Upcoming summit focuses on economic benefits of early childhood development 

For the first day of kindergarten, your child needs crayons, glue and brain stimulation that was supposed to start when he was born.

Three experts in the fields of economics and early childhood education will speak to business leaders at the Oklahoma Economic Summit on Early Childhood Investment Monday to express the importance of early education to better the lives of children in Oklahoma as well as improve the workforce of tomorrow.


Seven foundations have lent their time and energy to create this summit. It is held so members of the business community can hear the message that investment in early childhood and early childhood education will make the most positive impact on Oklahoma's biggest problems, said Pat Potts, president of the Potts Family Foundation.

The speakers at the summit include James J. Heckman, a Nobel Prize winner in economics; Robert Dugger, an expert on the effects of government policy in the global market; and Sonya Anderson, director of the First Five Years Fund, which specializes in early childhood education.

The event will also include a panel of Oklahomans discussing the impact of early childhood investment.

Potts said if business leaders and legislators pay attention and invest in early childhood, incarceration, high school dropouts, divorce, poverty and teen pregnancy rates would all decrease significantly in the future.

"What all of that produces is a huge drain, we pay huge costs in terms of human capital," she said. "These people are not in a position to contribute to our productivity."

Potts said the reason why Oklahoma has such high rates of negative statistics is a lack of emphasis on child development and school preparation. If a child is not school-ready, it takes much remediation and intervention to keep up with other children who were prepared for school, she said. It can also present many other problems later in life, such as dropping out of school and living in poverty, she said.

Socioeconomic status also plays a part in school readiness, said Ray Bitsche, executive director of Sunbeam Family Services.

"The research shows the poorer you are, the lower your vocabulary is. There are fewer conversations in the home, fewer books and less exposure to literacy," he said.

Because Oklahoma is a poorer state, it poses a problem for children being ready for school, Bitsche said.

Susan Illgen, executive director of Smart Start Oklahoma, said the first five years of a person's life are the most critical.

"All the skills are laid during the first five years, like how to problem solve, get along well with other people, early literacy development and math skills," Illgen said.

Children need their brains to be stimulated from the time they're born because most of the brain develops within the first two to three years of life, Potts said. If a child doesn't learn basic concepts, years later the workforce is ultimately affected with inadequate workers.

Especially in the midst of a slump in the economy, business leaders want to be ensured that the next generation of workers will be prepared and stay in the state, she said.

Illgen said by investing one dollar in a child's life, the return rate is from $7 to $17. She said she hopes the summit raises awareness with business leaders so they understand and become passionate about school readiness and early childhood. By going to this summit, business leaders can learn about and advocate for positive changes in a community. Legislators, she added, could also play a huge role in advocating for change in the state by way of children.

"Legislators need to think very carefully about use of state funds. They need to think, 'What's the best way we can use existing state dollars?'" Illgen said.

Potts said the state needs to focus less on punishment and be more forward-thinking with prevention.

That way of thinking, with an emphasis of early childhood education, is much cheaper in the long run, Bitsche said.

"It costs $23,000 to incarcerate someone. It doesn't cost $23,000 per child to place them in a high-quality early child care."

He said the earlier you invest in a child, the less effort and money will be spent later.

Potts said she would like to see many programs and legislation come from this summit. Some examples include a home visitation program for new parents that would help them in the first two years of the child's life or workshops that teach parents the importance in stimulating a child's growth.

One of the most urgent things she said she hopes will come from the summit is recognition of the importance of child care.

"A high percentage of parents are working, or if it's a single parent they may be working two jobs. Child care becomes an important piece," Potts said.

Bitsche said the average child-care worker in Oklahoma is paid about $7.40 per hour, and there should be an effort made to increase the minimum qualifications to work in early childhood. Because of this low pay in the child-care field, there is a huge turnover rate, he said. Consequentially, children often find it hard to bond and attach when teachers are constantly quitting.

Parents also need to be aware of the importance of health care, Illgen said. Checkups, immunizations and awareness of early childhood diseases can all help in developing the child, she said.

Ultimately, if parents are aware and willing, there are simple things to be done to help the child be ready for school, work and life, she said. Parents need to find time to spend with their children by reading, playing and talking to them everyday.

Potts said although there are some great programs and people working for early childhood, there is still a long way to go.

"In terms of investment, the choice really is we can invest more in early childhood or we can pay many more times later," she said.

The Oklahoma Economic Summit on Early Childhood Investment is 11:45 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. Monday at the Skirvin Hilton Hotel, 1 Park. For more information, call 278-6978. "Jamie Birdwell

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