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Forum gives insight into young minds

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Hundreds crowded into an above-capacity conference room at the Norm Dicks Government Center Monday night to get the answer to a question that makes educators drool at the prospect of it.

What if every child came to school ready to learn?

That question was at the center of an early learning forum hosted by state Rep. Patricia Lantz (D-Gig Harbor) featuring education researchers, administrators and teachers.

Bremerton superintendent Bette Hyde had a few ideas of what it would be like.

“If every kid was ready to go to school, the field of education would be a happier one,” Hyde said. “Teachers want to do the right thing ... and currently get frustrated.”

Hyde said much of the current focus given to remedial learning could be shifted to enrichment, which would amount monetarily to an $8 million swing in the district’s $45 million budget. Arts and electives would not have to suffer due to the need to meet certain basic standards, Hyde explained.

To emphasize the importance of the formative years leading up to the age of five, Dr. Andrew Meltzoff, co-director of the University of Washington Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, presented recent research into the topic.

His presentation included video showing amazing cognitive capabilities in children as young as a 19-hour-old infant.

“Science has shown children from 0 to 5 are learning more rapidly ... than any of us do at any point in the rest of our lives,” Meltzoff said. “It’s known adolescents are looking to their parents as role models ... we don’t realize as much that the little baby sitting in the high chair is doing so, too.”

The importance of learning another language besides English has been pushed more lately, but too often researchers have found it is attempted through audio and/or video products which have proved ineffective instead of face-to-face social interaction.

“Babies can learn foreign language,” Meltzoff said. “But they can’t learn it from tape recorders, they learn it from people. Social interaction is the key.”

John Burbank, founder and executive director of the Economic Opportunity Institute, gave information about the Finnish early learning system, considered one of the best in the world.

Burbank emphasized the need to compensate child care providers better, as theirs is an important but underappreciated, too often low-morale profession.

“The biggest difference is that it’s well-funded ... the (Finns) have a right to (good) early learning and child care,” Burbank said.

Burbank said there is a seven-dollar return for each dollar invested into early learning, but cautioned system reform is needed as well, not just dumping cash into the current system.

State Rep. Ruth Kagi (D-Lake Forest Park) discussed state efforts to improve early learning after slipping in recent years.

“Our state was an early starter in funding preschools but has fallen behind in the past decade,” Kagi said. “It is important we recognize parents are children’s first and most important teachers.”

Sharon Vetter, a kindergarten teacher at Manchester Elementary in South Kitsap, closed the event by sharing her experiences working with students each day.

Vetter also lamented the impact wired life is having. She pointed to a study showing second-graders’ vocabulary shrunk from 19,500 to just 7,000 words between 1992 and 2002.

“Passive activities like TV and video games are ... partly responsible,” Vetter said. “What we really need to be doing with our child is (have) a conversation.”

Debbie Kray, a parent of two children, was pleased with the forum.

“I just think it’s really important to be aware of young children,” Kray said. Interaction with parents makes a world of difference for kids.”

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