The press has been full of pre-Kindergarten discussions in recent months, including federal, state, and now New York City pre-Kindergarten proposals.
By Allen Clark
The press has been full of pre-Kindergarten discussions in recent months, including federal, state, and now New York City pre-Kindergarten proposals. At the heart of these is something neurologists and child psychologists have long known, that a child’s brain is most receptive to learning from birth to age 3. Tie that fact to the growing recognition that the best (and some say, only) way out of poverty is education – and you have 5 Steps to Five.
The pilot pre-K program started this month in space leased at the Carver Center in Port Chester, thanks to the vision, energy, experience, and financial involvement of Kent and Mary Alice Warner of Rye and a $50,000 matching grant from the Eugene and Emily Grant Foundation in Mamaroneck.
The program derives its name from five daily activities that studies have shown are instrumental for a child’s brain development: 1. Nurture. 2. Talk. 3. Play. 4. Read. 5. Explore. “There’s ample evidence,” the Warners point out, “that many low-income, at-risk parents are unprepared to provide the daily, affirming activities their babies need to develop into children who will thrive in the classroom… and from there thrive in life and become productive, contributing members of society.”
The program will be staffed and run by the county’s largest manager of day care centers, Westchester Community Opportunity Center (WestCOP). Approximately ten new mothers who fit low income, at-risk, and other criteria will meet in a group at Carver Center, for two hours (4:30-6:30 p.m.) once a week, with their newborn babies. Two trained early childhood professionals will work with the group, as well as visit individual homes once or twice a month.
“What’s missing in the current debate over economic inequality,” wrote Nobel Laureate in Economics James J. Heckman in a New York Times Op Ed piece last September, “is enough serious discussion about investing in effective early childhood development from birth to age 5.” He concluded, “While education is a great equalizer of opportunity when done right, American policy is going about it all wrong: current programs don’t start early enough….”
Because of WestCOP’s existing network of social services and community relationships, especially three well-established Head Start programs in Port Chester, 5 Steps to Five will include what Kent Warner calls “surround benefits.” Its goals go well beyond just cognitive skills.
“We’re committed to the children’s emotional well-being, social competence, and physical and mental condition,” he says. “These are prerequisites for economic productivity and responsible citizenship throughout life; they’re just as important as having good academic skills. These at-risk kids deserve it all.” Mary Alice Warner adds that a key attribute of this plan is that “the parents will be empowered with self-confidence, enriching the life of the family, enabling them to support their child as he or she advances in school and in life.”
In just five months, Warner has raised over $120,000, which will fund year one. “We couldn’t have done this without the generosity of Eugene and Emily Grant,” Warner says. “They saw right away that this was an ‘investment opportunity’ – their words – as something that would have not only immediate impact on the babies but would produce a long-term economic return.”
It was a combination of things that led Warner to focus on early education. For starters, the more he read about babies’ brains, the more it became clear to him how important pre-K programs are. He then researched studies that have measured the social and economic impact of such programs.
In a four-decade study at the Perry School in Ypsilanti, Michigan, low-income pre-schoolers in the program significantly outperformed the no-program group on highest level of schooling completed, employment at age 40 and median annual earnings, which translated into higher taxes paid. A major contributor to positive return was a significant reduction in crime and costly jail sentences. “The evidence clearly shows that for every one dollar invested in pre-K,” said Warner, “there were many, many dollars gained.”
This is a pilot program, Warner reiterates. “We know a lot, but there’s also lots we’re going to learn as we progress.” Evaluation will be conducted on a regular weekly basis and long term to measure how well the mothers are engaging their babies in their surroundings and in the kinds of regular dialogue that is so important. Depending on the progress of the first set of mothers, the program hopes to add a second class during the first year.
The Warners, who moved in 2012 to a Rye condominium they’d owned for many years, have a history of involvement in education and public service. While living in White Plains, they formed a non-profit board, headed by Kent for five years, sponsoring a moderate-income, federally financed 100-unit building near the Urban Renewal area. Kent also served for 14 years on the Board of Directors of Spaulding Youth Center in Northfield, N.H. Mary Alice worked for nine years as a co-facilitator in groups for troubled parents at the White Plains Youth Bureau and with teen mothers and their babies. Now in their late 80s, they show no signs of slowing down.
Warner’s next goal is to build an income flow that will cover the second and third years. Tax-deductible donations may be made out to “WestCOP/5 Steps to Five” and mailed to WestCOP/5 Steps to Five, 2 Westchester Plaza, Elmsford, NY 10523.
The author is a member of the 5 Steps to Five Advisory Committee.