Published in The Day

By Lisa McGinley

A college friend who retired from teaching reading in a public high school told me last week that she and her husband have created a foundation to pay for summer reading classes for second- and third-graders at the public library in their New York town.

She specialized in reading professionally because as a child she struggled with it. Her own parents, a weekly newspaper editor and a teacher, recognized how critically important it was for her to learn and made sure she got the help she needed. In gratitude for a successful and fulfilling career, she is doing the same for children who have the added challenge of the disruptions of the pandemic.

Another friend told me, in the same week, that in her mid-70s she asked her doctor to have her tested for attention deficit disorder. Why, said the physician, would you want to do that?

Because, said my friend, she had known since second grade that something wasn’t right. Her struggles in reading and with numbers did not make sense to her.

The doctor ordered the tests, the result was positive, and after 70 years of wondering, after struggling through school and college, my friend is getting treated. She feels vindicated.

They are the fortunate ones, even when help comes far later in life than it should. For young children and their families in New London, whether their challenges are in language, speech, vision, hearing, hunger or any disruptive life situation, a door has opened at the right time.

The city of New London and the New London Public Schools in partnership have launched the Birth to Age 8 Early Childhood Resource Center at the former B.P. Learned Mission center on Shaw Street. With resources from the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut and interested donors, as well as advice from educators and parents, they have been working on an early education component since the tenure of former Superintendent Manuel Rivera. The ever-elusive major funding piece finally became available in the form of pandemic recovery-related federal and state funds.

Educators have known for decades that the most effective way to improve high school graduation rates is for children to be ready for kindergarten and their parents to be able to support them in their schooling. Gov. Dan Malloy made a long-term goal of universal pre-K, but when budgets must be cut, individual attention to very young children and families generally looks to legislators and taxpayers like a luxury.

It is anything but that, in terms of the toll not just to the person but the community that would have benefited from more child learners growing into flourishing adults.

The future of our communal life comes down to just such a distinction. There seem to be two kinds of people – the ones who act or think one way, and the ones who are their opposites. Think of a topic, like academic achievement, and watch how simply it can be cast as a case of the in-crowd and the outliers.

As crude as that kind of mental measuring is, it often works -- as far as adults go. Adolescents, less so; they abide in the early stages of finding out where they stand and how they measure up. But the youngest children don’t divide so easily into categories. They are poised at the starting line. What happens next will inexorably begin the process of separating the capable from the strugglers. Worse still, what may fail to happen next causes much of that struggle.

Early Childhood Education aims to make a difference between being equipped to learn or left trying to catch up. It gives young children the language and social skills they will need to “master grade-level skills, read, write, problem solve and be independent,” as New London Superintendent of Schools Cynthia Ritchie put it.

“All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” the 1986 book by Robert Fulghum struck a chord but it’s wrong. By the time a child enters a kindergarten classroom, they need to be developmentally ready to learn.

Sixteen or 18 or 12 years from now, children who got ready for kindergarten at the New London Center will be graduating from high school. Seventy years from now they will look back on a life that could have been so much harder.

Lisa McGinley is a member of The Day Editorial Board.