There's no such thing as too early.
Educators say learning starts long before a student's first day of kindergarten. But too often children, especially those living in poverty, show up to school unprepared.
To help give those children a better foundation, the Creative Discovery Museum plans to partner with Hamilton County Schools to open an early childhood development center that will serve children and families from birth through preschool. Getting kids ready for school could help teachers as they work to break a longstanding cycle in which poor students typically underperform compared with other students.
"What we're trying to do is take kids who are in poverty and give them an opportunity to be on grade level by the time they get to kindergarten," school system Superintendent Rick Smith said. "That would be really powerful."
The idea is still in the conceptual stage, with officials working on raising money and planning details for the center, which is set to open in 2015. But the move comes at a time when early childhood education is gaining steam nationally. President Barack Obama is pushing a "Preschool for All" agenda.
Nashville schools Superintendent Jesse Register just announced a $6 million plan to expand that city's preschool program by 1,000 seats. And Shelby County residents will vote on a proposed half-cent sales tax hike next month to pay for a 4,500-student pre-k program expansion.
The Creative Discovery Museum plans to open its center in an unused building next to Calvin Donaldson Environmental Science Academy. That elementary school already has a preschool program for 4-year-olds. So the vision is for children as young as six weeks to come to the program and stay through fifth grade.
"We want that to be a seamless transition," said Jayne Griffin, the museum's director of education.
The idea for the center was born in the museum's 2011 strategic plan, which also called on the facility to expand community engagement and programming for underserved audiences. The museum already works with thousands of young children annually. But Griffin said the transition to a more institutional setting isn't a big stretch. Like the museum experience itself, much of the work in early childhood education centers on play and self-exploration -- that is, children explore the environment themselves, not necessarily under direct instruction or structure.
"That is something that can be applied particularly in an early childhood setting," Griffin said. "The piece that transcends in early childhood is this idea of child-led discovery."
A mostly poor and black school, Calvin Donaldson sees many kindergarten students who show up unprepared, Principal Cherrye Robertson said. She's excited that this program will help get kids academically ready for school and also bring the community into the fold. The new center will offer training and support for parents. The museum already offers several programs for Calvin Donaldson families, like its PlayGym, classes for parents and young children designed to develop motor skills, cognitive skills, social skills and self-confidence.
"We get to keep them from the time they're 6 weeks old and keep them until they graduate fifth grade," Robertson said. "But not only keep the kids, ... we're bringing in the parents and building a community."
In addition to serving 56 young children and their families, the new program will serve as a training ground for other early childhood teachers, said Henry Schulson, executive director of the Creative Discovery Museum.
"We really do want to create something that is a lab school," he said.
Chattanooga has put up $500,000 for the project. And Schulson said his team is looking to other public and private agencies to help fund the remaining $1 million to renovate the space. The museum is studying others that have started similar ventures, like the Portland Children's Museum, which operates both a preschool and charter school on site.
Griffin said Chattanooga's program will offer a high-quality environment for early learning, not just child care. And that means classes aren't only focused on teaching academics like the ABCs and 123s, but more on overall development.
"It's not about flash cards at a young age," Griffin said. "It's play-based."
Social and emotional development are just as important for school readiness. Even small things like learning how to play with or around large groups of children can help make a smoother transition to kindergarten, experts say.
High-quality early education programs are actually more beneficial to children from low-income families, said Carol Brunson Day, a national consultant on early education who is working on the project. Day worked on creating the Tennessee School Readiness Model, which tells communities and parents what students need to do to promote early learning.
But such programs are only a start. They must be accompanied by strong academic support through third grade, which is generally used as an indicator of a child's future academic success.
"This is why the Creative Discovery Museum is partnering with an existing elementary school," she said. "Because just developing a new pre-k program in the community -- while it is an important goal and will benefit children and families -- the greatest benefit will come if those children's gains can be maintained through third grade."
Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at email@example.com or 423-757-6249.