An initiative that aims the close the persistent achievement gap between students of color and their white peers in Dane County launched Tuesday evening at the Central Library downtown.
1800 Days is a local grassroots organization that will work to close the achievement gap at an early age, before children start kindergarten. Harold Rayford, pastor of the Faith Place Church in Sun Prairie and president of the African American Council of Churches, started the project after volunteering at a local middle school library and noticing the gap.
“I thought the achievement gap started in kindergarten and progressively got worse over time. But after working in the schools I found out that it begins from birth if children aren’t hitting certain benchmarks, and by the time they get to kindergarten they are already behind,” Rayford said.
All the school districts in Dane County have agreed to partner with 1800 days, in addition to several churches, libraries, community centers and universities. Members of those groups came to the launch to show their support.
"This is important not just to the state of Wisconsin but for the whole country. I’ve always asked how can we engage our universities in early childhood development but this shows we can do that," said Ray Cross, president of the UW System. "It’s also important to us that we’re partnering with a faith-based community.”
Nic Gibson, pastor of High Point Church, also shared his support for the initiative.
“I’ve been a dear friend of Pastor Rayford’s and I can’t express how important this is for the community,” he said.
1800 Days (the length of approximately five years) will work with parents by giving them tools and resources to monitor whether their kids are on track with cognitive development. Rayford said the first five years of a child’s life are when significant intellectual growth happens and making sure they’re on track intellectually is key to reducing the gap once they start school. He named the project 1800 days because it conveys the importance of viewing the work in terms of days rather than years. Counting down by days will make “every single day count,” he said.
A large focus of the initiative will be on mentoring young parents by giving them guidance and practical advice on raising their kids. A team of women over 60 years old — called “Big Mommas” — will reach out to parents and give them the support and education they need. Through word of mouth, brochures, partnerships and networking, Rayford hopes parents of all ages can take part in 1800 Days to ensure their child is on track to start kindergarten and beyond.
Another aspect of the program is connecting parents to free, existing resources that will help with their children’s growth, such as libraries.
Janetta Pegues, supervisor of the Goodman South Madison Library on the city’s south side, said there are a number of programs and activities already in place that help kids with their fine motor skills, reading, speech and communication skills.
“We have programs such as ‘Toddlers in Motion,’ where kids use their fine motor skills by dancing, singing and being engaged with each other,” Pegues said. “Another fun one we have is reading to dogs, where kids practice by reading to dogs. It’s an unbiased way of learning how to read and there is no judgment.”
On the 1800 Days website, a guide is available for parents to download that will help parents track the growth and development of their children. Rayford and his team created a document with benchmarks children should reach from birth to age 5.
For the future, Rayford plans to expand the benchmarks guideline from first grade to high school.