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Dr. Graciela Italiano-Thomas: Washington's new early learning dynamo

Six months ago, Dr. Graciela Italiano-Thomas moved to Washington to take the helm of our state’s innovative partnership for early learning, Thrive by Five. Her goal is simple: to get every child in our state ready for school by the age of 5. Getting to that goal will take enormous talent, energy and passion — all things Italiano-Thomas appears to have in abundance. She also has a lot of support.

“There is something special going on here,” says Italiano-Thomas. “I think it’s captured in the collective ego. It’s fantastic to be in this environment. Anywhere I go, people are talking about early learning."

Loaded with local luminaries, the Thrive by Five Board includes co-chairs Gov. Gregoire and Bill Gates Sr., and Terry Bergeson, state superintendent of Public Instruction, Mona Locke from the Foundation for Early Learning, and Rep. Ruth Kagi, chair of the House Family and Child Services Committee.

Italiano-Thomas also has science working in her favor. Increasingly, research is proving that the years from birth to 5 are critical for a baby’s future learning. “For a long time we had to contend with the fact that people thought babies didn’t do much until they were 3 or 4,” says Graciela Italiano-Thomas. “Now we have evidence that they do a lot.”
But not everyone is reading those studies. Many parents prepare their children for kindergarten, but many do not. A recent poll by Thrive by Five found that 62 percent of parents believe that if their child is two years behind when they enter kindergarten, they’ll catch up. In 2005, kindergarten teachers in our state reported that fewer than half of the 5-year-olds came to kindergarten ready to learn.

“What we are missing if we don’t get them ready for school in the first five years is the payoff for an investment that has enormous benefits,” says Italiano-Thomas. “More than any other investment we’ll make at any age of that child.”
Getting the message to parents who don’t have the resources to educate their babies may be the toughest part of the challenge, Italiano-Thomas says, often because these parents weren’t raised to see the value of early learning. “Parents who have not had that education do not understand what they need to do. I hear parents say, ‘I sit there with him for two hours every afternoon while he does his homework, and then I make him his favorite sandwich.’ That’s a lot of support! But it’s not the same as helping and engaging and thinking together. That mom’s not doing it because nobody did it with her.”

The best way to spread the word? By word of mouth, one parent at a time. “I believe in the system of attraction,” Italiano-Thomas says. Start by talking with a small group of parents and then ask them to invite a few more to the next talk. Soon it will grow to a critical mass, she says.

It’s a strategy that proved successful in Italiano-Thomas’ previous job as president of Los Angeles Universal Preschool, where she worked to ensure access to high-quality preschool for all of the area’s 4-year-olds, regardless of income level.

The challenge here is similar, but on a grander scale. “Our job will be done, and we’ll be glad to disappear into the woodwork, when every child in the state of Washington is ready to succeed in school,” says Italiano-Thomas. “And I’m not saying ready to learn, because we know children are born ready to learn. We need to get them ready to succeed.”

Kristen Dobson is ParentMap’s managing editor.

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