For such a wealthy nation, America lurks way behind other developed countries in looking out for preschool-aged children. That’s why Book Trust is trying to plug the gap.
Sometimes, only a cold, hard statistic will do. So try this one:
Despite being one of the richest countries in the world, the United States has roughly the same levels of childhood poverty as Mexico.
It’s a zinger of a line, right? One you maybe have to read twice to fully take in. But beneath that bold, landmark statement lies a killer detail – such poverty hits younger kids particularly hard.
Only a few American cities and states provide access to free or subsidized preschool. And countless working families struggle to afford (or simply cannot afford) any kind of educational provision for their 3- and 4-year-olds.
Like a nice family SUV, a good preschool education is a luxury for those who can afford it.
Why is this happening? Decades of research has clearly shown that children benefit – both socially and academically – from attending preschool. And most other developed countries now provide some kind of universal public preschool.
So why not us?
“On every level – local, state, and federal – this country invests little to nothing in the first five years of a child’s life, putting it decades and dollars behind the rest of the developed world.”
Ouch. That’s a blunt assessment of the current picture from education journalist Lillian Mongeau – but it rings true. Preschool simply isn’t a fact of life for thousands of young Americans.
Which means many children from low-income families turn up at school for the first time having never even held, much less owned, a book.
And it’s no mystery what happens next to such students. Already significantly behind most of their classmates, and given uninspiring reading materials in class, they inevitably struggle.
The classroom becomes an alien, confusing place – a shameful room where others can read while they cannot.
Try to imagine for a moment how unsettling and upsetting such a public failure must be.
Imagine say, you entered an obstacle race, in front of a cheering crowd – then just before the starting whistle someone tied your hands behind your back. Then picture yourself tripping and floundering as everyone laughed.
That’s the territory a lot of students find themselves in. Hobbled before they even begin.
Free to choose
One thing is certain: When such kids arrive at kindergarten – clueless and disoriented – they need all the help they can get, and fast, if they’re going to have the smallest chance of catching up.
And that’s why Book Trust exists.
At Book Trust schools, each child is given a Scholastic Reading Club flyer and enough money for two or three books every month.
Then they’re simply told: Knock yourself out. Pick your favorites. It’s entirely up to the kids what books they choose. And they get to keep every single one.
Unsurprisingly, particularly for early readers who’ve been struggling in class with dry school texts, finally having something to read that they actually want to read is a huge motivation.
In our experience, several things happen next: 1. Children read the books over and over again 2. They build their very own home library 3. They start reading at home with their parents and siblings 4. They become avid readers and better students.
For the child who came from a home without books, whose mom was holding down three jobs, who didn’t have any preschool time at all, Book Trust is a life-line.
We give disadvantaged students an opportunity to discover a passion for reading and books. Most importantly, we enable them to make up lost ground and change the course of their entire education.
This year, Book Trust will help more than 50,000 young students – that’s equivalent to the entire population of a small American city.
And we’re growing each year (thanks to donations from generous people like yourself!) to meet ever-increasing demand.
But still, at times it can feel like we’re trying to alter the course of a cruise liner with just a couple of plastic paddles.
Across America, there are currently more than 16 million kids living in poverty – an astounding number.
But you can either throw your hands up in the air or start tackling the problem on a micro level, one student at a time. We choose the latter option.
And besides, it’s not all doom and gloom. At a national, political level, there have recently been faint flickerings of hope where preschool provision is concerned.
But don’t break out the party poppers just yet. As always with political – and especially social – change, the pace of any progress will be iceberg-slow.
Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, even put a number on it: “At the current rate, it will be another 50 years before states can reach all low-income children at age four.”
As we said, no party poppers just yet.
Presumably, the four-year-old who needs help right now to get a decent start in her education won’t get much comfort from knowing preschool options might start trickling through by the time her grandchildren are toddlers.
And that’s why Book Trust is here. With hardly any available preschool support, and little prospect of change for half a century, somebody has to do something now to help disadvantaged kids.
And if not us, then who?
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