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News Feature

Castine
Originally published in Compass, October 25, 2012
Childhood conference calls for “a cultural change”
Education should begin “at day one”

Dr. Mary Ellen Gellerstedt

Dr. Mary Ellen Gellerstedt, a developmental pediatrician at Eastern Maine Medical Center, was one of three panelists who spoke at the Healthy Peninsula Early Childhood Conference at Maine Maritime Academy on October 20.

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by Anne Berleant

Dr. James Page, Chancellor of the University of Maine System, sees first year college students in Maine spend one-quarter of their time on remedial learning. In community colleges, that number rises to 52 percent.

He called for “at heart, a cultural change” toward education, which should begin not when children enter kindergarten, “but at day one.”

Page served as a panelist at the Healthy Peninsula Early Childhood Conference on October 20 at Maine Maritime Academy, with former attorney general Steve Rowe and developmental pediatrician Dr. Mary Ellen Gellerstedt of Eastern Maine Medical Center. Meredith Jones, President and CEO of Maine Community Foundation, served as moderator.

The psychological cost to students who start but are not prepared for college-level academics “sets off a cycle,” Page said, that can make it difficult to graduate. And the “stranded investment” of those who start but don’t finish college is “a huge economic drag on the community.”

Early childhood education is one key to ensuring their success, Page said. He cited the work of Yale professor Karen Wynn who studied the eye movements of three-, four- and six-month-olds that showed at three months, children show “a rich, cognitive structure capable of doing mathematical equations.” “That was my ‘a-ha’ moment,” he said.

Rowe, a founding member of Maine Early Learning Investment Group, told the more than 115 conference attendants that “we can increase the education and skill level of Maine people by ensuring that all children start kindergarten ready to succeed.”

That is how Maine will assure it has a skilled work force in the future, Rowe added.

His Maine Early Learning Investment Group is composed of nine CEOs “that have come together” to ensure Maine’s youngest children grow into a workforce capable of sustaining the state’s economy.

Learning is “faster and more effortless for a one-, two- or three-year-old than at any other time in life,” said Rowe. “We can remediate…but that’s never the same.”

Educating and mentoring parents and providing scholarships for low-income kids are “absolutely critical for Maine’s economy,” said Rowe.

In a telling demonstration on the difficulties families face in accessing child services, Dr. Gellerstedt showed a diagram of a maze of boxes and arrows pointing in all directions. “It’s frightening and overwhelming,” she said.

Traditional divisions between services available don’t help anyone, she said.

Gellerstedt also described how the human brain begins to develop at the moment of conception, and as the “ultimate use it or lose it machine,” language development and learning skills must be reinforced after they’ve been learned.

Rowe explained that while public policy looks only one or two years ahead to measure cost savings, the money saved by early childhood efforts must be calculated over one or two decades, measured in numbers of high school drop outs, incarcerations, college educations completed, and medical conditions like diabetes. “I just don’t think people get it,” he said.

The panelists discussed questions from the audience before everyone split into break-out groups on education, health and economic development.

“People left knowing what they can do to make a difference,” said Amy Vaughn, director of Healthy Peninsula, citing the 75 attendees who offered to volunteer, through a form provided, with Healthy Peninsula’s Early Childhood Work Group. That group meets bi-monthly and holds events like children’s health fairs in Blue Hill and Stonington.

“I got a lot of advice and a lot of good ideas, things I can use,” said Lisa Bradford, director of Castine Community Child Development Center, after the conference. “Everyone was very positive [and] came out of it with something.”

“If everyone in every community would enhance a collective vision,” said Gil Tenney, co-founder of the Castine Advocacy for Early Childhood Education and a driving force behind the childhood conference in 2011 and this one, “that every child entering school is ready to succeed.”