Education is the key to a better life. It's as simple as that. Even when the deck is stacked against you. I see it every day in my work. Parents who have graduated high school and completed some type of higher education are better able to overcome grave childhood disadvantages – from poverty and abuse to teen parenthood. A JAMA Pediatrics study released today supports this point.

Low-income minority children who participated in the Child-Parent Center Program, which provided comprehensive school and family services from preschool through third grade, were associated with a 48 percent higher rate of completing an associate's degree or higher compared to those who did not participate in all six years of the program.

The data comes from the Chicago Longitudinal Study where researchers track the educational and social development of 1,539 participants born in 1979 and 1980. For this study, researchers were able to follow up with 1,398 of the participants at age 35.

"It's quite remarkable to see this 30 years later. This provides a new avenue for promoting long term education success," said Arthur J. Reynolds, PhD, lead author of the study who is a professor at the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota and the director of the Chicago Longitudinal Study.

At each school where the program took place, there was a parent involvement team, workshops, field trips, and many opportunities presented for parent participation. Preschool class sizes were kept to 17 students. Kindergarten through third grade classes did not exceed 25 students and each had a teaching assistant. Parents had access to a variety of services: workshops included GED training and computer skills classes, and they could also receive home visits, Reynolds said.

While the results are promising, Reynolds pointed out it's estimated that only about 10 percent of low income children nationally from ages 3 to 9 are participating in a robust program like the CPC.

This points to one of the major disparities between the poor and middle class: access to quality education and enrichment programs. It's also one of the reasons the poor stay poor. But luckily, that's changing nationwide, including in our region.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey have all taken on the mission of ensuring every child in the region will eventually have access to a quality education.

Access is one thing – enrolling your child is another. All too often I find parents who don't make it a priority. They wait too long to find a placement and often settle for what's most convenient for them. Not what's best for their children. This is too important to leave to chance.

It's not easy. It takes time and research to find the right school for your child, but help is available.

The Keystone Stars rating system provides Pennsylvania families with a tool to gauge the quality of early learning programs. Programs can earn STAR 1 to a STAR 4 level. At each level, programs have to meet certain research-based quality standards that measure four areas that make a difference in the quality of care your child receives:

  • Staff Education
  • Learning Environment
  • Leadership Management
  • Family and Community Partnership

Programs are continually monitored, and centers can gain or lose stars based on performance.

In Philadelphia, there has been lots of discussion, and outrage, about the beverage tax, but it was levied for a good reason – to support Mayor Kinney's pre-k initiative. PHLpre-k is a five-year plan to create 6,500 locally-funded, quality, affordable pre-K seats in Philadelphia. The program is fully enrolled this year, but to get your child on the waiting list for next year call 1-844-PHL-PREK and start the application process.

Most daycare and preschools charge tuition, but there's even help for that. Child Care Information Services of Philadelphia, helps you find, select, and pay for services. To see if you qualify, check out the eligibility calculator CCIS.

Finding the right pre-k setting for your child can be time consuming and even stressful, but it's worth the effort. It can make all the difference in your child's future.