I thought I was crazy. I thought I was being overly protective. They don't know exactly how serious something is, and how below grade level they may be.

CHRISTINA ESTES: In addition to the report, parents get games and strategies to use at home.

CHILD: I can read this one.

LINDA BARR: Sometimes the parents don't feel comfortable going into the schools. So we are arm them with information on how to talk to the school. Everyone needs to step up and do their part.

TED SIMONS: And so far this year the Literacy and Learning Center has screened about 250 children. The Center is now waiting to learn if more grant funding is on the way to continue the program this fall. Joining us now to talk more about early childhood education is Arizona Literacy Director Terri Clark and Sam Leyvas, Chief Executive Officer of "First Things First," an organization that works with children before they get into school. Early childhood education: What does that mean?

TERRI CLARK: Well, I think -- and Sam, you're going to be able to take this one better than I am, because I focus on the reading part of it. But early childhood is that space of zero to five, from birth through five years old, and what the learning and developmental stages a child goes through.

TED SIMONS: And the learning and developmental stages, in terms of education, again, define some programs here.

SAM LEYVAS: What Terri's talking about is the first five years of life, we begin to see in children their development, cognitive, social development, language acquisition. It's keenly important that we focus on this area for parents, policymakers for the state. This is the time we're get kids ready for school so they can be successful from kindergarten and beyond.

TIM SIMONS: You're the Arizona Literacy Director. What does that mean?

TERRI CLARK: That is actually a unique position to Arizona. Arizona took a bold step three years ago and said, if we're going to really move the needle on early literacy, we need sort of a coordinator, somebody whose full-time job is to coordinate between agencies in the world. I jokingly say I'm the air traffic control agency for this work in the state of Arizona.

TED SIMONS: How do you know the plane is on the right runway?

TERRI CLARK: Great question. We know what works and sort of what can drive to literacy outcomes we want to see. We just need to get better at coordination and alignment to see that those things are happening at the right time. So I always say it's the right program at the right time for the right child.

TED SIMONS: What are some of the programs at the right time for the right child? Give us some examples.

SAM LEYVAS: Sure, we saw an example in the video before. So "First Things First," we work a lot around trying to identify potential learning delays, developmental delays, screening is probably one of those primary points of contact with parents and children to make sure kids have the tools and resources and help they need to be on the right path. It starts with identifying where children are, where we can help them.

TED SIMONS: We saw in the package there building the child's vocabulary is huge, isn't it?

SAM LEYVAS: Absolutely. 90% of a child's brain develops before they get to kindergarten by the time they are five. It's those critical first five years of life that kids are really developing some of the core competencies, skills, not just cognitively not just language and literacy acquisition things like resiliency, they are learning about the world around them.

TED SIMONS: Yeah, that's interesting. It's true, you have to have a little bit of that gumption there even as a kid to keep going, don't you?

TERRI CLARK: You do and I think sometimes we don't understand that reading is a complicated process and it doesn't start the first day of school. It starts from day one, when the child is born. All of that is a great predictor of school success and of reading abilities later on.

TED SIMONS: So as far as the child care providers, parents, obviously parents, I've heard it's always good, just talk to your kid. If the kid talks back in gibberish, just act like you're having a normal conversation. Sing to your kid, read to your kid? All makes sense?

TERRI CLARK: Absolutely. You can't do too much of it. It really is important. I mean, kids are sponges, especially like what Sam said, their brain is a sponge at that early age. It's so important to expose them to a wide variety of vocabulary so that they have a context. Reading is a process, it's decoding but also comprehension. So I can decode a word and if I've never seen that word and I don't have the context, I don't know what that means.

TED SIMONS: Can you do too much though with kids before they get to school? Back in my day we didn't even have kindergarten. Where I grew up, first grade, you go in and start reading. Can you do too much?

SAM LEYVAS: I don't know that's it's too much. I think Terri has a solid point, which is you can't do too much in terms of interaction. We know kids develop and grow and learn in the environment of relationships with adults in their lives. What I do think we want to be careful of is make sure the interventions or the programs or services we're providing are what we call developmentally appropriate. We're matching the right intervention, the right service, the right program to where the child is.

TED SIMONS: And that's where the air traffic controller comes in, right?

TERRI CLARK: Absolutely. We know what works but don't always take the time to make sure we're delivering it in the right dosage or right high quality. Or sometimes we aren't in alignment with what our next door neighbor or nonprofit is doing. Just that coordination and alignment of the right intervention, and supporting our teachers. Professional development is really important.

TED SIMONS: You say we know what works. Has that knowledge changed much recently? Are studies showing X, Y and Z whereas decades ago we had no idea?

TERRI CLARK: I think studies are reinforcing what we had a feeling was working, but science is evolving and evidence is getting better to support that evidence-based practices and the things that work they work for a reason because of the cognitive development, the science of the brain, and we need to stay true to that, and sometimes I think the hardest part is, you know, we do some feel-good things that maybe aren't developmentally appropriate. We need to just be committed to what works.

TED SIMONS: Talk about that particular dynamic. Between the feel-good and the do-good.

SAM LEYVAS: Yeah. So we know so much more today than we did even a decade or two ago in terms of brain science, early childhood development. Child psychology. We know that children are born learning. We know that they learn far more quickly than we ever thought that they did. So what happens in these early years is so tremendously important, in terms of matching up again the right interventions with where kids are in terms of the development.

TED SIMONS: Are there studies that prove that if you get to a certain degree by third grade, you really do see similar results by eighth grade? You see similar results in a life experience once they get out of college or high school?

TERRI CLARK: Absolutely. There's a pretty strong predictor where a student is in their third grade reading levels, that predicts whether they will finish high school and whether they will graduate. There's a very strong correlation there. I think what we need to understand is there are milestones from day one all the way up through that third grade that we need to be aware of. And adults in all sorts of varieties of a child's life can have an impact in helping to support them.

SAM LEYVAS: There's also some good research from a Nobel Laureate in economics Dr. James Heckman out of the University of Chicago that talks about the importance of investing early, in terms of the education continuum. He talks in his research about upwards of a 7% and 10% are a high return on these investments, so we need to know that it costs more the likelihood for success gets further away the longer that we wait to provide these sorts of interventions for our children.

TED SIMONS: Alright, very important. Good information. Good to have you both here. Thanks for joining us.

TERRI CLARK: Thanks for having us.

Terri Clark:Arizona literacy director;Sam Leyvas:Chief Executive Officer of First Things First

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