Growing educational program builds relationships at early age

With a turn of a page Kent Police Chief Ken Thomas read a story, engaging a small group of imaginative minds huddled in the corner of a classroom.

Kent Police Chief Ken Thomas shares a tale with children at Sunrise Elementary.

Kent Police Chief Ken Thomas shares a tale with children at Sunrise Elementary.

With a turn of a page Kent Police Chief Ken Thomas read a story, engaging a small group of imaginative minds huddled in the corner of a classroom.

The picture book’s friendly tale described the connection between dutiful police and those they help, youngsters.

The message was clear, a tone expressing Kent Police’s responsibility and commitment to the safety and welfare of kids. That association between early childhood and law enforcement is extremely important.

So says Thomas.

“It’s a start to building a relationship,” said Thomas, who visited a group of 3- and 4-year-old children enrolled in the new ECEAP (Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program) classrooms at Sunrise Elementary School last week.

“I think it’s all a big piece of keeping our community safe and improving the quality of life in the Kent community,” Thomas said. “And it starts early on.”

ECEAP is the state’s pre-kindergarten program that prepares children from low-income families for success in school and in life. It focuses on providing comprehensive nutrition, health, education and support to eligible families and children.

From humble beginnings, ECEAP – in partnership with Kent Youth & Family Services (KYFS), Fight Crime Invest in Kids and other advocacy groups, and the Kent School District – has grown.

Demand is great. ECEAP and Head Start programs serve 405 children in the school district today, thanks in part to more state support.

The Legislature recently invested in 1,350 new preschool slots, boosting the state’s reach to 10,000 qualified preschoolers this academic year.

Kent and King County are among those benefitting.

KYFS received funding to enroll 36 additional children in the ECEAP programs at Sunrise Elementary and “in kind” contribution of space. The expansion has KYFS providing ECEAP and Head Start classes to preschool children in 25 classes throughout the school district, in partnership with the district and the Puget Sound Educational Services District.

The gains are significant, considering KYFS began with one ECEAP class in 1999.

“We believe in preschool. We’ve expanded preschool,” said Michael Heinisch, KYFS executive director. “(Early-learning programs) get kids on a trajectory of positive development, success in school and away from crime.”

Added Sunrise Elementary Principal Katharine Geiss, “The earlier you attack it, the more success the child has. You’re setting the child up for success for the future.”

Research documents that high-quality early learning lays the foundation for greater success in school and leads to less crime.

“If you really want to get ahead of crime, you need to start at the very beginning,” said Laura Wells, state director of Fight Crime Invest in Kids, a nonpartisan anti-crime organization of nearly 5,000 law enforcement leaders and crime survivors.

“A lot of poor kids do just fine, but we also know poverty is a risk factor for school failure,” Wells said. “So law enforcement has been really supportive of ECEAP over the years and encourages the Legislature to invest more in ECEAP to expand it.”

Kent Police have joined the push.

“It’s going to pay off dividends in helping these kids not only be successful in school, but also be successful in the community, so we have safer communities with a better quality of life,” Thomas said of the programming.

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