Young children from low-income families often miss out on opportunities to prepare for school through things like reading to a child regularly from birth to attending free programs at local libraries and schools.
The absence of such early-learning experiences can leave a child struggling to catch up for years, advocates said, adding even higher costs to schools and social welfare agencies.
“The time of silence is gone. These kids are all of our kids,” Kelsey Bush, the county’s youth coordinator, said. “The better they do in the beginning, the better they will do societally.”
The St. Mary’s County Early Childhood Advisory Council wrote in a grant proposal to the Maryland State Department of Education that it would develop a plan to pull together agencies and resources that help preschool-aged children, specifically targeting families with low incomes.
The council was recently awarded the $29,900 Race to the Top — Early Learning Challenge grant, which will assist in its efforts to make sure children are ready for school.
Last fall 82 percent of children from low-income families entering kindergarten in St. Mary’s were found to be “fully ready” for school, according to state data. This is 10 percentage points lower than students from mid- to high-income families.
“Basically, we’re to address the school readiness gap of children from low-income families,” said Siobhan Warsinske, executive director of the Promise Resource Center, which provides education and resources to child-care providers, parents and others in Southern Maryland.
The early childhood council is made up of about three dozen representatives from agencies in the county, including social services, the public library, St. Mary’s public schools, child care providers and others.
Warsinske said the goal is to give parents of young children access to information, materials, programs and other resources that can help them succeed once they get to school.
The center aims to promote “things to help parents understand they are their children’s first teacher,” Warsinske said.
Kathleen Reif, director of St. Mary’s public libraries and a member of the early childhood council, said the council tallied in-kind costs of more than $63,000 that will go into the outreach effort along with the grant money, and is looking to reach low-income families with young children every way it can.
“We recognize most folks live on their mobile phone these days,” Reif said. One goal is to link the many groups and programs in St. Mary’s on a website, complete with a calendar of events focused on things to do with young children, to help parents see all of what’s available.
“We’re looking at things that already exist,” like social media websites, parent cafes, moms clubs and learning fairs, Warsinske said.
The group will also reach out to pediatricians with the hope that the doctors will come on board with the plan and reach out to families, she said.
The group plans to bring in a speaker to talk to council members and others about what its like to live in poverty today.
“What we see as priorities might not be a priority for a person impoverished,” Bush said.
Mitch Watney, pastor of Good Samaritan Lutheran Church in Lexington Park, said he and others on the council will help train volunteers in a mentor program, who will spread the word door-to-door in certain neighborhoods about what help is available to families.
“We’re neighbors with this whole community,” Watney said.