Of all the toys and gadgets available to entertain young children and help them learn, Ramona Paul had a definite favorite. She would tell any parent who would listen to buy wooden blocks. Whether it was a game of stacking or counting or building a structure and knocking it down, Paul believed, the simple toys were literally the building blocks of learning.
Paul, who died last week, was the mother of Oklahoma's highly touted early childhood education program. Her approach to the program was as simple as the wooden blocks she loved.
Make prekindergarten a fundamental part of Oklahoma's common education culture, she said. Hire education professionals trained to work with young children. Offer early education voluntarily to all comers, regardless of socioeconomic status. These basic principles, developed while Paul served as a top official at the Oklahoma Department of Education, put the state on the early child education map. She traveled the country to share her beliefs.
Outside of early childhood education, Oklahoma doesn't get a lot of positive attention when it comes to education. For all of Oklahoma's early childhood advocates, 2013 has been a banner year.
When President Barack Obama singled out the state's prekindergarten program in his State of the Union address, Susan Bumgarner, an Oklahoma City pre-K teacher, was in the audience. It was a moment of pride for Ramona Paul, too. Not so much because she laid the groundwork more than two decades ago but because of the children who have arrived and will arrive in kindergarten far more prepared for school than they otherwise might.
Paul understood that while pre-K is no silver bullet, the failure to help children destined to start kindergarten far behind their peers is ultimately more expensive. She understood that an early investment in children is a building block for future success.