The District is a national leader in providing universal access to preschool for 4- and 5-year olds, an investment designed to improve school readiness and narrow a a rich-poor achievement gap that is apparent by kindergarten.
But, according to a new report produced by Child Trends and commissioned by the Bainum Family Foundation, the achievement gap starts much earlier — in infancy — and the city isn’t prepared to deal with it.
Across neighborhoods distinctly segregated by race and class, there are significant differences in the health, well-being, parental education and family structure for the District’s youngest residents.
Such factors have a strong influence on how a child’s brain develops and how they establish important lifelong patterns for relationships, learning and self-regulation.
The report, which draws on several years of local and federal data, describes “a tale of two cities” in the District — with children in the poorest neighborhoods, in Wards 7 and 8 east of the Anacostia River, born a world apart from those in the wealthiest neighborhoods, in Ward 3.
Among the significant findings:
- The portion of infants and toddlers living in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty, where at least 20 percent of residents have incomes below the federal poverty level, ranged from 4 percent in Ward 3 to 89 percent in Ward 8.
- The portion of infants and toddlers living with at least one college-educated parent ranged from 97 percent in Ward 3 to 20 percent in Wards 7 and 8.
- The portion of children born to unmarried women ranged from 7 percent in Ward 3 to 85 percent in ward 7.
- The rate of children born to teen mothers aged 15 to 19 was 2 per 1,000 in Wards 2 and 3 compared with 78 per 1,000 in Wards 7 and 8.
- The portion of expectant mothers who received late (not until the third trimester) or no prenatal care was 4 percent in Ward 3 compared with 9 percent in Wards 7 and 8.
- The portion of babies born with low birth weight (less than 5.5 pounds) was 7 percent in Wards 2 and 3 compared with 15 percent in Ward 7.
- The rate of infants and toddlers who were victims of abuse and neglect varied from 0.3 per 1,000 in Ward 3 to 35 per 1,000 in Ward 8.
The Bethesda-based Bainum Family Foundation has committed to spend $10 million during the next five years to improve early learning opportunities for the youngest and most disadvantaged residents of the District of Columbia.
Rozita Green, chief strategy officer at the foundation, said the “starkness” of the disparities is a wake-up call.
“I think we can all agree the achievement gap does not start in the classroom, it starts in the crib. Many argue it starts well before birth,” she said. “We need to think about what an integrated system of care and early childhood development looks like, especially for our most vulnerable infants and children.”
Children under 3 are the fastest-growing age group in the city, with a 26 percent increase in the number of infants and toddlers between 2010 and 2014.
The poorest areas, with the greatest concentrations of poverty, are also home to the largest number of young children: A third of all infants and toddlers in the city live in Wards 7 and 8.
The city has some key strengths to build on when it comes to early intervention, including an unmatched investment in preschool and one of the country’s highest rates of health insurance coverage for young children.
But Green said infants and toddlers and their parents in the most vulnerable communities need a far more comprehensive set of support services.
Home-visit programs, for example, are popular in European countries and were included in President Obama’s national strategy to expand early education. Quality programs have been shown to reduce rates of low birth weight and child maltreatment, and improve parenting practices and children’s learning and behavior.
But in the District, such programs reach only about 800 families with infants and toddlers each year, an estimated 15 percent of those who could benefit from the service.
Quality child-care slots also are in short supply, particularly for low-income families. There are 26,000 children under age 3 in the District, at least half of whom come from poor families, but there are only 7,000 slots for regulated child-care providers, and 4,200 of them accept subsidy payments. Wards 7 and 8 had the lowest percentage of child-care centers that were given a high-quality “gold rating” by the city.
Early Head Start also could be expanded. The federally funded early childhood program provides care and services for young children and their families, and has shown positive outcomes for the cognitive and language development of participating children, and for the stress management, employment and education levels of parents. In the District, about 760 infants and toddlers were enrolled — about 13 percent of the eligible population.
Green said the foundation hopes to work with other funders, advocacy groups and government officials to develop strategies for improving the safety net for vulnerable infants and toddlers.
“In D.C. today, the color of a child’s skin and the address on his or her mailbox determine that child’s chance of success — or even survival,” she said in a statement. “The District’s progress on pre-K shows we can improve the odds, if policy makers make kids a priority.”