TEACH attendees get behind early learning

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Even a moveable feast wasn't enough to stop folks from beating a path from the TEACH reception across the exhibition hall on July 23 to offer messages of support for their colleagues in early learning, along with stories that illustrate how early childhood education makes a difference—at home, in the neighborhood and in the lives of young children.

Worthy Wage Day quilt

Throughout the conference, an early-learning floor display in the exhibition hall invited visitors to embellish the AFT's Worthy Wage quilt with personal notes of support—messages calling on policymakers to help ensure those who teach and nurture the nation's youngest minds get the professional compensation they deserve. The display also had a bank of computers that allowed conferees to share their own personal stories: times when high-quality child care, pre-K, Early Head Start, Head Start or home visiting had a positive impact on their lives. These slices of life, along with hundreds of others contributed across the country, will become part of a book that the Strong Start for Children Campaign will give to lawmakers to show the value of early learning and support for President Obama's bold early-learning initiative.

And share they did.

The efforts at TEACH have generated hundreds of contributions to both the library of personal stories and the Worthy Wage quilt—many of them from conference attendees who drifted over during an evening reception to exchange their cocktails and finger food for the felt-tip pens and keyboards they used to sign the quilt and email anecdotes on early childhood education.

"It's so important to give kids the care and skills they need to make them ready for kindergarten," said Laura Mildenberger, a career-education teacher from Bismarck, N.D., who stopped by to email her story of support. She was joined at the computer station by her friend Heidi Budeau, a high school special education teacher in Bismarck, who talked of how even the smallest North Dakota communities, towns of 500 or fewer, get behind neighborhood Head Start programs because they see the difference they make.

These rural towns show that affordable, accessible and high-quality early learning isn't an "urban thing," Budeau stressed. "It's really a national issue." Even among the high school students she works with, "you can definitely tell the kids who started at 3" with high-quality early learning.

These opportunities make a difference in children's lives, and nobody knows that better than teachers like Donna Tartza of Perth Amboy, N.J., one of the many visitors who signed the Worthy Wage quilt on Tuesday.

Tartza remembers how, when it came to her own children, she was scouting out high-quality early learning programs "as soon as they were out of diapers"—and all families deserve that chance. A good way to make it a reality is to offer your own story about the value of early learning.

[Mike Rose/photo  by Michael Campbell]