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Early Learning summit outlines challenges and goals

Allison Coburn, Ph.D., introduced the first class of graduates from the new early childhood development curriculum at Blue River Career Programs during an event Thursday evening at Indiana Grand Racing & Casino.

By JOHN WALKER - jwalker@shelbynews.com

Shelbyville Mayor Tom DeBaun put the business community on alert at the close of a summit on early childhood learning: Expect visits soon.

“Ryan Claxton and I and others will be knocking on your doors,” said the mayor.

Claxton, a vice president at Major Health Partners, is chairman of the Early Learning Coalition. Stu Kaplan, president of Makuta Technics Inc., is the vice chairman.

They will be looking for support for Early Learning Shelby County, an initiative to make young children in the county better prepared to enter school.

Efforts to develop the early learning program began when Kathy Zerr, a just-retired elementary school teacher, who taught two of his three daughters DeBaun noted, came to his office about two years ago with an idea. 

Zerr had noticed over the years an increasing number of young children were entering school with behavioral and other issues, unprepared to learn. 

As a result, Early Learning Shelby County was born.

Some 300 people attended a summit dinner at Indiana Grand Racing & Casino on Thursday evening to hear from experts about the need for the program, and the current state of young childhood development in the county.

Keynote speaker Nancy L. Swigonski, M.D., discussed the science behind the effort.

She cited studies showing connections between low income, non-professional families and learning difficulties, but with a caveat.

“The reality is, that isn’t the real story,” Swigonski said.

A new study, “Beyond the 30 Million Word Gap,” shows it’s the verbal exchanges between adults and children during the formative years up to age 3 that matter, she said.

Those exchanges, what Swigonski called “the serve and return,” using a term from the game of tennis, develop neural connections in the child’s brain vital to learning.

Continuing that theme, Paula Gustafson, M.D., a pediatrician in Shelbyville for 20 years, noted that one in four children nationally are at risk of developing behavioral social delays.

In Shelby County, the number is two out of three, she said.

“If we invest in early education we will see a reduction in the problems we have,” said Gustafson.

Alison Coburn, Ph.D., a graduate of Shelbyville High School, noted that qualifications for early childcare providers range from those with high school diplomas to those with doctorates.

She also pointed out the high turnover rate among those providers. 

“Despite all the negative talk, we have a lot of positive resources in this community,” Coburn said.

She introduced to the audience the first class to complete the “Child Development Associate Credential” – a nine credit-hour course of study at Blue River Career Programs to train early childcare providers.

Coburn also outlined two major goals for Early Learning Shelby County to be accomplished by 2020:

n Increase professional training for providers by 50 percent;

n Decrease the turnover rate among those providers by 50 percent.

Additional information is available at www.earlylearningshelbycounty.com.