The United Way is kicking off a $25 million fundraising campaign for early learning aimed at the hardest-to-reach children in the county — those from low-income, minority and non-English-speaking homes.

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The United Way of King County is stepping in to do something about kids who arrive at school underprepared.

Not high-school graduates starting college without the basics of grammar. Think much younger: kids who show up to kindergarten up to two years behind academically.

The United Way is kicking off a $25 million fundraising campaign for early learning aimed at the hardest-to-reach children in the county — those from low-income, minority and non-English-speaking homes.

This doesn’t involve reading to them in the womb. But it’s not far from that.

Based on cognitive research that shows how well children learn the younger they are — as well as studies correlating early learning with later career success — the Parent-Child Home Program’s method is simple: “Home visitors” see a child for 30 minutes twice a week for two years with a book and a toy. The children develop skills from doing and the parents learn skills from watching.

The United Way is picking up the ball as a five-year demonstration project as the privately funded Business Partnership for Early Learning (BPEL) comes to a close.

“The United Way is a big believer in the program,” said CEO Jon Fine. Citing a 40-year study, Fine said low-income children enrolled in the program have a graduation rate of 80 percent, compared with a rate of 50 percent for kids who aren’t.

The BPEL’s $4 million program helped upward of 160 families annually. Fine said, “We are looking to take it to 1,200 families per year. We’re offering it to every low-income family in our community. That’s going to have a pretty big impact over time, and I’m excited about that.

“The benefit is long-term because it’s about prevention. It’s urgent that we do the right things to put people on track for success in life.”

It’s basically learning through play, said Diesha Rodgers, director of the early-learning department at the nonprofit Atlantic Street Center. Its five home visitors see 15-17 families each.

“Most of our families are the hardest to reach,” she said, citing socio-economic and language barriers, as well as cultural ones in families from parts of the world that, for instance, place less emphasis on educating girls.

“It’s just amazing to see a family when you first walk through the door and the child has not been introduced to books, not knowing how to hold a book,” Rodgers said. “Then after two years in the program, you see the transition the child has made. They’re able to recognize colors, numbers, they have an increased vocabulary. They’re basically ready for kindergarten.”

The difference the extra help makes, she said: “Teachers say they’re more focused, they’re able to sit down a little bit longer, they’re able to follow directions. They’re able to articulate and express how they’re feeling, and their socialization skills are pretty good, too.”

BPEL co-founder and honorary United Way chair John Stanton is founder of Voice Stream and former chief executive of T-Mobile USA. Coming at the matter as both philanthropist and mogul, Stanton said, “It was an effort in the business community to figure out what we could do to address challenges in the education system and ultimately be able to create a work force of talented educated people that reflected the community.”

The money will be sought from individuals, foundations and corporations.

Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or mrahner@seattletimes.com