It should concern leaders of state government that more than half of North Carolina’s indigent children cannot read proficiently by the time they reach third grade. No commitment of resources at the public school level will fix this problem. We must start much earlier.
We know that some children hear 10 times as many words as others in the first two years of life and that these children are most likely to have good language skills when they enter kindergarten and good reading skills when they are in third grade. We know that the children of well-to-do parents are reading much better, as a group, than the children of indigent parents. We know that when the television is on, adults stop talking. We know that many indigent mothers are single and lack the education, support and maturity to raise healthy children who do well in school.
At this time, only about one-third of children who qualify for Head Start, Smart Start and NC Pre-K (formerly More at Four) can be served by these programs. However, over 96 percent of our preschool children go to child health professionals for regular well-child care including immunizations. In our large pediatric practice, for the last 10 years, we have been giving new age- and culturally appropriate books to all preschool children who come for recommended check-ups. It’s called the Reach Out and Read program.
This month, an administrator/psychologist from our public schools explained in a seminar how the public schools can measure school readiness kindergarten through third grade. We will be able to tell, going forward, whether our practice-based efforts are helping improve the school readiness of our youngest children. There are 15 evidence-based research studies that show the value of Reach Out and Read in improving school readiness.
At the same time, we will reach out to other agencies that interact with indigent families in our county so that all service-providers deliver the same messages about improving school readiness to the parents of at-risk preschool children.
However, this local Reach Out and Read project will not accomplish our goal. We need broad-based community, state and federal support if we are to significantly improve the readiness of children entering our public schools.
At the community level, all families must focus on assuring that their children become good readers by third grade. This means that families must turn off electronic media (smart phones, iPads, laptops, video game boxes, TVs) whenever their children are awake and concentrate on talking with their children, close-up and face-to-face, as much as possible. Conversation is the most powerful stimulant for optimal brain development of young children. Families must read to or with their babies and young children for at least one-half hour every day, birth through third grade.
At the state level, leaders must expand Medicaid according to federal guidelines so that indigent mothers will have access to comprehensive health services. Many indigent mothers have physical and mental health issues that keep them from becoming good parents.
The state should provide matching funds for primary care physicians who implement Reach Out and Read in their practices so that all our at-risk preschool children are enrolled. Currently, our practice must raise about $40,000 each year to pay for Reach Out and Read. It would cost the state about $1 million per year to implement such a matching program involving all primary care medical practices.
At the federal level, there should be funding support for states so that all indigent children are able to participate in high-quality preschool programs like Head Start, Smart Start and NC Pre-K.
If we fail to invest now in improving the school readiness of our youngest children, we cannot complain down the road when our economy continues to sputter and we slowly become a welfare state.
Dr. Dave Tayloe Jr. of Goldsboro is a former president of the American Academy of Pediatric and the current medical director for Reach Out and Read of North Carolina.