The Learning Community's explicit new authority to launch early childhood education programs will help address the achievement gap, a pediatrician said Thursday.
The brains of 1-year-olds, for instance, are rapidly developing vision, hearing, language and cognitive functions, said Dr. Laura Jana, pediatrician and author who owns and operates the Primrose School of Legacy child care center in Omaha.
Jana, invited to address the Learning Community Council, said excessive and prolonged childhood stress — such as what children in severe poverty experience — disrupts brain architecture and leads to educational failure and disease in adults.
To derail such damage requires the intervention of caring, responsive adults through mentoring, preschool and child care, Jana said.
The 11-district cooperative in the Omaha area originally lacked explicit authority for programs targeting children under age 5. State law called for programs aimed at elementary-age children.
Nebraska lawmakers this month gave the education cooperative new spending authority and authorized expansion into early childhood education for children in poverty.
Lawmakers raised the maximum program levy from 1 cent to 1.5 cents per $100 of assessed property valuation. To raise it requires a council vote.
Ted Stilwill, chief executive officer of the Learning Community, said the new authority is crucial, and developing an early childhood education plan will be a major focus this year.
“I think a lot of us are convinced that if we want to make a difference as a Learning Community, this is the best way to do it,” he said. “It's the best shot we've got. So we'd better take advantage of it.”
The expanded authority comes at a time when severe poverty is on the rise in Omaha, he said, especially among younger families whose children will be entering school in the future.
In the Omaha Public Schools, Stilwill said, the percentage of families with children under age 5 living in poverty increased from 13 percent in 2000 to 21 percent in 2011.
The extra half-cent levy would generate about $2.4 million for Learning Community programs, raising total program spending to $7.2 million a year.
Stilwill said he wants to make sure there's a spending plan in place before raising the levy.
He said the council will draw on the expertise of the Educare early childhood centers and the new University of Nebraska Buffett Early Childhood Institute in drawing up a plan.
Council Chairwoman Lorraine Chang said early childhood education won't become the only focus of Learning Community programs. She said there will still be a need for programs that address older students who struggle in school.
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