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Education: Start at the beginning

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- I've lost count of the number of legislative candidates this fall who absolutely salivate to talk about the education audit, that document prepared by an out-of-state consulting firm at the request of a previous governor.

At best, candidates want to find legitimate ways to redirect spending to activities that help students achieve. At worst, candidates are looking for excuses to cut school funding and beat up on people in education. It seems everyone had a mean old teacher at some point.

Only one candidate I've met absolutely nailed the issue at hand: Healthy students.

If you don't have healthy students, you can make all the education changes you want, but they won't work, said Delegate Bobbie Hatfield, who is running for another term in Kanawha County's 35th District.

Healthy means more than just the absence of a head cold. It means being ready, mentally and physically, to seize the opportunities school offers.

Hatfield points to suicides among teens and young adults, an indicator of untreated mental illness. She cites the high rate of teen pregnancy and that 2,000 or more kids are in foster care at any given time. Those measures are all important, but they are also at the extreme and serious end of the problem scale.

A story in last Sunday's Gazette-Mail gives a glimpse of the other end of the scale. Staff at Elkins Middle School in Randolph County are thrilled that their students are being sent to the office 20 percent less frequently than last year. Suspensions are down 15 percent. Their miracle innovation?

Breakfast.

Elkins Middle is one of 100 schools serving breakfast in ways that students can and will actually eat it in greater numbers, reports the Gazette's Mackenzie Mays. Middle school students can grab a healthy breakfast and take it with them, to their first class, if necessary. They can get breakfast even if they arrive late. The school no longer makes breakfast compete with that all-important middle school activity -- socializing.

If better-fed students are less drowsy and cranky to the point that they get into fewer disciplinary scrapes, what must that imply for their time in class? If they are better behaved, are they more interested? On task? Involved? Imagine the improvement when this effort is replicated statewide.

Yes, kids' needs really are this basic. Healthy food in their bellies. Every day.

Now, consider another story from last week. Researchers in England have measured a difference in cognitive development among 7-year-olds whose families are persistently poor, compared to kids of less poor families.

The researchers followed 19,000 children, collected their family income details and tested their cognitive development at ages 3, 5 and 7.

By age 7, chronically poor children lagged behind other kids in skills such as memory, problem solving and decision making, reports Prevention Action, a journal about improving child health and development. Poverty is especially influential during the preschool years, the journal reported. Those early impairments last long after children start school, even after family income rises.

"The evidence suggests that persistent poverty tends to diminish parental investment in activities like bedtime stories, early learning support and encouragement for creative activities at home," the journal reported.

This isn't the first documentation that children from impoverished, struggling families don't thrive in school as well as other kids. It's only the latest, but it's important.

West Virginia has a lot of persistently poor children, and plenty of parents who work hard trying to provide for them. Helping families to overcome poverty's long-lasting effects should be the top priority in any discussion of "education reform."Miller, the Gazette's editorial page editor, can be reached at dawn@wvgazette.com.


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