Opinion: Looking back on Ga. Pre-K program

One of the things that I will miss most when Nathan leaves public office is traveling around the state and reading to children. It has been a privilege for me to have the opportunity to read to more than 850 classes, many of which were Georgia Pre-K classes, over the past eight years.

Reading to children is always a gratifying experience, but reading to our youngest learners is unparalleled. I know that by supporting our high-quality preschool programs, I am letting educators know how important those little ones are to the future of our state and country.

Our lottery-funded Georgia Pre-K program is one of the finest in the nation. During its 26-year history, Georgia Pre-K has educated more than 1.6 million four-year-olds. This year, more than 81,000 children are enrolled in over 1,800 locations in all 159 Georgia counties. We can all say “thank you” to the late Gov. Zell Miller for his vision for education, which led not only to the HOPE Scholarship, but to this universal pre-k program as well.

We know from third-party longitudinal studies that Georgia Pre-K improves school readiness by helping children grow across all learning domains including math, language and literacy, and social-emotional skills. Following pre-K, about 60 percent of our four-year-olds enter kindergarten ready to learn.

I have had people ask me why early learning is so important. Other people have asked why Nathan and I are so adamant about both Georgia Pre-K and quality programs for even younger children. The reason is simple: a child’s brain develops at a remarkable pace between birth and his or her eighth birthday, and this growth depends on a solid start. The earlier we can help children learn about their emotions and getting along with others, the better we can inspire them to seek to know more about the world, and it is more likely that they will find success later in life.

High-quality early learning experiences like Georgia’s Pre-K program help to lower rates of students repeating grades and reduce dependency on public welfare systems. Further, with effective early learning, students are less likely to become involved in the criminal justice system, which improves lives and public safety for everyone.

I am excited to take part in another year of Georgia Pre-K Week. This is the eighth consecutive year that elected officials, public servants and other Georgia citizens have celebrated the hardworking Georgia Pre-K teachers and staff, as well as the pre-kindergarten children of our state.

This celebration is sponsored by Voices for Georgia’s Children with help from Georgia Power and an array of organizations that serve children. Every year during the first week of October, an extraordinary number of legislators, commissioners, state agency staff, city officials, firefighters, police officers, doctors, soldiers, parents, and others from all walks of life make time to read to a pre-K class. Nearly three-fourths of the General Assembly has taken part and much of Georgia’s congressional delegation has joined us in previous years. It is amazing to see public servants take time out of their busy schedules to spend a few minutes to make an impact on the next generation.

Nathan and I have read to classes during Georgia Pre-K Week every year for the last eight years, every year of Nathan’s tenure as governor. In my time as Georgia’s first lady, I have immensely enjoyed seeing the beautiful faces and being a part of the excitement that children have for learning. Each year during this week, I am reminded of how these young minds will determine the future of the state, and how it is our job to nurture them and help each one grow up to be the best that they can be.

This year, I encourage you to join me and Bright from the Start: Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning for Georgia Pre-K Week (October 1-5) and read to a child at school or at home. Most of all, be proud of our state and all we are doing to help our little ones grow up to be successful, healthy and happy.

Sandra Deal is the wife of Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal.

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