We must work faster on early childhood education – Christopher B. Sanford

Christopher B. Sanford
Christopher B. Sanford

After several of my op-ed pieces about education in Durham had been published, I felt depressed and unable to write more because – even though virtually everyone I actually talked with agreed with the case I was making.

Nothing seemed to be happening, and some organizations would not even talk with me. Although several programs working on early education – I’m most aware of Durham’s Partnership for Children, Book Harvest, and the East Durham Children’s Initiative – are doing excellent work, it is on a very small scale in comparison to the need.

To be more specific, of about 4,000 children born in Durham each year, perhaps 2,500 may be disadvantaged and in need of an early-education program. About 500 actually receive help, leaving some 2,000 inadequately prepared when they enter school. (Doubtful? Ask me about these numbers.) Teachers do their best, sometimes almost a superhuman best, but how frustrated must a first-grade teacher be if half or two-thirds of her students arrive unready to learn first-grade material?

On Saturday, Dec. 30, I read Paula Januzzi-Godfrey’s op-ed, “Every child and teacher in our schools deserves joy.” Hooray for her! Though she offered few answers, she spelled out the problems and threw down the gauntlet to the community. I’d like to reinforce her plea, but less gently.

I’d like to challenge all of Durham to speak out about the urgent need to do everything necessary to prepare our children for school and for adult life, and I urge all our leaders to make it happen, even if we must raise taxes (as we must). Our children are worth it, and so is our community.

I want to continue urging the community to work faster toward universal early education for all children who need it, so that all children enter school prepared. After all, education is not just school, but everything a child learns to prepare for eventual independence and responsibility.

We assume parents can provide everything the school doesn’t. It would be insane to throw away vast amounts of innate talent (every child has some) just because many parents don’t know how to develop it – but that’s what we do. So we need universal early-education programs to get all our children ready for school. Research projects and pilot programs have proven that these programs get results and are economically feasible – if we spend more earlier, we can save money later.

Of course, we know that the state and the feds in recent years have failed to provide funding we took for granted in the past and have imposed rules that have made it difficult to properly educate our children. Must we let the state or the feds prevent us from doing our best? No. Let’s decide what our children need, take what state and federal money we can get, and resolve to make up any shortfall from local funds (yes, raising taxes).

And, to underscore Paula’s plea, I urge that we commit to removing every obstacle to children’s success: poverty, medical issues, housing and parent employment issues, transportation, hunger, etc. (yes, more money – but not really an expense but a powerful investment).

And in the spirit of the Leandro decision, which affirms that every child is entitled to “a sound basic education,” I’d like to challenge every Durham organization – the Board of Education, county commissioners, PTAs, Chamber of Commerce, People’s Alliance, church groups, civic groups – to commit to doing everything necessary to give every Durham child not just a basic education but a world-class education. Help your own group get behind this.

Christopher B. Sanford is an education advocate who would be pleased to hear from you at