Why does early childhood education matter to someone like me, a rancher and cattle feeder? I recently was asked that question when I attended the Thriving Children & Families Conference in Kearney. I’m a rancher with no young children or grandchildren. I am not an educator or social worker. I certainly wasn’t the typical person attending the conference.

So why did I become a passionate advocate for early childhood education?

I assure you I didn’t start out that way. My journey began in 2015 when the Boone County Foundation held a meeting of organizations and leaders to set priorities for the county. Child care was identified as priority No. 1 by younger participants. Nothing was done. Two years later, the process was repeated with the same results. Still nothing.

Finally, with some skepticism, our foundation and the Albion Economic Development Corp. partnered to conduct some surveys and interviews. It became clear that a critical shortage of child care exists and is only going to get worse. We began the effort to address it. In my mind, we were looking to provide more space to park kids while their parents worked, simple as that.

A committee, led by ag producers and business owners, was created with the goal of building a child care center. Also, a broad coalition was formed which includes the hospital, school, nursing home, city and economic development groups. More than $2.8 million has been raised in less than a year. Our center has become a communitywide effort.

As plans developed, the education of our committee began. We learned the importance of child care availability to employers. We heard many times of the need for improved child care options to expand the existing labor pool. There are parents who want to work but can’t due to lack of child care. We saw that expanding child care is critical to community development. We must provide progressive options to attract young couples to our community and to retain the families we already have.

However, it was when we came to understand the benefits that a quality center can have on a child’s development that I and others came to fully appreciate just how much of a difference we can make. What did we learn that is so compelling?

Children who start behind stay behind. Children who are not ready when they begin kindergarten are distinctly disadvantaged. Worse, the vast majority remain behind all the way through school and into the workforce.

This is a vicious cycle of poverty and all its related societal problems.

Here’s the good news: a quality-based early childhood center can break that cycle. Research and real-life experience clearly prove that children who are given the opportunity to attend an early childhood development center are better prepared for kindergarten. This is a huge advantage and it is especially important to provide this benefit to at-risk children.

As an example, Wayne, in northeast Nebraska, clearly is transforming children’s lives. Before this community had an early childhood development center, an average of 17 children per year fell into the classification of “not ready to begin kindergarten.” Once their center began operations, that number fell to five.

Let that sink in.

In Boone County we are working on building plans, applying for grants and conducting a public awareness campaign. We are hoping construction can begin in 2020. Our center will provide care from infancy through 5 years of age. Its staff will be trained to help children from the earliest age to develop socially and emotionally by incorporating a proven, play-based curriculum. These are the basics, yet some children are not receiving them at home.

Through early childhood education we can change the trajectory of a child’s life. Let’s do it!

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