CINCINNATI -- Deemiah Duskin was a couple weeks shy of her 17th birthday when she became a mom and couldn't help feeling a bit overwhelmed.
So when Duskin heard about Every Child Succeeds -- a program that could provide a trained professional to visit her home and guide her on how best to raise her baby girl -- she jumped at the opportunity.
"Right away we started just reading to her," Duskin said. "They said that would help with her talking and communication."
Did it ever. Duskin's daughter, Kalaya, just turned 3 and has been talking like a pro since she was 2. She knows her shapes and colors and already recognizes some words. Duskin, now 20, credits Every Child Succeeds for teaching her what her daughter needed.
"I would not have known any of that," Duskin said. "I'm very, very grateful for having them."
Kalaya's success underscores the importance of early childhood education, but a recent report called "From the Ground Up" found far too many kids in Ohio's urban and rural counties are missing out on the lessons they need for a strong foundation in their first three years of life.
The results were especially disappointing for Hamilton County.
The report found:
• Only 27 percent of Hamilton County's low-income children are ready for kindergarten when they start.
• 52.5 percent of those children can read at grade level by third grade.
• But only 36.5 percent of low-income kids perform at grade level in math in eighth grade.
The findings are more startling for black children like Kalaya, regardless of their income:
• 27.3 percent of black children in Hamilton County are ready for kindergarten when they start.
• 47.9 percent of them are reading at grade level by third grade.
• And only 28 percent perform at grade level in math in eighth grade.
"The data is actually worse in Hamilton County than statewide," said Shannon Jones, a former state senator who is now executive director of Groundwork Ohio, which produced the report. "We need to target our work and make sure we're getting those kids that are most at risk, and not only those kids that live in poverty."
That means leveraging the data into dollars.
Keeping campaign promises
The state of Ohio spends nearly $10.5 billion per year on its kindergarten through 12th grade education system, which is 93.7 percent of the state's education budget, the report noted.
Early childhood programs, on the other hand, get about $702 million in state funding, or 6.3 percent of Ohio's education budget.
After years of early childhood education getting such a tiny share of Ohio's state budget, both the Democrat and Republican candidates for governor have voiced support for channeling more state resources on programs to help kids in those critical first three years.
Republican Mike DeWine has plans for two programs specifically related to early childhood education and services.
• He calls for raising the eligibility level for publicly funded early childhood programs for working families, which his campaign says would expand access to at least 20,000 more children.
• He also wants to increase home-visiting services, such as Every Child Succeeds, to triple the number of families served through such programs.
Democrat Richard Cordray also calls for raising the eligibility for publicly funded early childhood programs and expanding the reach of home-visiting programs. In addition, Cordray pledges to:
• Build more comprehensive early childhood programs;
• And create a "comprehensive funding plan" to ensure every Ohio child has access to quality early childhood education.
"We're really fortunate that both of our candidates say that they're committed to investing in our most vulnerable and youngest children," Jones said. "We're hopeful that the brain science and the evidence-based practices that we have will help inform them."
The first thousand days
That science is the basis for Every Child Succeeds, said founder and President Judy Van Ginkel.
She started the nonprofit in 1999 as a reaction to new research about brain development in young children and the understanding that "keeping babies warm and dry and fed just wasn't enough."
"There was a lot going on inside the brain," she said. "And we needed to tend to that."
A child's brain develops more in the first three years of life than in any other three years, Van Ginkel said, which makes those first 1,000 days after a baby is born critically important.
"If we can get these first thousand days right, it's an excellent foundation for the child," she said. "And it's not just the cognitive learning. It's also the social and emotional development."
Van Ginkel said she hopes Groundwork Ohio's "From the Ground Up" report will help more people understand that -- and will spur the next governor of Ohio to keep his promises and invest more.
"If we don't address children then, it's not to say that things aren't reversible," she said. "But it comes at much greater cost and is much harder work than beginning when they're small."
Investing in children's education and wellbeing when they're young also yields the biggest returns, Jones said. That's because they do better at school and get into less trouble when they're older, she said, and also because they grow into happier, healthier adults.
Deemiah Duskin is confident that, thanks to Every Child Succeeds, Kalaya has everything she needs for preschool and beyond, she said.
"They were just pushing and pushing her to be better and better each time," Duskin said. "They were just really, really helpful with everything."
More information about Groundwork Ohio and its "From the Ground Up" report is available online. Groundwork Ohio also has a five-minute video on YouTube that explains the importance of early childhood education and the report's policy recommendations.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region -- to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To read more stories about childhood poverty, go to www.wcpo.com/poverty.