I love to learn.

Posted by Zelena Z. Stablo on 3/4/2015


"I love to learn"

Walking into Wooch.een the thing that must strike most observers is the relaxed and engaged nature of the children. Clearly, they love being there, and they love to learn.
Many of them hug their teachers as they jump off the bus. They sing songs -- dancing to cultural songs and reciting Alaska Native alphabet letters and numbers.

Wooch.een Yei Jigxhtoonei is a Tlingit phrase

that means "We are working together."
How apt. There are many cultures, family backgrounds and circumstances here on the Sitka Fine Arts campus. And this togetherness is intentional, as well. The children aged three to five years old who attend Wooch.een are Sitka School District students eligible for the pre-kindergarten program, children enrolled in Tlingit and Haida Head Start Program, and children who are tribal citizens of the Sitka Tribe of Alaska.
The interaction is rich and genuine. The children and the adults are living the Wooch.een philosophy to be benefit of all the children.
This pleasing pastiche must be another reason why these children seem so relaxed and playful -- engaged with the teachers and each other. Teachers do not seem to spend much energy keeping order.
The children are actively engaged in the play-based learning activities, and the teachers seem to be genuinely enjoying themselves. 
Teachers do not seem to spend much energy keeping order. The kids are remarkably self-controlled, and the teachers seem to be genuinely enjoying themselves.
It was amazing to see the kids line up to go wash their hands, and then sit at table to eat their family style breakfast and lunch. They passed their food, ate while engaging in pleasant conversation. These are four-year-olds, after all -- and yet they ate wholesome meals in a civilized way. Amazing! 
They poured their own milk. One little girl spilled hers, and a paper towel was quietly offered. The child wiped up the spill herself, without guilt or stress.
On the walk to the playground, the children held hands in a buddy system until they were safely inside the gates, and then split apart in self-directed play. Some wrote with chalk, some organized themselves into "Red Light, Green Light." Some climbed the jungle gym, others got started on the swings.
During academic lessons it was inspiring to see students focusing on the tasks at hand: assembling Lego-style blocks into multi-colored squares, and then coloring a chart in the same pattern as the blocks. The wheels were turning as little minds took pride in grasping the concept of a pattern -- one which they chose, they assembled, and they documented.

Are we learning our own pattern lessons?

This week, as we confronted the realization that this kind of program could be axed to "balance the budget", other patterns came into view as well.
  • If at-risk children spend several hours a day in preschools that provide nutrition, learning opportunities and character guidance, they are MUCH more likely to catch up to their peers, and therefore much LESS likely to drop out and spiral down.
  • The House Finance Committee has been looking at the idea of cutting just over $3.5 million dollars from early childhood education programs -- completely eliminating three of the four programs impacted (Best Beginnings, Parents as Teachers, and Pre-Kindergarten grants).
  • Nobel Prize in Economics recipient Dr. James Heckman states: "Investing in early childhood education ... shows a 7% to 10% per year return on investment..." That's greater than the stock market average during the boom years prior to 2008. At 8.5%, that means Alaska will receive more than double our investment back by the time today's preschoolers finish middle school, and triple our investment -- $11 Million dollars in taxes raised and savings to state expenditures -- by the time they are 18. Professor Heckman summarizes: "Investing in early childhood education is a cost- effective strategy—even during a budget crisis. Deficit reduction will only come from wiser investment of public and private dollars. Data show that one of the most effective strategies for economic growth is investing in the developmental growth of at-risk young children...."
    Click here to download the full article by James Heckman on the Economic Benefits of Early Education
  • According to The Ounce, if we cut their early childhood opportunities this about-to-be-lost generation are:
    • 25% more likely to drop out of school
    • 40% more likely to become a teen parent
    • 50% more likely to be placed in special education (which costs $)
    • 60% more likely to never attend college
    • 70% more likely to be arrested for a violent crime
  • With this type of impact from the proposed budget cuts, expect at least 500 of Alaska's 25,000-child 0-5 cohort to do jail time -- kids that we have it in our power to get off to a stronger start that could avoid that outcome. (Currently 5000 men and women are in jail in Alaska, and 6000 are being managed in parole and probation programs. Most of these grew up in "at-risk" situations that we know we can significantly improve through early intervention) If they each do a year behind bars that is 500 x $50,000 or $25 million that will be spent by taxpayers in future years so that we can "save" $3.5 million now. No wonder Heckman estimated that the total return on investment on early childhood programs (birth to age 5) is $7 for every $1 spent. "Saving" $3.5 Million is actually spending $25 million, not counting inflation. 
  • As part of his research, Professor Heckman did a detailed microeconomic analysis of two 40-year studies of early childhood intervention in Ypsilanti, Michigan and Chapel Hill, North Carolina. As Bloomberg Business reports it, "In 2010 [Heckman] and several co-authors produced what he called the 'first rigorous cost-benefit study' of the Ypsilanti program. The free instruction cost $17,759 per child per year in 2006 dollars (the year they began working with the data). Heckman set out to find out what taxpayers got for that money. He calculated what the program had saved the state and federal government in social welfare, what it had paid out in increased tax revenue from higher wages, and, most significantly, what it had saved in police, court, and prison costs. The initial investment provided what Heckman calls a “return to society” at an annual rate of 7 percent to 10 percent. Put another way, each dollar spent at age 4 is worth between $60 and $300 by age 65. “For my Republican friends, that’s a language they respect,” says Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education. 
  • The social benefits of these very real life changes are also remarkable. Brendan Greeley states:

At age 40, the subjects from the Ypsilanti study were far more likely than their peers to have graduated from high school and have jobs. They were more likely to own homes and less likely to have needed social services. The boys were more likely to have grown up to raise their own children and less likely ever to have been arrested. Children from the program in Chapel Hill had higher test scores than their peers through adolescence and were more likely to have gone to college. 


  • And then there is the individual economic opportunity, which is incalculable. According to Georgetown University's Center for Education and the Workforce, every child who graduates high school will earn an average of half a million dollars MORE in their lifetime than those who do not. If through early childhood education we help 1000 -- just 4 percent -- of our kids graduate high school who wouldn't have, that's an economic benefit of $500 million. If a quarter of those (just one percent) go on to get a bachelor's degree... that's another $250 million in salary differential across their lives. Easily a billion dollars more could be produced in those children's lives... and the Alaskan economy as a whole. We cannot afford NOT to invest in programs like Wooch.een.


The simple power of these economic arguments transcends ideology, and across the country, Bloomberg Business reports that "fifteen governors, more Republicans than Democrats, included new money for early childhood education in their budgets in 2013. In all, states are now spending $400 million more on pre-K than before the economic downturn. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who meets with Heckman often, says much of this activity can be credited to Heckman’s work. 'You have this Nobel prize-winning economist and not some soft-hearted someone like me,' says Duncan. “It’s incredibly powerful.'"