Do you remember the name of your kindergarten teacher? Many of us do. Our first teachers meant so much to us. But actually, nearly all of us know our first teachers’ names by heart. We called them Mom or Dad.

Thousands of children started their K-12 school experience this fall in a kindergarten classroom. But their learning experience began at birth, when they began to build the cognitive, emotional and character skills that will help them stick to a task, control their impulses and speak their minds.

As young children, adolescents and adults, the kids with those “soft” skills are apt to do well in any setting, from the workplace, to the home, to the neighborhood and nation. It’s easier, cheaper and smarter to help kids develop those skills at age 3 or 4 than to put them on an uneven playing field at age 6 or 8, for example.

Public officials have taken note. State lawmakers will dramatically expand the state-funded counterpart to Head Start, the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program, over the next five years so that it reaches every income-eligible child.

Local and federal officials are also stepping up. The Seattle City Council, with the leadership of City Councilmember Tim Burgess and Mayor Mike McGinn, are considering universal voluntary preschool for all 3- and 4-year-old children in the city. If done correctly, this initiative could both boost the academic achievement of thousands of Seattle children and help high quality preschool providers like Denise Louie Education Center serve specific communities with cultural competence.

In his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama challenged Congress to expand access to high-quality preschool for every child. A new state-federal early learning initiative would distribute federal funds to community-based child care and other early learning providers. Children’s Alliance is calling on members of Congress to meet the President’s challenge and make a dramatic expansion of early learning opportunities.

But here’s one of the greatest things about quality early learning: it can close the grade-school opportunity gap faced by too many young children of color.

That gap shows up in official data in kindergarten. A 2012 statewide survey of kindergartens’ basic skills found Asian, Pacific Islander, Black, Native American and Latino children trailing white children in cognitive readiness by 11 to 30 percent. And it shows up again in third grade, when standardized tests reveal a disproportionate number of Black, Latino and American Indian children aren’t yet reading at grade level.

Here in the diverse Asian Pacific Islander (API) community, the relative prosperity of some can mask the persistent challenges faced by others. Some API children face barriers to K-12 success at least as high as those faced by Black, Hispanic and Native American kids. With API Americans tracing their ancestry to dozens of different countries with varied histories of immigration to the United States, it’s important to use a more detailed approach to this data whenever we can.

Certainly, we need to know more about the challenges faced by Asian and Pacific Islander children. We also need to do more. The economic shockwaves felt by working families shouldn’t knock opportunity out of children’s reach. A stable, nurturing early learning environment is an effective antidote to the damaging impact of poverty and homelessness — situations all too often visited upon children of color. Without it, early childhood stress can be toxic, altering the brain architecture babies rely upon for the rest of their lives. Poor health, a resource-poor environment in the first five years of life, childhood hunger — all of these — pose severe barriers to a child’s healthy development. And all are far too dependent on the family’s economic fortunes.

We also need to avoid what Vu Le of the Vietnamese Friendship Association has called a “zero-sum mentality” of choosing to invest public dollars in toddlers but not teenagers. All children, no matter their age, deserve the support of a caring community.

Above all, we owe our children smart measures that erase the opportunity gap — measures which work powerfully in the first few years of the lives of children before they’re forced to play a more expensive game of catch-up.

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