SHEFFIELD >> Recently, I sat down with a local elementary school principal who told me that at least 20 percent of his incoming kindergarten class had never held a book, could not grip a pencil and did not know the alphabet song.

While this clearly bodes poorly for these children, it also throws the teachers into remedial overdrive to help bring these kids to the starting line — the point where they can begin their schooling in step with their peers. The sad fact remains that too many students from low-income families are missing out on the critical learning that happens during the first five years of life.

As we tune into the national dialogue about the importance of high-quality early childhood education, we are learning that these years lay the foundation for the behaviors and skills that will prepare children for success in school, the workplace and the community.

Wise investment

Science tells us that most brain development occurs before age 2. We also know that investments in quality programs for young children are sound ones, saving money down the line by improving school performance and graduation rates, and reducing costs associated with teen pregnancy and even incarceration.

The potential return on investment is astounding: every dollar spent on quality early childhood programs returns as much as $16 in long-term productivity and savings in social services.


That's why Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation is investing in an early childhood development initiative in our four-county region, with a focus on children from birth to five years.

We sought out evidence-based programs with a proven track record, programs we could support over many years that would contribute to building a wholesome, healthy, literacy-rich environment at home. We are now funding two such programs in Berkshire County.

BTCF has funded Reach Out and Read, which is in its second grant year operating in 10 pediatric offices throughout the county. This program embeds literacy development into "well baby" visits, mobilizing trusted providers.

By the time a child is five, she will have a library of 10 books, in her own language and at each developmental stage. What's more, medical providers are talking to parents at every visit about the importance of reading together.

Each year, over 5,700 children under age five in Berkshire County will benefit from this program, and enter kindergarten with a better chance at learning with their peers.

A second nationally recognized program with proven strategies is the Parent-Child Home Program. For 50 years, PCHP has sent specially trained social workers into the homes of 3- and 4-year-old children, twice a week for two years, modeling behaviors for caregivers in ways that empower them as their child's first and most important teacher.

Evaluations have shown this to be one of the most cost-effective ways to increase positive parent-child interactions, along with school readiness and success.

Berkshire partnerships

Here in Berkshire County, the Adams-Cheshire and Central Berkshire school districts have received grants to deliver this program in partnership with Childcare of the Berkshires. The Berkshire Hills district has also received funding to work with Community Health Programs. Together, these programs will provide intensive support to nearly 30 families.

Partnering with our generous donors, Berkshire Taconic is committed to continuing this work over the coming years, knowing that consistent, high-quality programming will make a difference. Investing in our youngest citizens means stronger communities in the years ahead.

The next time I see that principal, I want to hear that every child is arriving in kindergarten already familiar with books, pencils and the ABCs — all precursors for learning to read and becoming successful at school.

Jennifer Dowley is president of the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation.