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Coach K: Quality preschool is a win for everyone

Just eight and a half minutes into our ACC Men’s Basketball Tournament semifinal, the scoreboard read “Notre Dame 18, Duke 5.”

As the coach of the guys who had 5 points, this was a less-than-ideal scenario.

We eventually lost, 74-64. The lesson? Falling behind is a tough obstacle to overcome, even if there’s a lot of time left on the clock.

Being talented helps. Hard work matters, too. But, even with ability and effort on your side, facing a sizable early deficit makes it difficult to win ballgames.

Unfortunately, the grim message on the scoreboard that night in March is an apt metaphor for the situation in which many young children find themselves today.

At-risk kids who can’t access high-quality preschool experiences face an early deficit of their own — except the stakes are much higher than the outcome of a basketball game.

Without the benefit of quality early education, children’s math and literacy skills can be up to 18 months behind those of their more-advantaged peers by the time these kids start kindergarten. Adults may not see an 18-month deficit as insurmountable, but remember that a year and a half represents nearly one-third of a 5-year-old’s life.

That’s a huge disadvantage. Far worse than being down by 13 points in a basketball game. These children might be scrambling to catch up for the rest of their education — and possibly for the rest of their lives.

That’s bad for the children, bad for their teachers, and bad for the country.

Helping kids erase that learning gap is one reason I established the Emily K Center, named in honor of my mother, in 2006. I care deeply about making sure children have the resources they need to compete. All of us at the center want kids to dream big, act with character and purpose, and reach their potential as leaders in their communities. The center provides a variety of services that prepare kids from low-income families for success at all levels of education.

The experience of working with the Emily K Center reinforced my understanding of just how challenging school can be for underprivileged children. Children who aren’t “ready to learn” when they begin kindergarten face a major uphill battle.

Research highlighted by Champions for America’s Future shows that quality early learning experiences help kids develop social skills that support academic achievement. These experiences form a foundation for math and literacy so children are ready to learn when they begin kindergarten.

Quality early-education programs can help lead to higher rates of high-school graduation, college attendance, and employment, and they promote a lifelong culture of health. Children everywhere need to have the best chance possible to reach those results.

We now have an incredible opportunity to help these children.

Congress has begun to take important, bipartisan steps to make quality early learning available to more kids. They’re doing that through reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the education law that promotes educational opportunity for all children.

An amendment added to the Senate bill while in committee would give states and communities more funding to create and improve access to quality preschool programs, especially for kids from low- and moderate-income households. Today, hundreds of thousands of families can’t afford preschool, which costs an average of $4,000 to $13,000 per year, depending on location.

But Congress needs not only to reauthorize the ESEA, but also to include this critical funding stream in the final version. I sincerely hope our leaders in Washington will recognize that learning begins at birth, not on the first day of kindergarten.

Access to high-quality early education is essential to preparing kids to be as competitive as possible in their academic careers and beyond. Success in the modern workplace is based largely on abilities that begin to develop in the preschool years, such as collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking. We want children to have those skills.

Our basketball team was able to recover from that setback against Notre Dame and go on to win a national championship. But too many children who fall behind in their learning won’t have the luxury of another chance at victory. If they can’t beat the odds and rally, their game will be over.

Giving young children the educational opportunities they deserve will make winners of us all.

Here is a video about the Emily K Center:

Mike Krzyzewski

Mike Krzyzewski is the head men’s basketball coach at Duke University and the founder of the Emily Krzyzewski Center in Durham, N.C.