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Celia C. Ayala: Early education effective in combating dropouts

Guest Commentary

Posted: June 14, 2010 10:46 p.m.
Updated: June 15, 2010 4:55 a.m.

High school graduations recently took place in the Santa Clarita Valley, and it's a time for celebration among our youth.
Though many look back fondly at high school memories, others gaze into the future with great trepidation.

With college costs soaring and out of reach for many, the pursuit of post-secondary education may ultimately prove too daunting. Those challenged with finding work are hardly better off as they struggle with economic conditions not seen since the Great Depression.

Sadly, there was no graduation celebration at all for some, having chosen instead to drop out of school. This reality poses a serious threat to our attempts to prepare future generations for the global economy.

According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, a national policy and advocacy organization, nearly 90 percent of the fastest-growing and highest-paying jobs require a high school diploma or some post-secondary education.

Nevertheless, one-third of American students - about 1.3 million a year - leave high school without a diploma, at a high cost to themselves and society at large. It's estimated that dropouts from the class of 2008 will cost California almost $42.1 billion in lost wages over their lifetimes.

Research has shown that one of the most effective solutions to combat students dropping out of high school is to provide our children with certain building blocks at an early age in the form of quality early childhood education.

The United States began implementing preschool education programs more than 40 years ago. The main goal was to improve the school readiness of children at risk - due primarily to their economic disadvantage - so as to enable them to begin formal schooling on a more equal footing with their more fortunate peers.

Since the 1960s, studies have shown that preschool programs enhance the cognitive, literacy and social skills necessary for success in school. Preschool has been proven to promote school achievement, reduce the need for retention, lower the risk of delinquency and increase student high school graduation rates.

The fact that about half of the 4-year-olds in Los Angeles County today do not attend preschool is a travesty that must be remedied. Publicly funded programs like state preschool and Head Start are available to some, but only the poorest families qualify, and spaces are scarce.

At any given time, thousands of children languish on the county's Centralized Eligibility List, a waiting list for spaces in publicly funded programs. Private preschools often cost too much for working- and middle-class families.

If the Santa Clarita Valley - and California in general - intends to prepare the next generation for the increasingly competitive global economy, more resources need be invested in early education.

As preschoolers enter kindergarten, additional steps should be taken to ensure that our public schools live up to their promise.

The Economic Opportunity Institute, an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit public-policy center, states that the lack of school readiness puts children at risk for academic, social and behavioral difficulties in school - precisely the population most vulnerable to drop out.

Graduation rates are a fundamental indicator of whether our nation's public school system is doing what it is intended to: enroll, engage and educate youth to be productive members of our society.

We are currently failing our children in this endeavor, but a remedy is not far off. Children who attend quality, early learning and care programs are more likely to graduate from high school, seek higher education and earn better wages.

That is why we need to urge policymakers to invest in quality early education programs, so our children can get the good start in life that they need and deserve. Our future is at stake.

Celia C. Ayala, Ph.D., is the chief operating officer of Los Angeles Universal Preschool, which funds high-quality preschool programs for approximately 10,000 4-year-olds annually in more than 325 preschools across Los Angeles County, including in the Santa Clarita Valley. Her column reflects her own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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