If you’re hungry, it’s hard to concentrate on homework. If you come from a low-income home, an abusive home, or you have no home, your top priorities are food, shelter, and protection – not school. If you go to school feeling miserable – or your teacher does – how are you supposed to engage and learn?

Education professionals attending The Atlantic Education Summit at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., this week offered suggestions for addressing all of these challenges and more. Here are three takeaways from the summit:

1. Start Early

“At the snap of a finger, a small child’s brain is making close to a thousand new neural connections,” said Lisa Klein, executive director of the Alliance for Early Success.

We know education begins at birth, and between birth and age 5, there is a wide-open window for learning. This is the time to engage with children and families, to invest in the next generation with school dollars instead of deferring until later, when the tax burden will inevitably shift to remedial education, social safety net, healthcare, or prison dollars, Klein and other early-childhood specialists agreed.

Beyond the “pay now or pay later” mindset, “if we recognize that education is a public good, why not see early childhood education as a public good, worthy of our tax dollars and support because our children deserve it,” asked Danielle Ewen, senior policy advisor at the EducationCounsel.

Washington is a national model in that regard, offering public Pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds. Kaya Henderson, D.C. Public Schools chancellor, says it’s all about leveling the playing field, so that kids in the city’s impoverished and often violent Southeast quadrant have the same chance at success as those in affluent and safe Northwest. It’s about recruiting, keeping, and developing highly qualified teachers and principals and insisting on a rigorous curriculum for all students. DCPS now has the highest Advanced Placement participation in the country, according to Henderson.

2. Think Holistically

For Henderson, it’s also about nurturing the whole child by identifying students and families who need additional support, in school or in their lives. That’s why D.C. schools with a high population of low-income and homeless students send a bag of groceries with each child leaving school on Friday afternoon, she said, and it’s how one student who lived in a homeless shelter the last two years of high school earned a full scholarship to Georgetown University.

For Marc Brackett, a self-described “wimp” who was bullied, beaten up, and stuffed into lockers as a kid, thinking holistically about student engagement and success also means paying close attention to the emotional state of students and teachers and teaching them how to cope.

“We can’t just yell at kids and tell them: ‘Focus! Focus! Focus!” said Brackett, now director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.

Brackett and his colleagues have developed a “mood meter” to help children express how they are feeling when they begin their school day, so they can “name and tame” their emotions. Through a partnership with Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation, Brackett and his team are working to launch the “Emotion Revolution,” empowering high school students to help create schools and communities “where emotions matter.”

Carmen Fariña, chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, agreed that schools have to go beyond teaching math and reading and engage students and families like never before. So in addition to universal Pre-K, extended school days, and Saturday workshops for parents, one of her schools opened a Laundromat where families could wash their children’s clothes. To accommodate working parents’ schedules, parent-teacher conferences are spread out over a month -- and are led by students, reporting to parents on their progress. Best of all, she said, teachers are required to make “good news phone calls,” building relationships by delivering kudos to parents when their kids do well at school.

3. Never Stop

Eduardo Padrón, president of Miami Dade College, said community colleges and local businesses also have a role to play. High school students are welcome at his college in their junior and senior years of high school, and sometimes earn an associate’s degree or certificate – for free – before they earn their high school diploma. If he had his way, Padrón said, high school would be three years instead of four, with students progressing to college a year early if they are ready or staying in high school for additional work if they need it.

Community colleges, he said, should be the center of lifelong learning in the community, a place where students return again and again to gain new skills. After all, he said, the jobs of even the very near future haven’t been invented yet.

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