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Laura McSorley is a native of Atlanta and the managing director for Teach For America’s early childhood education initiative.
Last month, my hometown of Atlanta welcomed thousands of pre-K teachers, Head Start leaders, parents, researchers, and program administrators at the largest conference on early childhood education the world over. For four jam-packed days, these practitioners and policymakers came together for the annual conference of the National Association for the Education of Young Children to wrestle with how best to educate our country’s youngest learners. As a former pre-K teacher and fervent believer in the remarkable power of early education, I couldn’t have been prouder of our city.
Georgia’s universal, state-funded Pre-K Program exemplifies Atlanta’s dedication to early learning and its leadership in the field. My personal commitment to early education first developed in my own classroom—a community of 3- and 4-year-olds in the Edgewood neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Charged with shaping my students’ first school experience, I came quickly to understand the vital importance of the 10 or so months I would spend with the kids entrusted to me each year.
Research shows that 85% of a child’s brain develops before the age of 5, and that attending a high-quality pre-K program is linked to greater educational attainment, higher earnings, and lower levels of involvement in the criminal justice system throughout a student’s lifetime. It’s one of the highest-return investments our nation can make. Just this week, the New York Times cited lack of early education as a contributing factor in the lingering lag between American students’ math and science achievement and that of their peers worldwide. Without a strong foundation, students tend to fall further and further behind over time.
In Atlanta, talented educators and committed community leaders are seizing the opportunity to close this gap before it takes hold. Their ranks include 20 Teach For America corps members teaching pre-K and working to develop best practices and sustainable strategies with the support of the Cox Foundation’s early childhood education fellowship program. Every month, these fellows come together to hone their practice and share knowledge so that each can continuously grow their effectiveness in the classroom. Like so many teachers across the city, they work tirelessly to help children develop the emotional, social, and academic skills needed to become thriving kindergarteners and, eventually, lifelong learners.
Reflecting on the conference, I am both inspired by our city’s leadership in these efforts and more convinced than ever that our work is just beginning.
Building on the great efforts of our teachers, leaders, and community champions, Atlanta has the chance to become a national model for what can happen when a city gives all of its children the educational building blocks they deserve. And even while we celebrate all we’ve done, we must aspire to strengthen our commitment to excellence for our youngest learners, remembering always their limitless potential and the moral, economic, and civic implications of failure to help them realize it. For thousands of preschool-age students determined to learn, grow and imagine, we have no time to waste.
Laura Dallas McSorley is a native of Atlanta and the managing director for Teach For America’s early childhood education initiative. She taught pre-K in District of Columbia Public Schools Head Start and Bridges Public Charter School as a Teach For America corps member and alumna.