Posted by Jack
There is a boy in my class, and his favorite planet is Neptune. I am not sure why Neptune is his favorite, and at the tender age of 4, I am not sure why he even knows that Neptune exists.
Let's call him Dee.
Dee is a funny kid. One day in class, out of the clear blue sky, in the midst of a planet-unrelated activity, he looked at me and announced with confidence,"Neptune is my favorite planet."
Amused, I asked him why he had an affinity for such a distant place. He shrugged and said, "Just because." Thinking perhaps he was simply repeating something he'd heard, I was stunned when he cracked open a book about the solar system and pointed directly at Neptune.
"There is Neptune," he said, "My favorite planet."
At a later date, he took a wooden puzzle which features all the planets of our solar system (minus Pluto, that cosmic impostor!) and, without hesitation, picked up Neptune and identified it as his own.
Dee is delightfully peculiar, though completely healthy in terms of health and development.
There is something antiquated about his mannerisms, as if he were raised a few generations past. "Excuse me, excuse me," he beckons as he tugs gently at my arm. Unabashedly joyful, Dee is quick to laugh and quick to hug. His unquenchable curiosity leads him to ask questions at an astounding pace, often faster than I can answer him.
He is energetic and playful. He is fast enough to swipe my glasses from my face without warning, and compassionate enough to return them unharmed. He cries mournfully when he has disappointed a trusted adult, and often, all he wants to do is sit on your lap and read. His perpetual wonderment is contagious, and I find myself working doubly hard to make sure I do nothing in word or deed to deflate his enthusiasm for learning.
Perhaps Dee is from Neptune. He has never made such a claim, and I have no evidence to prove he is an alien. But I sometimes wonder if it is possible for such a bright, cheerful, and promising young man to originate on our Earth. Considering our broken surroundings, it often seems that something so beautiful could only have fallen from the heavens.
He spoke to me about Neptune in hushed tones of excitement. It is blue there, he said, and he wishes we could go there together. Neptune is far away, but Dee is unfazed. The goal is not imposing, but welcoming and challenging.
Inviting. Promising. Within reach.
One can only wonder how long such fascination can last. The reality is, Dee lives in a low-income neighborhood. He is part of a family that cannot afford to place him in a quality preschool program. His options are limited to public ones. Sadly, I have watched, as children grow older and experience frustration, the sense of wonder turn to a sense of resignation.
Cold. Distant. Remote. With educational opportunities as scarce as they are, the odds of Dee succeeding with his peers in school are as slim as his reaching the planet Neptune.
Let's go back a few years.
The Early Learning Initiative (ELI) funded preschool education for over 13,000 disadvantaged children in the State of Ohio. In 2009, severe budget cuts were implemented as part of Gov. Strickland's line item veto. ELI went on the chopping block. Full day preschool was completely slashed from the State budget; half-day preschool funding was reduced by one third. You can read about how devastating the cuts were by clicking here.
At the time, I was teaching preschool at a private learning center on the North Side of Springfield. We had 2 basic groups of kids: the private pay kids, who were there because their families could afford to enroll them, and the “ELI kids,” or disadvantaged children who were there under the provisions of the Early Learning Initiative (other forms of assistance were represented as well, I speak in general).
There was, of course, some warning. The State sent ELI parents a letter informing them of the coming storm and encouraging them to apply for subsidies. These children were well-established in my center, having been in my classroom as long as I had been. They were actively participating and learning alongside more well-to-do families, when word came down to parents that the education of their children was no longer covered.
Aside from waiting for the deadline to come, there was no transition. The date came, and my ELI kids were gone.
The situation is no less dire today.
Governor Kasich has made clear his intent to continue slashing the budget, with as much as an additional $100 million in early childhood education cuts on the way. One leader said, "We are 8 billion in the hole. We are keeping our fingers crossed but we know early childhood will take a hit.”
Many of my children reach kindergarten, and they are already behind. Can you imagine? Day one of your education and you are already behind?
I understand we are in a budget crisis. I understand that sometimes there must be cuts. Am I saying that those in power should be faulted for making adjustments?
Of course not.
But I am saying that balancing the budget at the expense of our children, or on the backs of teachers, fire fighters, and police officers, while providing tax cuts to the wealthy... well that is a clear case of misplaced priorities.
In the midst of such uncertainty and turmoil, where can low-income families go to equip their children with a quality education? Well, I have high hopes that they will find their way to my classroom.
I am now teaching preschool at Inside Out, here in my neighborhood in Springfield. In alignment with the standards set forth by the State of Ohio, we have been working very hard on our preschool program. My goals are two-fold:
1) To stay true to the organization's mission of providing Christ-centered child care for local families and,
2) To make sure that every child who passes through my class leaves us ready for kindergarten.
It will take a lot of work (advocacy, lobbying, voting, informing) to correct the inequalities that are present in our system. As we seek to build strong futures for ALL our children, the odds are often stacked against us.
But, perhaps Dee is right. Maybe Neptune isn't so far away.
Despite tough times and numerous cuts, we are here for you, working hard to provide a preschool alternative for families in our neighborhood. Spread the word.
We are now enrolling. Contact Inside Out at 937-525-7880.