Ginnie Graham: Shout-out by Obama delights educator
BY GINNIE GRAHAM World Staff Writer
Saturday, February 16, 2013
2/16/13 at 3:21 AM
It was after the release of a mid-'90s video of Tulsa 5-year-olds that things starting happening for early childhood education in Oklahoma.
Tulsa teacher Janet McKenzie remembers being frustrated by lawmakers not grasping the challenges experienced by kindergarten educators.
For years, pleas for prekindergarten programs were ignored.
"They had no idea and couldn't picture what I was talking about," she said. "They are looking at their own children and grandchildren. It's a foreign concept to see how kids come in with the lack of skills they have.
"I wanted it to be in their face."
The video was simple.
It showed children taking developmental tests - being asked about shapes, colors, letters and their name or address.
Many children had no answers.
The video was screened at summits, forums, conferences, workshops, speeches and anywhere McKenzie could find an audience.
She and other early childhood advocates found allies in some heavy hitters - Pete Churchwell and Martin Fate Jr., former heads of Public Service Company of Oklahoma; former Mayor Bob LaFortune; the Tulsa Metro Chamber; and the Community Service Council.
"It was an exciting time," McKenzie said.
Recognition: Oklahoma got a shout-out by President Barack Obama on Tuesday during his State of the Union address.
"In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, like Georgia or Oklahoma, studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job and form more stable families of their own," Obama said.
"So let's do what works and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind."
It was a quick mention, but it was enough to make McKenzie think of doing cartwheels.
"When I heard that, I was hoping our leadership would recognize the importance of early education and know what an effective program can do for children," she said.
"We have to look at what models are being successful and make that happen for everyone. Until we do that, we can't make the changes in education that we have to make."
Origin: The Oklahoma early childhood movement slipped in stealthily rather than coming on with a bang.
Former state Assistant Superintendent Ramona Paul helped add 4-year-olds into the state's funding formula, giving districts an incentive and aid needed for pre-K classes.
It caused no controversy.
Business leaders began educating each other and politicians on the long-term economic benefits.
There were a few dust-ups along the way in creating the Oklahoma Partnership for School Readiness, which is a coordinator and adviser to the early education system.
Now, about 78 percent of all Oklahoma 4-year-olds attend a pre-K program, and 98 percent of districts offer a program.
"We used to have an overwhelming number of kids coming into kindergarten two to three years behind," McKenzie said. "Pre-K has made a huge difference in having kids prepared for school."
In that time, a host of federal and state reforms shifted the skills once required in kindergarten to the lower ages.
"What we are expecting of students now is so much more difficult," McKenzie said.
"In the world we live in today, we have to make sure we are doing everything we can to be successful, not just academically but the whole student."
Challenges: Child advocates are fighting for attention from lawmakers, who face a menagerie of immediate concerns and funding requests.
"We are resting on our laurels," McKenzie said. "We are not totally addressing all the issues we need to for our children."
Developmental screenings are not happening, pre-K and kindergarten classrooms are crowded, and the mandated Common Core curriculum is not lined up with early education standards.
"You cannot even imagine the mental health issues we are entertaining in pre-K now and don't have the social supports needed," McKenzie said.
Oklahoma has ranked high for years in access to pre-K and oversight of private child-care programs.
"If we are No. 1 in this, then people are looking to us to be a model," she said. "So let's be a model and get out there to do the things needing to be done.
"There are states that will surpass us because they are looking further ahead than what we are doing."
Original Print Headline: Shout-out by Obama delights educator
Then-presidential candidate Barack Obama visits a Tulsa Educare facility in 2007, speaking with teacher Mary Sue Collins and a toddler in the program. In his State of the Union speech Tuesday, Obama praised early childhood education programs in Oklahoma and Georgia. MICHAEL WYKE/Tulsa World file