10 July 2009

North Carolina’s Smart Start: A Model for Putting Young Children on the Right Path to Success in School and Life

80% of a child’s brain development occurs during the first 36 months of her life. During this vital period, cognitive, social, emotional and physical developmental processes are progressing or faltering together. Early brain development, which is the foundation for all later life learning, occurs as a child interacts with the people in her life. When her interactions are secure and stimulating and her caregivers provide her with the resources and protections she needs to foster optimal brain development, she arrives at kindergarten ready to learn and succeed in school and life (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2004).

The state of North Carolina created the early care and education portion of their ECCS, Smart Start initiative, through an act of the legislature in 1993 to “assure that every child in the state arrived at school healthy and ready to succeed” (Smart Start, 2007). When they began in 1994, they had 12 local partner organizations, working in 18 counties across the state to provide services such as home visiting and early care and education services to at-risk children. As of 2006, the Smart Start Initiative has $260 million in funding for its programs, with about 20% of funding coming from private organizations and 80% of the funding provided through government programs. Their funding is used by 79 partner agencies in all 100 counties to provide access to programs that support children’s cognitive, social, emotional and physical development (Doctors et al, 2007).

When they began, only 20% of children in the state attended a high quality early child care prior to kindergarten. Today 80% of the children in the state attend high quality child care. Additionally, more children have all of their vaccinations and a medical home during their crucial early brain developmental years. These improvements in the quality and availability of services that support young children’s developmental needs have translated into very real gains for children in later life outcome measures.

How well does it work? Children in North Carolina score higher on kindergarten readiness exams when they’ve participated in Smart Start programs. And these gains last: When they reach 4th grade, North Carolina’s children score markedly better on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the national level achievement test than they did when Smart Start began offering services in 1994 (Smart Start, 2007).

Tennessee is joining other states right now in formulating an Early Childhood Comprehensive System. We hope that it will create the improved outcomes for at-risk children that have been demonstrated in North Carolina. As budgets are shrinking and the number of poor and at-risk children is expanding at an alarming rate, it is good to see federal, state and local governments partnering with parents and advocates for children to make smart policy that will improve the well-being of our children now and in the future. This is the kind of investing that has the power to improve the well-being of our children and our state.

Doctors, Jennifer V., Barbara Gebhard, Lynn Jones and Albert Wat (2007). Common Vision, Different Paths: Five States’ Journeys toward Comprehensive Prenatal-to-Five Systems. Zero to Three and Pre-K Now. Accessed February and July 2009. http://www.pewtrusts.org/uploadedFiles/wwwpewtrustsorg/Reports/Pre-k_education/CommonVision_Dec2007.pdf

National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2004). Young Children Develop in an Environment of Relationships. Working Paper No.1. Accessed May 2009. < http://www.developingchild.net/pubs/wp/Young_Children_Environment_Relationships.pdf>

North Carolina Partnership for Children (2007). Smart Start National Technical Assistance Center Overview. Author. Accessed July 2009 http://www.smartstart-nc.org/ntac/index.htm

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