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Latin America focuses on early learning

Chile is setting the standard for early childhood development programs.

“The Portugal summit was tremendously important. For too long early childhood has been ignored in Latin America," said Shakira. “But the next summit is going to be especially key in getting a regional alliance in motion, and to get governments to make commitments.”

At the age of 18, Shakira diverted much of the money she was rapidly making from her budding music career into starting up the Barefoot Foundation, which has built six schools for thousands of poor children displaced by civil war in Colombia.

Shakira said that she has seen firsthand "that most of the kids that are born poor die poor unless an opportunity arises that breaks that cycle.”

Sachs said in a phone interview that they need to begin the work of “scaling up” programs that integrate preschool education with proper health care and nutrition.

“The evidence is overwhelming that if a child is left in a deprived environment there are serious negative consequences later in life for the individual and society. Investing in human capital, especially at an early age, also helps close the gap between rich and poor.”

Added Sachs: “Despite its wealth, the U.S. is leaving an incredible number of children to miserable conditions. One in five kids in the U.S. are growing up in poverty so we need this same kind of effort in the U.S.”

Early childhood advocates cite an increasing number of studies that demonstrate the broad value of early childhood development.

James Heckman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist at the University of Chicago, has quantified that pre-school education for disadvantaged children results in at least a 10 percent annual return for society by improving performance in school, reducing crime and teenage pregnancies, and boosting employment prospects later in life.

Work by Harvard's Jack Shonkoff has found that depriving poor children of access to good health care, nutrition and education during their first three years increases the likelihood they'll suffer from disease, learning difficulties and poverty. Such findings are based in part on studies that show that humans develop 80 percent of their brain in the first three years of life, making nutrition and proper mental stimulation critical during this period.

Chile’s early education initiative is one part of a wider initiative called Chile Crece Contigo (“Chile Grows With You”) in which Chileans who participate in the public schools — about 70 percent of Chilean children — are steered toward this free, state system in which day care, preschools, family counseling and health services are integrated from pregnancy until children turn 4.

Maria Estela Ortiz, who heads Chile’s National Early Education Board, said investing in children takes on even greater urgency during economic downturns, when both parents are forced to work and fewer have money for school.

“It's making an enormous impact,” said Ortiz.