High-quality pre-K has lifelong health impact

Mayor Kenney puts his "paws" up along with the children in Robert Malara's kindergarten class at Andrew Jackson Elementary School. Improving early childhood education has been one of his top priorities.

Do you remember your child's first teacher? Your first teacher? The most influential teacher in your life? I'm sure most of us can.

Mayor Kenney's proposal to tax sugary beverages and use much of the proceeds for prekindergarten has been making headlines lately. But this is a topic with implications well beyond education and politics. Early childhood education is a key contributor to lifelong health and a potent means to fight the health disparities that plague our city.

In the first few years of a child's life, in every second there are 700 new brain cell connections being formed. Early life experiences help ensure that each child's brain is ready to learn, to make good decisions, to show empathy and feel love.

A newborn's brain weighs, on average, 333 grams, or a little less than 12 ounces. By age 2, it has tripled in size. Ninety percent of brain development occurs before age 5. For a child who lacks appropriate stimulation or suffers chronic traumatic stress in those early years that isn't properly addressed, the consequences can be permanent.

Do-overs are extraordinarily rare. Kids who start behind usually stay behind and become teens and adults who suffer more health and psychological issues.

The HighScope Perry Preschool study in Michigan that was initiated in the 1960s has shown through 40 years of data the lifelong benefits of investing in early childhood education. Compared with peers, the mostly impoverished HighScope students in high-quality preschool were:

Less likely to become smokers and use illicit drugs. Less likely to engage in violent behaviors and be imprisoned. Less likely to engage in risky behaviors - they were even more likely to wear seat belts.

Posted higher IQ scores at age 5. More likely to graduate from high school, be employed, and earn higher wages - all major predictors of better health.

Subsequent research on high-quality early childhood education including the Chicago Child-Parent Centers Study, the North Carolina Abecedarian Study, and the Brookline (Mass.) Early Education Project showed that participants in these programs were less likely to become teen parents or become depressed and were more likely to have a regular source of health care and report a health rating of good or excellent.

The benefits show

The benefits of high-quality pre-K show up early and often in student achievement.

Another study recently published in the journal Pediatrics demonstrated that, for children of lower socioeconomic status, education programs paid the greatest dividends in mastering reading, writing, and math when they were started earlier in life, and when children were in school at least 35 hours a week.

Kindergarten readiness is a simple phrase that has profound meaning.

In Maryland, a study showed that children who were not fully ready for kindergarten were five times more likely to fail third-grade reading and math standards. Cincinnati children who weren't ready for kindergarten were half as likely to meet third-grade reading standards.

"Learn to read by third, read to learn thereafter" is a familiar mantra that eludes so many children.

An Annie E. Casey Foundation study showed that students who entered fourth grade with appropriate reading skills were four times more likely to graduate from high school than those who didn't.

Cheaper than the alternative

High-quality pre-K isn't cheap, but it's cheaper than the alternative. In fact, for every dollar invested, studies indicate that as much as $10 will be saved over a child's life through decreased use of social services and better health.

Whether the soda tax lives or dies, Kenney is right to push toward universal high-quality pre-K that emphasizes emotional, social and cognitive development. Paying the estimated $60 million annual tab is just one challenge for this important initiative.

An estimated 19,000 3- and 4-year-olds in Philadelphia don't attend preschool or are in programs that don't meet state standards for quality. In a city where 39 percent of children live in poverty, we must collectively rise up to this challenge.

For now, how do we help families find high-quality day care and preschool? Great Philly Schools' Early Childhood Program finder (http://ece.greatphillyschools.org) is a good start for many and lists programs by neighborhood and quality standards. Shared Prosperity Philadelphia http://sharedprosperityphila.org/learning-starts-now helps guide families in choosing and paying for high-quality programs.

So who was your child's first, most influential teacher? The answer most likely is staring back at you in the mirror. It's the exhausted mom who caresses her child with love and caring words that help stimulate the 700 neuronal connections forming every second. It's the weary dad just off the overnight shift who finds the energy to read Goodnight Moon to his toddler. It's all of us who recognize that an investment in our youngest children supports the foundation that can make a difference in life, in each community, for the health of our city.

Daniel R. Taylor, D.O., is an associate professor at the Drexel University College of Medicine and director of community pediatrics and child advocacy at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children.