The Times West Virginian

June 26, 2013

Efforts to boost early education in state must be strong, focused

Times West Virginian

— With the rapid growth of technology and its ability to connect every corner of the globe, it’s somewhat mind-boggling to imagine what the students of today will be doing in their future careers.

A few clicks of the mouse — or, as tablets and touchscreens continue to grow in popularity, a few swipes of the finger — will take them to locations and jobs that are vastly different from the ones held by their parents and grandparents.

Maybe they’ll be digital architects, designing a selection of virtual buildings for advertisers and retailers to market their products.

Or maybe they’ll be avatar managers, designing and managing holograms of virtual people.

They might even make body parts, creating living body parts for athletes and soldiers suffering otherwise debilitating injuries.

But to get there, they must be armed with a quality education, one that many experts agree should start at a young age.

And that’s where West Virginia appears to be lacking.

According to the annual KIDS COUNT report released Monday, nearly two-thirds of the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds weren’t enrolled in preschool programs in 2011.

That’s prompting child-welfare advocates to say that the lack of quality pre-kindergarten programs for 3-year-olds is part of the reason West Virginia’s educational system has again been ranked fourth worst in the nation — a discouraging spot it’s now held for two years in a row.

Even Margie Hale, executive director of West Virginia KIDS COUNT, acknowledges that the state must focus on education.

“We have already made some important strides with our universal pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds,” she said. “But research tells us to get the full benefit of preschool education, we also must improve the quality and expand the capacity of programs that serve 3-year-olds.”

Sadly, early education wasn’t the only problem area. The KIDS COUNT report also said 73 percent of the state’s fourth-graders weren’t proficient in reading, while 79 percent of eighth-graders weren’t proficient in math. And 22 percent of students didn’t graduate from high school on time in the 2009-10 school year.

Amid all the discouraging news was this glimmer of a bright spot: Even though West Virginia still ranks 47th overall in education, joining Arizona, Mississippi, New Mexico and Nevada in the bottom five, the state’s figures showed a slight improvement from the previous report.

Another piece of good news? West Virginia officials are facing the issue head-on.

Last month, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin announced the creation of the Early Childhood Planning Task Force as part of an education reform package aimed at raising student achievement. As reported by The Associated Press, one key mission is to examine services that prepare children under 5 for school and recommend new services to better achieve that goal.

A report, including recommendations for funding priority services, is due by year’s end.

We hope the state’s efforts to boost early education remain strong and focused. West Virginia’s students deserve the very best the state can offer them.

As the KIDS COUNT director pointed out, that starts with a quality and expanded program to serve them, even at the tender age of 3.