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Scoppe: Is it time to overhaul how SC First Steps provides early childhood education?

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Jeremy Fleming lines up SC First Steps supporters for a group shot on the Statehouse steps to celebrate Tuesday's 20th anniversary of the state's early childhood education program. By Cindi Ross Scoppe

We’ve talked a lot this year about reforms we need to make so S.C. schools provide a decent education to all kids. And they’re essential. But we won’t succeed unless we start long before kids ever step foot inside a school.

For the most part, the kids who are failing are the ones who start school behind and never catch up. Most come from poor families. Many have parents who don’t value education and either can’t or won’t give them the support they need to succeed in school. When these kids start school, they can’t count, or recite the alphabet. They don’t know the words for colors. They don’t know what indoor voices are or have any concept of following a teacher’s instructions.

There’s probably nothing more important our state could do to turn these kids into successful adults — really, there’s probably nothing more important our state could do, period — than to provide early interventions to get these kids ready for school.

The Legislature acknowledged this in 1999 when it created S.C. First Steps to School Readiness, an early childhood education and health program designed to prepare poor kids for success in school.

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Cindi Ross Scoppe

What that meant would be different in every county, because the law required an independent board to create its own program in each county. It could mean working with pediatricians to encourage reading, or regularly mailing books to children, or providing parenting instruction, or steering families to the state’s BabyNet program for children with developmental disabilities. Two of the most impressive programs, the Nurse-Family Partnership and Countdown to Kindergarten, send nurses to mentor first-time, low-income mothers in their homes and provide home visits by teachers during the summer before a child enters 5-year-old kindergarten.

When the Legislature started funding 4-year-old kindergarten in the state’s poorest school districts in 2006, it put First Steps in charge of recruiting private, nonprofit and religious child-care centers to participate; the program also helps enroll children and trains child-care teachers.

On Tuesday, 300 current and former First Steps volunteers, employees and supporters gathered at the Statehouse to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the program’s creation, applauding through the sweltering heat when state Director Georgia Mjartan said they had helped reach more than 1 million children and families, including 14,495 4-year-olds who enrolled in 4K.

“Those nearly 15,000 children are showing up at kindergarten ready for success because you love them, you care for them, you invest in them and you look at their whole self,” she said. “You are the people who lift up our families when they’re struggling. You are the people who give our mothers hope when they’re struggling through a difficult pregnancy. You are the people who in your communities weave together a fabric, a network of support that leaves not a single child behind.”

Actually, First Steps leaves a lot of kids behind, largely because of factors beyond the control of state leaders. That 1 million figure breaks down to an average of 50,000 children and parents served each year — far fewer than need intervention.

The numbers are low in part because of money; First Steps’ father, former Gov. Jim Hodges, told the crowd that the program needed $200 million in state funding its first year; it received just $40 million. Funding lags even more today.

They’re also low because of the way the program was designed. Mr. Hodges said a central idea behind First Steps was telling each community “you need to break down some of these barriers that exist between Head Start and early education initiatives and private, nonprofit day care.”

“One of the most remarkable accomplishments of First Steps is this forced effort to get people who all have good intentions to work together toward a common goal and that is improving the lives of our children,” he said.

But the downside to local control is that it depends on the capacity of each community. And the poorest counties, which most need early intervention, often lack the local financial support or the capable leadership needed to run effective programs. And when the state tries to withhold funding from unproductive programs, local legislators push back, making it difficult for the Columbia office to demand excellence.

One of the architects of the program told me Tuesday that it probably couldn’t have passed without the decentralized approach. Perhaps that’s true. But 20 years later, perhaps it’s time to reconsider whether we really need 47 separate First Steps agencies and boards.

Cindi Scoppe is an editorial writer for The Post and Courier. Contact her at or follow her on Facebook or Twitter @CindiScoppe.

Follow Cindi Ross Scoppe on Twitter or Facebook @cindiscoppe.

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