Ruth Bass: Preschool imprints sink deep
So often, you hear someone say, "My mother always told me ..." And whatever it was, it's stuck with that person right into adulthood. The theory is to start ‘em young. Habits created early are likely to stick, whether it's going to church, reading books or crossing the street at the crosswalk. Early imprints go deep.
That's why it's sad to know that Berkshire County's Head Start kids went home last week for the summer, a week sooner than usual and far sooner than their counterparts in the public schools. It's even sadder to know that they'll return to their Head Start schools a week late in the fall.
It's because of a word that we used to think meant a judge had locked a jury into seclusion: sequester. Now sequester means a whole new pile of things, all of them slashes in government-funded budgets.
Congress went into meltdown when the sequester took away enough air traffic controllers to mess up their flights to and from their official residences. But Head Start kids, three, four and five years old, come from families who are considered poor under federal guidelines. They have no clout when it comes to someone taking things away from them.
So they've gone home, and with nearly four months away from school, they will lose ground educationally every day. Studies show that all kids have noticeable losses in academic skills over the summer -- so teachers have to spend part of September getting them revved up again.
But kids from low-income families lose more than those from middle-income students, according to various sources on the Internet. This is not really news -- researchers have known for many, many years that academic development declines during the long summer vacation. It can be as much as a three-month loss for kids from low-income families, a month for those in more advantaged situations.
The difference? Middle-income families can afford tutors if a child needs such, they may take vacations that stimulate the brain, they may enroll their offspring in camps and other programs that keep them thinking. Head Start families may not be able to afford any of those things.
One of the suggestions for stemming the brain drain, however, is open to all. Trips to the library could be regular all summer long, not only to get books and read at home but to take part in free activities.
Still, if the purpose of Head Start is to send otherwise disadvantaged kids to kindergarten on an even keel with their peers, then this budget cut is serious stuff. And there's little question among educators about the impact the early years have on whether a child stays the course and graduates from high school.
Start ‘em young is the theory because starting ‘em young works. On the negative side, that's why cigarette companies have tried to make smoking glamorous for teenagers -- they are the industry's future profits. It's why gun manufacturers make Crickett guns -- even in pink for girl appeal -- that recently made headlines when a 5-year-old boy shot his 2-year-old sister with his very own .22 rifle.
When it comes to education, those who least need a long summer vacation with nothing much to do are getting it, courtesy of a federal government that seems to have stalled on the track with no thoughts about oncoming trains. When the oldest kids in Berkshire County's Head Start arrive in kindergarten in the fall, they may not be quite as ready as last year's crop. And that is a truly sad state of affairs.
But the businessmen and politicians will get a head start on their trips.