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What's Working in Washington: Strong Early Education

Renee Berry








The greatest joy that I can share as both a mother and a child advocate is working in a field that brings light into my day, laughter into my heart and reward to my life’s purpose.  I work and play each day as a preschool teacher and director of Evergreen Christian School in Olympia, Washington.

I strongly believe that early education is the key to building a successful foundation of learning in our country. The early years are a critical time for both learning and development. Studies show that the capacity of the brain to absorb new information peaks at age 3 and that a toddler’s brain develops over one hundred trillion brain synapses. A brain synapse is the "wiring" between two brain cells that grasps new ideas. The more the synapses in a child’s brain, the more the child’s brain will learn! It is during this critical time that the human brain has the highest potential for learning in its lifetime. High-quality preschools and pre-kindergartens are geared to give children a jumpstart in learning. Most of these preschools have standards in place to prepare children for kindergarten, so that on the first day of school, learning is fostered. Appropriate early childhood programs not only help a child's brain develop in a timely fashion, they also contribute to physical, emotional, spiritual, intellectual, and social development. I am blessed to work at a high-quality preschool and witness the fruits of early education.  I am thankful that my state places a strong emphasis on early learning and I am seeing great progress and legislation that supports it with the help of the Washington State Department of Early Learning.

Washington State’s Department of Early Learning recognizes the significance of early education and is putting its energy and resources into laying a strong foundation for its children. The Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge helps with the funding of early education programs.

 "To win the future, our children need a strong start. The Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge encourages states to develop bold and comprehensive plans for raising the quality of early learning programs across America." - U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.  

On December 16, 2011, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius announced the winners—including Washington—of the $500 million Race to the Top grant to support bold and comprehensive state plans for raising the quality of early learning programs. The Department of Early Learning led Washington's application for the grant, which will bring $60 million for the state over four years to support early learning.

The Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge grant competition focuses on improving early learning and development programs for young children by supporting states' efforts to:

  • Increase the number and percentage of low-income and disadvantaged children in each age group of infants, toddlers, and preschoolers who are enrolled in high-quality early learning programs;
  • Design and implement an integrated system of high-quality early learning programs and services; and
  • Ensure that any use of assessments conforms with the recommendations of the National Research Council's reports on early childhood.

Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge grants were awarded to states that are leading the way with ambitious yet achievable plans for implementing coherent, compelling, and comprehensive early learning education reform.

As our communities throughout our nation consider solutions for economic growth, early education quickly rises to the top of the list. Research proves that the highest impact and lasting investment we can make—both in the classroom and throughout life—is before our children walk through the doors of a classroom. Children entering kindergarten ready to learn are more likely to graduate from high school, engage in postsecondary education, earn more throughout their lives, and contribute more to their communities. These benefits are seen throughout the community in the forms of a better educated workforce with higher earning potential, greater economic stability, and a prepared talent pool attractive to growing businesses and innovative industries.

What can you do? The best way to help is to be informed and be involved in early education issues in your community. What can you do NOW to benefit the children in your life? Here are some great ideas from the DEL website:

  • Read to a child, even after the child has learned to read on her own.
  • Parenting is a challenge. Praise a parent when you get a chance.
  • Donate a copy of a children’s book you love to a child care or youth program.
  • Remind a child that everyone makes mistakes.
  • Take your child on an "I Spy" walk around the neighborhood.
  • Turn up the music and dance with a child in your life.
  • Pack a picnic and head out to a local music festival or concert in the park.
  • Celebrate a holiday or special occasion from another culture with your child.
  • Ask a child in your life about her day and really listen to her answer.
  • Volunteer at school…or volunteer anywhere. Anything that makes our community better is good for children.
  • Take a hike. Getting outdoors is healthy and teaches children about nature.
  • Practice compassion and tolerance in your life. Children will notice.
  • Find a healthy, kid-friendly recipe and cook a meal together (be sure the adult handles any sharp or hot kitchen tools).
  • Teach a child in your life how to write a thank-you note.
  • When playing with a young child, let her direct the play and make up the rules.
  • Be informed about how your community invests in libraries, public schools, parks, nutrition programs, and other services that promote healthy child development.
  • Make history come alive. Talk to a child in your life about a historical event that fascinated you as a child.
  • Sing in the car with your children on the way to child care or school – a great start to the day.
  • Take your child grocery shopping with you. Let him choose new fruits or vegetables to try, and ask him to help find items on your list.
  • Let your child help with simple chores, such as dusting or setting the table.
  • Get out an old family photo album and go through it with your child.
  • Have an indoor picnic with your child on a rainy day.
  • Help a child in your life plant flowers, herbs, or veggies in a pot.

Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the great engine to personal development.  It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that the son of a mineworker can become the head of the mine, that the child of a farm worker can become the president of a great nation.” The truth of this statement rings true with the importance of early education; my passion and my heart.

Renee Berry is the Preschool Director of Evergreen Christian School in Olympia, Washington. For the past eleven years, she has created a program that instills the importance of early literacy. She is also laying the foundation of reading and community service, which go hand in hand with the organization that she co-created: Books Make It Better. Books Make It Better, a grass roots, mom-powered book drive was launched into a national movement in 2011 and has distributed over 3,145 books into the greater Olympia area. Renee has also launched a parenting resource, Parenting Plus Purpose, which provides parenting classes, resources, development sources, devotions, and support. Serving as the 2011 Washington State Mom Congress Delegate has been a life-changing and inspiring event that helped fuel her passions in serving Washington’s families. She is the mom of two high-energy teenagers and is supported in all of her endeavors by her husband, Jason.