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Thrive by Five: Targeting school readiness, early learning

Children start kindergarten at age 5, but learning begins at birth — or at least it should, according to Graciela Italiano-Thomas.

“Those five years are a window of opportunity that we can miss,” says Italiano-Thomas, president and CEO of Thrive by Five Washington.

Thrive by Five is a nonprofit organization devoted to making sure children don’t miss that window. Founded in 2006, it is an outgrowth of Washington Learns, an 18-month study of the state’s education system launched by Gov. Christine Gregoire.

Washington Learns identified five areas that must be improved to achieve a world-class education system: math and science, personalized learning, access to college and workforce training, accountability and support for early learning. As reported by Washington Learns, a 2004 survey of kindergarten teachers, found that more than half the children entering kindergarten in Washington are not ready for school.

The establishment of a new Department of Early Learning (DEL) fulfills one of the school readiness strategies listed in the study. Another strategy is to build public-private partnerships to support the DEL as it strives to improve early learning opportunities for children and families across the state. That’s where Thrive by Five comes in. “All parents want their children to be ready to succeed in school, but they do not always know what their role is,” says Italiano-Thomas. “We want parents to have choices and understand what’s best for their child.”

Governed by a high-powered board co-chaired by Gregoire and Bill Gates, Sr., Thrive by Five has secured $30 million in pledges from public and private sources over the next three years to help make families and communities more aware of the importance of school readiness and improve the quality of early learning. Funding sources include the state, the Kellogg Foundation and Social Venture Partners, says Italiano-Thomas.

Thrive by Five creates models

After spending a year laying the groundwork, Thrive by Five is ready to start putting some of that money to use, most notably in the communities of East Yakima and White Center in South King County.

Each was picked to be a so-called Thrive Demonstration Community, where Thrive by Five is working closely with local partners to create a coordinated network of services and resources, and learn what polices and approaches work best. The idea, says Italiano-Thomas, is to produce “a template of services” that will serve as a model that can be adopted by communities everywhere. The key is to provide those services wherever children are being cared for — at home, with friends/relatives or at child care centers, she says.

Priorities include:

  • Strengthening home-based support services such as home-visiting programs for newborns and their families in order to increase awareness of children’s development, positive parenting and the importance of quality early learning.

  • Expanding parent and community education through classes, play-and-learn groups and access to counseling.

  • Creating a model child-care center featuring highly trained and appropriately compensated teachers, a proven curriculum and family support programs.

  • Consulting with existing child-care centers to help them improve the quality of their programs.
The Puget Sound Educational Service District (PSESD) is leading the planning for the White Center project. “One of the unique things is that there was funding available to help parents get involved in what was wanted and needed in their community,” says Tracey Yee, a consultant for the project.

Monte Bridges, superintendent of the PSESD, called the project revolutionary. “If we can do this successfully in White Center and Yakima, communities with great need, we should be able to implement something that is comparable in any setting,” he says.

In addition to its efforts in East Yakima and White Center, Thrive by Five is awarding Promising Models grants to support specific early learning programs across the state. Once again, the goal is to learn more about what works and how to make successful programs more broadly available.

An example of the kind of innovative program Thrive by Five seeks to support can be found in Snohomish County, where the United Way helps child-care workers learn to identify preschool children with poor social/emotional skills and correct their behavior before they enter kindergarten. “You can’t learn to read if you’re hitting another child with your book,” says Deborah Squires, vice president of marketing for Snohomish County United Way.

That program is just one of several early learning initiatives Snohomish County United Way helps fund. “It’s a strong focus for us because we know the payoff is so high,” says Squires.

Brad Broberg is a freelance writer and former newspaper reporter/editor who lives in Federal Way with his 12-year-old daughter, Rachel.

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