COVID hit schools and students hard. When classrooms closed, few could have guessed how long it would be before students would return. Even now, classrooms are back in session with COVID considerations in place. While school-age students, meaning kindergarten and older, are getting back into the academic routine, the pandemic’s negative impact on early childhood learning persists. Future Ready Collier, as a collective impact network, identifies kindergarten readiness as one of its key aims. Kindergarten readiness begins with a focus on early childhood development.
Early Learning Challenges
Most early learning centers are privately operated. Some are affiliated with nonprofit organizations or religious institutions. They do not adhere to the same structure, or receive the same funding as the public schools do. Moreover, they are generally not a part of any sort of larger network that might provide support. Also, there is a shortage in qualified early learning teachers and staff, and early development requires a low ratio of staff to children for appropriate care. As a result, early learning centers frequently struggle to maintain financial stability, even outside the influence of a global public health crisis.
Community Participation and Support
Future Ready Collier is aware of these challenges, and works closely with its early learning network partners. These include Child’s Path, Fun Time Early Childhood Academy, Grace Place for Children and Families, Guadalupe Center, Pathways Early Education Center of Immokalee, and Redlands Christmas Migrant Association (RCMA). Additional support is received through the Early Learning Coalition of Southwest Florida.
Outside of a classroom setting, many local, regional, and state partners engage, directly or indirectly, in early childhood development. For instance, Healthcare Network is instrumental in delivering healthcare services to mothers and children. The Safe & Healthy Children’s Coalition, a program through NCH Healthcare System and the Naples Children and Education Foundation, provides information about safety and health-focused outcomes for children starting in infancy. The Healthy Start Coalition provides information and support to in-need mothers and babies. Early Steps is administered throughout Florida to provide early intervention for developmentally at-risk children from birth to 3 years of age. There are countless others who help to ensure that Collier County’s youngest get the help they need to thrive.
Early learning is a priority for the business community as well as for education and healthcare providers. As more working adults have returned to their jobs as COVID has subsided, a common concern is how to secure childcare. In fact, lack of available childcare is one of the primary obstacles for adults with young children who need to work. To that end, it is important to be aware that early learning is essential for both the children, who benefit from that nurturing throughout their lives, and for the community, which needs a healthy, willing, and able workforce.
Making a Difference
Certain key interventions are underway. As an example, the Early Learning Coalition works with local education providers to help aspiring teachers complete their Child Development Associate (CDA) certificate. The Coalition also maintains information on their website about local early learning centers with current openings. Through various collaborations, literacy efforts provide books, education, and help to parents, teachers, and children. Ongoing conversations among Healthcare Network and area pediatric providers help children get developmental screenings followed by important referrals.
Together, these efforts, resources, and care relate to Future Ready Collier’s goal of helping all children enter kindergarten ready to learn, grow, and succeed.
Prepared by Caroline Ridgway of C1B1 Communications