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Rotarians hear about child care and learning


By Monroe Roark
Times Correspondent

  The Rotary Club of Henry County heard Monday from a state official about a myriad of issues pertaining to Georgia’s youngest citizens.

Kristen Bernhard spoke at the Monday meeting of the Rotary Club of Henry County.                          Photo by Monroe Roark

  Kristin Bernhard is deputy commissioner of the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning (DECAL). She filled in at the last minute for the former DECAL commissioner, Bobby Cagle, who was named Friday by Gov. Nathan Deal to lead the Department of Family and Children Services (DFA CS).

  She was introduced by Judy Neal of Stockbridge, who is a member of the DECAL board representing the Thirteenth Congressional District.

  Also known as Bright from the Start, the agency is responsible for the child care and early education needs of children from birth until age 5 – about 230,000 across the state. That includes the licensure of some 6,000 child care facilities in Georgia as well as K-4 programs that educate about 82,000 children every year.

  Georgia is one of only three states that has an agency specifically for this purpose, Bernhard said. The other two are Massachusetts and Washington.

  Bernhard related a number of statistics to make the case that the initial years of a child’s life could be the most important for his or her educational development, beginning in infancy when a child forms 700 neurological connections per second.

  “There is not another time in life when the brain is so easy and eager to learn things and be shaped by its environment,” she said. “Those early interactions are shaping the brain and setting the course of action for that person’s life in a way that will never be as impactful at any other time in life.”

  She went on to state that 90 percent of a child’s total brain growth occurs by the fifth birthday.

  “Those first five years are our chance to get it right for our children,” she said. “If ninety percent of a child’s brain growth happens before he or she even sets foot in a kindergarten classroom, then what we do at DECAL really matters, so they can step in those classrooms ready to learn, and the money spent on K-12 and higher education is being used to build on a firm foundation.”

  One of the ways Bernhard’s agency is addressing this is through the state’s pre-k program, which she said is one of the best-rated in the nation. It is unique in that it is a public-private partnership, with private childcare centers as well as public schools meeting an exceptionally high standard to serve the needs of those students. There are a few thousand on a waiting list that could not be enrolled this year because the program only serves as many as the state lottery can fund.

  Studies are showing now that students with a pre-k background are seeing exceptional improvement in later grades in various academic areas, she said.

Third-grade reading is a key indicator of future academic success, and some states use it as a barometer to predict the adult prison population. In Georgia the graduation rate of a class can be accurately forecast by the percentage of third-grade students reading at their grade level, Bernhard said.

  This is partly because after third grade, students are no longer learning to read but are reading to learn, she added, as textbooks for math and science in higher grades require solid reading skills for comprehension, as do college and technical school courses that lead students into the workforce.

  For more about DECAL, visit



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