Photo: Mike McLaughlin for Strategies for Children

REVERE – Massachusetts Speaker of the House Robert DeLeo took a seat the other day in a pre-kindergarten classroom at the Garfield Community Magnet School here, facing some 40 children, ages 3 to 5, sitting on a colorful carpet with their legs crossed like pretzels. He opened the book “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?” — and before he started reading he asked the children about the bars of color on the inside cover. “Brown, red, yellow, blue, green, purple,…” the children replied.

Here was the speaker engaging in dialogic reading, combining reading aloud with conversation to build the language skills that are the foundation of literacy.

“I don’t know how to read,” one child called out.

“But you’re getting there,” Speaker DeLeo said. (He reveals his favorite children’s book at the end of this blog post.)

The Garfield early childhood program receives a state-funded Universal Pre-Kindergarten grant  designed to support and enhance quality. Many of the children listening to the speaker read about the brown bear that sees a red bird that sees a yellow duck benefit from subsidies from the Department of Early Education and Care.

“When I review budgetary items, the thing I really like is the opportunity to go out and see exactly how programs work,” the speaker said in an interview. “The best way I can do this is to go into classrooms like this and see how the children are progressing.”

The speaker’s visit coincided with a visit by Early Education for All (EEA), a campaign of Strategies for Children (SFC), to recognize the Garfield for its participation in the “Rising Stars” advocacy effort on behalf of young children’s high-quality early education and reading proficiency. In 2010 and 2011, Governor Deval Patrick received more than 250 paper “rising stars” decorated by Garfield children, urging him to prioritize high-quality early education in the fiscal year 2011 and 2012 budgets. Legislators have received almost 300 letters and post cards from Garfield parents with the same message; more are expected as FY12 budget deliberations continue. Altogether the governor received almost 10,000 stars, and legislators have so far received almost 2,400 letters and post cards from across the state.

Speaker DeLeo asked about research on the effectiveness of high-quality early education. Yes, there is research, EEA/SFC Chief Operating Officer Carolyn Lyons told him. Low-income children who attended high-quality early education programs are 40% less likely to need special education services or be held back a grade, 30% more likely to finish high school, and twice as likely to attend college. Nobel laureate James Heckman and other leading economists estimate that investing in high-quality early education produces a 10-16% return in increased productivity and reduced social costs.

The Garfield children ended the morning’s program with a treat – and some advice — for Speaker DeLeo. They presented him with a book “If I Were Speaker of the House” filled with their ideas and their illustrations. “If I were speaker of the House,” one child imagined, “I would build houses for all the children.” Others “would want all people to eat spaghetti and meatballs” or “would like the kids to play jump rope every day.” Another “would give all children books to read.” (“How smart,” the speaker said.)

(Go to our Facebook page for photos and  more of the children’s ideas.)

“You made this day so special for me,” the speaker told the children. “This has been such a wonderful morning.”

First Pages

What is Speaker DeLeo’s favorite children’s book? “The Little Engine that Could,” the classic tale of the tiny engine that pulls a train up a steep mountain, saying “I think I can” as it chugs along.

“It’s a story about someone who had to overcome some obstacle and challenges. At the end of the day, they showed they could do it,” DeLeo said. “That’s how I talked to my children about it. There’s no obstacle they can’t overcome.”

Here is the first page:

Chug, chug, chug. Puff, puff, puff. Ding-dong. Ding-dong. The little train rumbled over the tracks. She was a happy little train.