(ESTELLE GWINN/The Columbian/Murrow News Service)
OLYMPIA — Like other state programs, the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program is likely to take some major budget cuts as the state continues to fall short of project revenues. But Thursday night was a time to look back at its success, even as it faces an uncertain future.
With the help of a Clark County mother’s story, a 25th anniversary celebration at the state Capitol recalled the good things the early education program has done for children and families.
Vancouver Head Start teacher Judy McConathy received a standing ovation after sharing her story. She told the group how she became an early learning teacher 19 years ago when her sons were enrolled in the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program. ECEAP is a state-funded program for low-income families that prepares children for public school.
McConathy was asked to speak at the event from her experience as both a teacher and a mother of three sons who grew up in the program.
“It is preparing the children of Washington for success in elementary school, I really believe that,” McConathy said. “All three of my sons thought preschool prepared them for public school.”
McConathy’s oldest son, Thomas, was enrolled in ECEAP during its first year in Clark County 25 years ago. Thomas’ teacher encouraged McConathy to become a teacher, but she at first declined.
“I thought, ‘What is she thinking? She’s crazy, I don’t want to work with children,’ ” she said at Thursday’s event, held in Olympia. But four years later her second son, Andrew, joined ECEAP.
“When Andrew was in the program I saw how hard his teachers worked and how much they helped him and I applied,” she said, describing her son as a “temperamental child.”
“That’s the new term for a little rascal,” McConathy said. “His classroom rule was: You don’t push people on the floor and stomp on them.”
With the help of patient teachers, Andrew’s tantrums lessened and his passion for building began. McConathy remembered her son building elaborate designs out of blocks.
“His teachers were amazed. Now this little rascal, years later, will graduate this spring from Washington State University Vancouver with a triple bachelor’s degree in applied mathematics, applied physics and engineering,” McConathy said.
McConathy now describes herself as a “staunch advocate for children of all ages” after seeing what early child education could do for her own children.
Her youngest son, Kale, was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy at 3 years old, a condition that causes weakness and loss of muscle. During Kale’s years in preschool he had to wear his first set of leg braces.
“They took his braces off and cleaned his feet, they put his braces back on and they treated that child with respect,” McConathy said.
Kale went on to attend Vancouver School of Arts and Academics, where he won awards for his art and photography. He currently attends The Evergreen State College, where he’s studying ecology and restoration. His photography has been on display at the Capitol, a passion McConathy believes began with the first collage he made in preschool.
Thomas, now 28, is a pre-nursing student at Portland Community College and recently got a job working with developmentally disabled people. His mother remembers him learning to ride a bike at ECEAP.
“He still uses that as his transportation now, 25 years later,” McConathy said.
The McConathy children are just three out of hundreds of thousands of children who were served by ECEAP during the past 25 years. The program’s budget grew from $5 million when it began in 1986 to $54 million in 2010-2011, according to ECEAP’s yearly outcomes report. But with further state budget cuts coming, program reductions seem likely.
Gov. Chris Gregoire spoke at the event, acknowledging the growth of the program as well as the importance of protecting early education during difficult economic times.
“For every dollar we put into ECEAP, we get a whole lot of money back. It is the single best investment we can make in the future of a child and in the future of this state,” Gregoire said.
Jodi Wall, director of Child Care and Early Learning in Vancouver, said if the Department of Early Learning is forced to take the proposed cuts, it would cause immediate impact in Southwest Washington.
Wall said she expects the department will take a 5 percent cut, which would eliminate services given to informal caregivers in the region, such as those in the Family, Friends and Neighbors program. The program provides support to relatives and neighbors who care for children without being licensed caregivers.
If the department took a 10 percent cut the region would lose funding for FFN as well as significantly reduce funding for licensed child care providers. That would affect professional training, center improvement, and consultations for families with special needs.
Both cuts, Wall said, would reduce the options for families seeking child care resources in Southwest Washington, which has become more important as families are trying to keep their jobs or find new jobs.
“A lot of families are looking for jobs … you can’t interview for a job with your kid. Their ability to find employment depends on their access to child care,” Wall said.
ECEAP has five centers in Vancouver that provide early learning child care but they are unable to meet all of the demand, said Wall.
“We’re not serving even half of the eligible families in our region. We have lots of families who are eligible but we don’t have enough slots,” Wall said, adding ECEAP currently has a waiting list.
ECEAP’s outcomes report recorded more than 4,000 children on waiting lists in Washington and 18,600 children who were eligible for ECEAP but could not be served.
“A cut to early learning is felt everywhere, it impacts child care providers, families and communities,” Wall said. “Those cuts would be felt deep and wide and it would be felt to kids and families and eventually the K-12 system.”