BY CAROL PHILLIPS and SUSAN ECKERT Special to the Sunday News

There is no better investment opportunity than early childhood learning. While Lancaster County has a strong public school system, too many of our youngest children aren’t prepared for success in school, and consequently won’t be prepared for success in life. The problem is most troubling for young children in low-income families, where a slow start often translates into poor academic performance and lack of motivation throughout their entire school experience.

Consider the facts. Did you know?

• Nearly two-thirds of American children living in poverty have no books in their homes.

• A child from a high-income family will experience 30 million more words within the first four years of life than a child from a low-income family.

• Children who do not read at their grade-level by third grade are four times more likely to drop out of school.

These facts are really important to know because a child’s brain is 90 percent developed before age 5.

So often, Lancaster County’s fiscal health and prosperity have masked the bleak situation that a number of our young children experience during their first five years of life. Currently, there are some 35,500 children from birth to age five living among us. Sixty-two percent of them live in economically at-risk families. Thirty percent are born to mothers with less than a high school education; 5.7% percent are born to single mothers under the age of 20. These facts point to the reality that 26% of our children currently are entering kindergarten assessed as being unprepared to succeed in school.

Fortunately, a team of community leaders in its second annual review of “prosperity indicators” for Lancaster County has identified school readiness as the primary indicator on which our efforts should be focused. Thirty-five indicators are being monitored annually by the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce & Industry in partnership with the Lancaster County, the Lancaster County Community Foundation, and the United Way of Lancaster County. Of these, preparing our kids for school success has been selected by a local collaboration of funders as the indicator that demonstrates the greatest promise for assuring the future prosperity of our county, in part because it is a driver of so many of the other indicators.

Additionally, a spring campaign will be unveiled by the United Way to focus our community on the issue of school readiness. While we have many good early care and education programs and providers, we need to broaden our efforts to include all of our children, particularly our most vulnerable, because they are at the greatest risk of failure and school dropout. Evidence indicates that our at-risk children who receive quality early education are able to catch up to their peers in cognitive and social skill development. They are prepared to succeed in school and to become productive fellow citizens in our community.

Investing in school readiness isn’t just the right thing to do — it’s the smart thing to do. Every dollar spent to improve early education saves at least $7 in special education costs, public assistance support, corrections expenses and lost taxes. That’s the return on investment Lancaster County taxpayers are looking for. And even more important, investing in early childhood learning will improve opportunities for disadvantaged students, and help prepare them for happy, productive lives.

Carol Phillips is vice chair of the Hourglass Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank based in Lancaster County. Susan Eckert, principal of the Eckert Group, is a member of the Hourglass board of directors.