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Originally published Monday, September 17, 2012 at 3:35 PM

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Op-ed: Why early learning is critical for kindergarteners

School districts must embrace their role as partners in children's early learning from birth through the age of 8, writes guest columnist Jodi Haavig.

Special to The Times

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Elementary schools across Washington welcomed approximately 80,000 children to kindergarten classrooms this month. Some of these fresh little faces are new to the school experience, having spent their first five years in the care of families and friends. Others are veterans, eager to talk about their "old schools."

Regardless of the paths that led them there, to 5-year-olds, kindergarten is a very big deal.

As adults, however, we recognize that early learning is a continuum, and kindergarten is just the midpoint. This makes it both a hugely important year, and one that must be well-linked to the five years that precede it, and to first, second and third grades that follow.

Increasingly, elementary schools are embracing their role as partners in children's early learning -- the years from birth through age 8. Rather than taking on the job of educating young learners as they enter kindergarten, disconnected from what came before, districts can, and must, work shoulder to shoulder with those who care for and teach children prior to kindergarten.

More and more, districts are also looking inward to improve their own practice in kindergarten through third grade. This assures that the knowledge and skills children possess as they enter the K-12 system are maximized, readying them for the abundance of opportunities future schooling will afford them -- as readers, writers and mathematicians, and as communicators, critical thinkers, learners and friends.

In Washington state, and across the nation, there is considerable movement toward this shared responsibility for early learning, which we often refer to as P-3. (The "P" stands for pre- and "3" stands for third grade.) P-3 efforts aim to integrate learning across a child's first eight years -- a unique developmental period in which children experience their most profound growth cognitively, socially and emotionally.

For visionary districts, the question is no longer why would we do this, but why wouldn't we? Across our state, districts are collaborating with parents, and with partners in public and private preschool programs, to share research, resources and instructional approaches rooted in what's developmentally appropriate for young learners.

In school districts ranging from Edmonds to Yakima, Everett to Anacortes, and Seattle to Union Gap, teachers of 3- and 4-year-olds work together with kindergarten, first-, second- and third-grade teachers to understand how learning builds year after year in language development or math.

Districts including Auburn, Bremerton, Nooksack Valley, Bellingham and many others are implementing an interdependent culture that encourages cross-classroom visits, blended resources, shared data, and active involvement from principals and superintendents.

Several of these districts have earned national attention for their P-3 work.

In Vancouver at Washington's annual P-3 conference in August, Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn spoke to an audience of more than 400 early-learning partners across the P-3 continuum and reiterated his commitment to full-day kindergarten and to supporting districts to allocate resources toward kindergarten through third grade.

Spreading the successful practices of pioneering P-3 school districts statewide must be one of our top priorities for young learners. As stated by our Supreme Court in the McCleary ruling, it is essential that Washington state support and commit to full funding for full-day kindergarten statewide by 2018.

At the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we are honored to support P-3 leadership and high-quality practice in school districts across the state.

Districts that elevate early learning by strengthening partnerships, focusing on developmentally appropriate instruction and directing resources to the early grades assure that our 80,000 kindergarten children continue on a successful learning trajectory.

Jodi Haavig is a program officer with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation who leads the foundation's P-3 work in Washington state. She is a former preschool and elementary teacher.

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