Investing in Lawrence's three- to five-year-olds

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The "incredible misunderstanding in America about the importance of education of two-and-a-half-year-olds, three-year- olds, and four-year-olds" has been a source of consternation to Peter Lynch, president of the Lynch Foundation. He has done much to address this misconception: his foundation strategically invests in early childhood education, and in this year alone, is funding early childhood education for approximately 2,000 children in 120 classrooms. A prime example of the difference early childhood education (ECE) can make in the lives of children and their families is the unique program of Lawrence Catholic Academy, a school serving 450 Pre-K to grade eight students.

"I can't think of a better investment than early education at LCA," Lynch says. High praise, indeed, from the legendary former manager of Fidelity Investments' Magellan Fund, and well-founded.

LCA Trustee Father Paul O'Brien, pastor of St. Patrick Parish and co-founder of the Cor Unum Meal Center, is actively involved in the vibrant partnership with the Lynch Foundation. The parish, meal center, and school are within several blocks of one another in Lawrence, a city with a poverty rate double the state average.

"We're blessed and excited to work with Father O'Brien in bringing our early childhood program to LCA, our only partner school in the Merrimack Valley," says Lynch Foundation Executive Director Katie Everett. "We believe in teaching the whole child, incorporating social, emotional, and academic aspects," she continues, "and this means learning to share, work together, and understand and follow rules in a structured environment."

Until engagement by the Lynch Foundation, LCA's program for three- and four-year-olds centered more on childcare than literacy development," reflects LCA Principal Mary Kelly. The Foundation supports teachers' and aides' professional development, coaching and mentoring, planning support for space redesign and opening classrooms, and upgrading of materials. Teachers and aides can obtain undergraduate degrees in education and master's degrees in early childhood education through Cambridge College's satellite campus in Lawrence.

Peter Lynch describes succinctly the merits of professional development in ECE: "You can't just take an eighth-grade teacher and ask them to teach two-and-a-half- or four-year-olds. You don't just get little chairs and little tiny desks. It's different material. It's a challenging job. The word nursery school should go away. This is education."

Citing studies that have shown the significant impact ECE has on children's school success, LCA Board of Trustees Chair Rosemary Jeans believes transitioning from a childcare to early childhood education has provided LCA students invaluable benefits. "The structured setting of a high-quality preschool classroom expands our students' vocabulary, problem solving, and listening skills," she remarks, "as well as their cognitive, social, and emotional development..."

Jesina Nova and her husband's two eldest children attended LCA's former childcare program, while their third and fourth children have attended its ECE program. Whereas the elder Nova children "primarily played with dolls and stuffies," the younger ones have "obviously received early literacy and STEM lessons, learning their numbers, letters, and sight words, and have played with engineering toys and magnets instead. It shows."

To be sure, the curriculum also develops empathy. Ms. Nova offers this example: "When I recently asked my Pre-K daughter how recess had been, she said, 'I played with a girl who I saw didn't have anyone to play with.' Whereas the childcare program emphasized other things, I believe LCA has helped her develop at an early age awareness and appreciation of the needs of others and empathy towards them."

"Early childhood education can change children's lives," Mr. Lynch says. "Kids learn their squares, circles, and rhomboids. They get to know other children, and they begin to develop their empathy and love, and self-discipline, self-esteem, and self-confidence. So much money goes to college scholarships for poor people. But when you're eight, nine, or 10, a full scholarship to Princeton, BC, BU, or Notre Dame isn't much of a carrot, and you're not going to get a scholarship, if you don't have that discipline, esteem, and confidence. Early education gives you that."

Ultimately, Father O'Brien believes that "our early childhood education program and the full experience of LCA helps close not only the education gap, but also the life achievement gap for many children." LCA's strategic plan for the near future includes doubling the size of its current ECE program.

The Nova family has an 11-month-old son. Will he attend LCA's early childhood education program? "That'll be a joy, a no-brainer," says Ms. Nova, smiling. Father O'Brien and Peter Lynch would agree.