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Heavy hitters help United Way launch Born Learning campaign

Bill Gates Sr. spoke at a United Way luncheon Tuesday on the importance of investing in early childhood development.  - Photo by James Mange
Bill Gates Sr. spoke at a United Way luncheon Tuesday on the importance of investing in early childhood development.
— image credit: Photo by James Mange

Investing in early childhood development is good business. That was the overwhelming theme at a luncheon at the Norm Dicks Government Center, Tuesday, as United Way of Kitsap County launched its Born Learning campaign, with an impressive list of speakers jumping on the bandwagon.

Bill Gates Sr. returned to his home to praise the work being done in Bremerton, and to encourage the community to get behind United Way’s new program. Gates said he didn’t know anything about research in early childhood development until the topic was raised in relation to Initiative 884.

“I had to ask what that was,” Gates said. “Now, after three years, I think it might just be the key.”

Gates wasn’t just paying lip service to the concept; during the past three years the Gates Foundation has given more than $12.5 million in grants to early learning programs, many in the state of Washington. He also is the co-chair of the state’s Thrive By Five campaign.

“Our current model is bad business,” Gates said of a system that doesn’t invest in educational issues until children are in school. “Problems don’t start in fourth grade or in high school. They start on day one.”

The Born Learning program helps parents and child care providers become better equipped to prepare children for the first day of school, giving them the necessary skills to make a strong start.

Linda Sullivan-Dudzig, the director of special programs for the Bremerton School District, highlighted the success of the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) Partnership, a public-private collaboration involving several agencies. Through the partnership, student reading skills at or above grade level by the end of kindergarten have risen from 55.9 percent in 2002 to 92.3 percent this year.

“I’m going to show you a miracle in commerce,” Sullivan-Dudzig said. A study has been done on behalf of the League of Education Voters that shows that the ECCE Partnership combined with the full-day kindergarten strategy will save the district $820,000 annually by focusing on early childhood development. Those cost savings can then be used in other areas. “We can actually make a difference with older students who need help,” Sullivan-Dudzig added.

Numerous studies nationwide have detailed the cost effectiveness of early childhood learning programs, and best estimates show for every dollar spent, the savings down the road will be at least $7. Those down-the-road savings are extremely far-reaching, resulting in life changes including higher graduation and lower incarceration rates.

The Born Learning campaign will help provide materials to employers to give to employees, as well as getting information directly to new parents through such programs as the county’s Welcome Home Baby service and Harrison Hospital’s Stork Express.

“This provides a nice hand-off for us,” said Patricia Hennessy, director of resource development for United Way of Kitsap County. “Both of these programs are a really good way for us to get information to the parents. Fund raising efforts are always on-going, and we have a contributor who is willing to match contributions up to $5,000. The biggest investment the United Way is making through the Born Learning campaign is the time and passion for early learning advancement.”

Parties interested in joining the campaign can contact United Way of Kitsap County at (360) 377-8505, or get more information at www.unitedwaykitsap.org.

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