That means increased emphasis on early childhood education is key to economic and workforce development, said Matt Robison, vice president of small business and workforce development for the State Chamber of Oklahoma and an OKCEO member.
“It’s difficult to really grasp that, especially when you are talking about education reform, because the business community wants issues resolved right now,” Robison said. “You really don’t see the benefit of your involvement in early childhood development immediately, but you will in the future.”
A joint effort of SmartStart Oklahoma, the Potts Family Foundation and the Oklahoma Business Rountable, OKCEO is committed to raising awareness of the pivotal role early learning has in a child’s overall education.
OKCEO members, state legislators and representatives of some of Oklahoma City’s largest companies gathered May 6 at Oklahoma City Educare, 500 S.E. Grand Blvd., to tour the $9 million, 30,000-squarefoot facility.
Opened in 2009, Oklahoma City Educare serves 212 disadvantaged children, from birth to 5 years old, with year-round early childhood education programs. The school is preparing to send its second graduating class to kindergarten, armed with the social skills, mental health services and nurturing support needed “to reverse a cycle of poverty and dysfunction that we have in our state, and many other states,” said Pat Potts of the Potts Family Foundation.“We have some really startling statistics in our state about divorce, about child abuse, about drug use, and obesity and unhealthy lifestyles. All of those things are part of the baggage that often comes from getting the wrong start in life,” Potts said.
Early childhood education is more about developing relationships and establishing healthy routines than about learning letters and numbers, said Malana Means, Oklahoma City Educare’s lead administrator and the early childhood services director for Sunbeam Family Services, the facility’s managing partner.
“That’s how we teach: It’s through play. It’s through interactions. It’s not through sitting down at a desk. You won’t see any desks here at Educare,” Means said.
The student-to-teacher ratio is very small: eight-to-three for children that are infants to 3 years old, and 17-to-three for ages 4 and 5. The student body is largely Hispanic, and bilingual staff members help the children learn Spanish and English, Means said.
“We don’t want to take away their home language, but we want to make sure they are leaving with English skills as well,” she said.
Oklahoma City Educare is one of 17 such schools across the nation, including two in Tulsa. Oklahoma City will partner with the new Oklahoma City Public Schools Cesar Chavez Elementary next door to track the progress of Educare graduates through longitudinal studies.
Oklahoma City Educare was created through a partnership between Insamuch Foundation, Sunbeam Family Services Inc., Community Action Agency of Oklahoma, Canadian County and Oklahoma City Public Schools, and is funded through a blend of public and private revenue.
Insamuch Foundation president and CEO Bob Ross said $15 million in private funds per year have to be raised to tap $10 million in funds from a state pilot program. The school’s land was bought with MAPS for Kids funds.
“The different layers of funding, the braid of funding that we do here, is what makes this possible,” Means said. “That couple of years can make such a huge difference in the trajectory of their lives. It’s worth it.”