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Martinsburg conference focuses on early childhood education

August 10, 2011|By RICHARD F. BELISLE | richardb@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — "Building Blocks of Success," a half-day conference held Wednesday, focused on early childhood educational experiences at home, in day care and pre-school that lead to success or failure in school.

About 100 people — education, community, business and political leaders among them — attended the morning conference at the Holiday Inn in Martinsburg.

Featured speakers were Oleta Fitzgerald, southern regional director of the Children's Defense Fund, and Diane Ansari, director of Regional Education Service Agency 8 Head Start, Pre-K and Early Head Start.

Attendees learned more about issues facing children of low-income backgrounds and their early life experiences against those from middle- and upper-class backgrounds.

"Programs to help poor children need government money," Fitzgerald said. "There's a chasm going on. If government does not help, what do we have? What will America be if we fail to educate our children? There's nothing they can do without an education."

Fitzgerald said she knows of families in her native Mississippi that live within two miles of the Mississippi River "and their children have never seen the river. It's as foreign to them as China."

The amount and kinds of exposure children receive at an early age makes all the difference, she said.

Research shows that the one of the biggest difference between poor and average children is their vocabulary when they enter kindergarten, Ansari said.

Studies show that West Virginia is third only behind Oklahoma and Florida in educating pre-kinderegarten children, a statement that drew a round of applause from the audience.

Students are screened to determine if they have developmental problems early on through programs like the state's Birth to Three program.

"If we get them early we can fix it," Ansari said.

Trina Bartlett is the director of Community Impact for the United Way of the Eastern Panhandle, which helped to launch the Burke Street Promise Neighborhood. It is designed to provide a strong support system for children and their families in the 40-block Burke Street School attendance area with its variety of income levels. The area has many issues as well as resources, she said.

The concept is a birth-to-high-school geographical focus for a seamless coordinated effort between schools, parents, day care providers and the community, Bartlett said.

"We must all work together to support the positive growth, development and education of our children," Charlotte Norris, who chairs the Promise Neighborhood program, said in prepared remarks. "Thriving children are the cornerstone of success for our community."

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