York Daily Record: Column: Pre-k is a Healthy Investment in Children
June 7, 2016
Growing up in York County, I was fortunate to have opportunities many children lack, including the opportunity to receive a quality education that prepared me for my career in pediatric medicine.
Today, as a pediatric resident at Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital, I have experienced first-hand how challenges in a child’s growth and development – if left unaddressed – can limit opportunities, including the opportunity to learn.
That is why I want to see the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania invest more in high-quality pre-kindergarten (“pre-k”) programs in the state budget. The years before a child enters kindergarten are a critical window for healthy cognitive, physical, social and emotional development, and the circumstances and experiences children have during these early years can shape their health and impact upon their success for a lifetime. Quality pre-k programs help put our children on a path to a lifetime of good health and success.
Unfortunately, too many young children face obstacles that hinder healthy development. These obstacles, including the effects of poverty and other adverse conditions beyond their control, which can fuel “toxic stress” – the type of extreme, persistent stress that can actually alter a child’s brain architecture in negative ways. Research shows one of the most effective ways to lessen the impact of toxic stress is through caring relationships and stable, supportive environments. High-quality pre-k programs provide such an environment, enabling young children to learn and develop free from the adverse conditions that can create persistent stress and anxiety.
High-quality pre-k programs not only prepare children for success in school and in life, but they also have been shown to promote good health in childhood as well as their development as they move into adulthood.
Research shows high-quality pre-k programs improve language, literacy and math skills as children enter kindergarten. These vital programs also reduce special education placements and increase the likelihood of high school graduation and college enrollment. From a health perspective, children who benefit from high-quality early learning programs tend to have better diets and exercise routines as adults, lower rates of smoking or substance abuse and lower risks of diabetes, stroke and/or heart disease. These health-related benefits not only help the child, they also help society by lowering health care costs, especially costs caused by chronic illnesses or disease.
Despite these many benefits for our children and our communities, the majority of 3- and 4-year-olds in Pennsylvania lack access to high-quality pre-k programs. According to the statewide Pre-K for PA campaign, more than 9,000 3- and 4-year-olds in York County alone lack access to high-quality pre-k. We can and should address this unmet need.
That is why I – along with the Pennsylvania Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics – strongly support the call for Pennsylvania legislative leaders to enact a state budget that increases funding for high-quality pre-k by $90 million in fiscal 2016-17 so an additional 7,400 children can benefit.
It’s worth noting that, even with such a new investment, more than 107,000 at-risk preschool children still would lack access to high-quality pre-k next year. This is why Pennsylvania needs to increase investments in the development of pre-k programs over multiple years, including the $90 million increase needed this year.
High-quality pre-k programs make sense and save all of us money in the long run. It’s time to step up Pennsylvania’s efforts to invest in these programs so more young learners can get off to a strong, healthy start.
Dr. Jaime L. Moellman is a pediatric resident at Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital.
Read the column here.