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December 14, 2011
Child care specialist addresses Averett grads

DANVILLE, VA - Karen Ponder, a past president of the North Carolina Partnership for Children (NCPC), the non-profit that oversees and gives technical support to Smart Start, the state's early childhood funding and planning initiative, spoke at Averett University's winter commencement ceremony recently, addressing a crowd of over 1,000 about the importance of making a difference in the lives of children.

Below is the transcript of her speech:

Good morning. President Franks, trustees, members of the faculty, staff, graduates and guests, I am honored to be with you today and to have the privilege to speak to you, especially the 2011 winter graduation class of Averett University, on this special occasion and important milestone in your life.
I suggest that you are here today because an adult(s) loved and cared for you, encouraged you, talked to you, and read to you....someone who gave you the feeling, whether subtle or explicit, that you are valuable and have what it takes to be successful. If I had the opportunity to interview each one of you, I'm sure you could name at least one adult who played such a role in your life and who has helped you get to this place.
My comments will focus on the importance and value of the earliest years of life and their relevance for all that follows. I will lay out a case for why early education matters to everyone here today, particularly to those graduating from this University, regardless of your career path or further educational pursuits....and I want to challenge you to make a difference in the life of a child.....whether your own or another child who needs your love and support to achieve great things.
Learning begins at birth. And brain building is a critical function during the first three to five years of life. Scientists tell us that 90% of a person's brain connections are hard wired before they start to school. Therefore, the period of time between birth and kindergarten is the most important period of time in a person's life for making brain connections---for creating the framework for a physically and emotionally healthy individual with the maximum capacity to thrive, to learn, and to contribute to society. The first years are the time when the capacity to learn is created. And that foundation will then shape every learning experience that follows. This window of opportunity when the greatest impact can be made exists for a very short time. And the interactions and relationships that children have during this period are the determining factors, since early experiences, whether positive or negative, actually shape the architecture of the developing brain.
Dr. Jack Shonkoff, a Harvard brain researcher and developmental pediatrician, who, along with his colleagues, has conducted significant research on the developing brain and reviewed all the major brain studies, made the following statement:
"Scientific research reveals the critical impact of a child's "environment of relationships" on developing brain architecture during the first months and years of life. We have long known that interactions with parents, caregivers, and other adults are important in a child's life, but new evidence shows that these relationships actually shape brain circuits and lay the foundation for later developmental outcomes, from academic performance and interpersonal skills to physical and mental health."
So with this backdrop, I want to suggest three reasons that early education matters and why it is important to you, regardless of your vocation or where you are in your life span.
First, having children who have well developed brains when they enter school will benefit our public schools and reduce intervention costs later on. Many of you are now, or will be working in the field of education at a variety of levels. It is important to recognize that all the learning that occurs in the public school and university years is built on the foundation of the early years. If that foundation is weak, our school systems must spend much more in intervention costs than it would cost to invest in high quality early education for all children from the beginning.
Parents and other family members are the most important teachers of young children and their impact begins even before birth. In addition to families, long-term studies prove that school-related outcomes for children who were in high quality early childhood programs prior to formal school are far better than the outcomes of those who did not have this advantage. They have higher test scores, less grade retention, and higher graduation rates, to name a few. All young children, especially our most vulnerable children, should be provided high quality early learning experiences for their own benefit and to improve our public schools and universities, as well as the future workforce.
A second reason that early education matters is because of its demonstrated impact on good citizenship. Future citizens will be better community members if they start out in life with high quality early experiences and education. Long-term studies of children who were in high quality early childhood programs have demonstrated, with over 40 years of evidence, that children in high quality early learning programs are less likely to commit crimes or become chronic lawbreakers; more likely to be employed and earn more money; less likely to need public and social supports; more likely to own their own homes and to delay parenting until adulthood. I don't know of any other strategy that gives those kinds of results.

When I was leading Smart Start in North Carolina, the head of our Juvenile Justice System there, was fond of telling me, if I did my job, he could retire. And he firmly believed it. He was a former police chief in Winston-Salem and had seen the world from a very different perspective. He knew that what happens in the high chair, in large part determines who and what a child will become. Is there anything more important to society than preparing the next generation to be good citizens?

A third reason that early education matters is because it makes economic sense. There is a cost-benefit to the public in providing high quality early learning. Studies show savings ranging from $1 to $16 for every $1 invested in high quality early childhood programs. Our business leaders remind us that we have to make investment decisions on the front end in order to get good results later on.

Dr. Jim Heckman, a Nobel Laureate and prize-winning economist, has spent his life studying financial models that make the most economic sense to society. He looked at various early interventions, such as pupil to teacher ratios, public job training, convict rehab programs, tuition subsidies, and police expenditures, only to later discover early childhood education, and he is so convinced that early learning is the best investment that can be made, that he has dedicated the rest of his life to helping the world understand the significant nature of the relationship between early learning and the economic success of our nation.

Dr. Heckman said, "If a child is not motivated and stimulated to learn and engage early on in life, the more likely it is that when the child becomes an adult, he/she will fail in social and economic life. The longer we wait to intervene in the lifecycle of a child, the more costly it is to remediate to restore the child to her/his full potential.".....if indeed that is possible!

Recently, a study was conducted by the Rand Corporation for the state of California and found that any investments of public money toward early education would pay for themselves by the time a child reached middle school. It's hard to argue with that rate of return on investment.
Early education builds good brains; benefits our schools and businesses; reduces the need for intervention costs; builds stronger communities; and saves money in the long run---- it literally matters to all of us.

So what does this knowledge mean to you as you reach another milestone in your own education? The knowledge that nurturing, protective relationships for young children translate into mentally and emotionally healthy adults, speaks to the critical roles you can play in encouraging and engaging with your own children or children in your family. For example, the early language skill of children (how many words they know and understand) is the strongest indicator of their ability to read later on. This knowledge should motivate each of us to positively engage with and read to young children every day, beginning at birth.
What we've learned about early education also has value to you as a citizen. Society is dependent on individuals to maintain the delicate balance that keeps us all safe, secure, and with the ability to thrive. Being a responsible citizen doesn't happen by chance, and we know scientifically now what we had suspected, that the early years set the trajectory toward success or failure. I hope that each of you will care about and be involved in decisions about early learning, family support and health programs that are needed within your community to assist vulnerable children who may start life with significant challenges. It is in their best interest and in yours to do so.
As you leave this place today, I encourage you to think again about the person or people who helped give you a good start in life and commit to paying that forward by helping other children achieve what you have achieved. You can be a significant part of the village or community needed to help children thrive, regardless of where your path may lead.....in your family and community, in your school or university, or in your business. Our culture has swung so far to the side of personal entitlement, but wise people understand that personal satisfaction actually comes from giving to others.....giving to the most vulnerable people in our society, our children, is indeed the work of champions.
Helen Keller once said that many people have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. She said, "Happiness is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose."
I wish for each of you a worthy purpose and the very best as you leave this place today, and I will look forward to hearing great things about your success and the ways you've chosen to give back.