College presidents, school district superintendents and their representatives discussed barriers to improvement of programs that serve infants, toddlers and preschoolers during the 10th annual Education Summit held Friday morning and organized by the Thurston County Chamber.
Hands on Children’s Museum executive director Patty Belmonte set the stage for the panel by noting that the college-completion rate in the United States has dropped from first in the world to 36th. She said 75 percent of 17- to 24-year-olds in the nation have trouble meeting the military’s academic requirements.
When parents and preschools provide an early-learning environment, the children are more likely to succeed and adapt socially, Belmonte said.
Most of the panel agreed that while much is being done locally, there is no system that effectively reaches children before kindergarten, especially those from low-income households and from families with two working parents.
North Thurston School District Superintendent Raj Manhas said that while many groups are addressing the issue, he sees a need for more focused leadership. Manhas proposed creating an early-learning center where all groups can direct their efforts and where young parents, educators and business leaders can go to obtain resources.
Dr. Rhonda Coates of South Puget Sound Community College suggested including vouchers for the Hands On Children’s Museum and similar resources in new parent packages that could be distributed through hospitals and prenatal programs. She said it could include a resource guide to early-learning services in Thurston County.
Olympia School District Superintendent Bill Lahmann wondered how schools could stretch their K-12 funding to reach 3- to 4-year-olds. He proposed that area school districts offer 30-minute workshops on the value and resources available for early learning to businesses whose employees have young families or who are about to become parents.
“Sometimes, early learning is as simple as asking children to take off their shoes and count their toes,” he said.
Dr. Margo Deegan of Brandman University in Lacey noted that most young families require two incomes, which creates the challenge of offering early-learning opportunities outside of working hours.
About 75 chamber members and educators attended the summit at the New Market Skills Center.
All the Olympia-area higher-education institutions reported record enrollments as classes begin this year, which officials see as the result of more people turning to education and retraining while the demand for jobs remains low.