As a collective impact network, Future Ready Collier’s first stated goal is to ensure all children enter kindergarten ready to learn and thrive. This necessitates a close look at early learning and development. On March 8, 2022, Future Ready Collier hosted a virtual Lunch & Learn session about early learning and development. Over 50 participants joined in from across Florida to listen and join the conversation.
Local, Regional and State Representation
Beth Hatch, Executive Director of Pathways Early Education Center of Immokalee and a co-chair of Future Ready Collier’s Early Development Goal Group provided expert facilitation of the panel presentation from Susan Block and Matthew Mears. Block serves as the CEO of the Early Learning Coalition of Southwest Florida, a regional organization serving early learning centers, families, and educators in Collier, Lee, Glades, and Hendry counties. Speaking from the state level, Mears is the Chancellor of the Division of Early Learning for the Florida Department of Education. This is a newer role within the Department of Education, ably filled by Mears, who has years of high-level as well as hands-on educational experience.
The establishment of Florida’s Division of Early Learning validates the state’s commitment to the significance of early learning and early childhood development. Whereas formal learning settings for children ages 0 to 3 can vary in scope and availability, and are not connected to the public school systems, the adult-child interactions that take place during those years are essential. Children who experience robust, personalized connections with caring adults are much more likely to succeed in school and eventually in their careers. Meaningful adult relationships are typically presumed to begin with the family, and resources should be allocated to supporting strong family engagement, though caregivers outside the family are beneficially influential, as well.
Why Early Learning Matters to Education and the Community
Appreciating the value of early learning starts with an understanding of the entire spectrum of learning and child development. When children arrive for the first day of kindergarten without having experienced enriching early learning, they are at increased risk of becoming 3rd graders who are behind on their reading milestones. And 3rd graders who are behind in their reading milestones are at increased risk of becoming high school students who don’t complete their diploma. And, as is commonly acknowledged, a high school diploma is swiftly becoming obsolete as a baseline qualifier for high-quality, well-paid work.
Mears emphasized the value of in-classroom assessments as a learning tool for educators and administrators. For example, performing progress monitoring in VPK (Voluntary Prekindergarten) at regular intervals during the school year gives educators a good awareness of how students are acquiring new skills. Most critically, in the Chancellor’s view, is that information gathered then be appropriately analyzed and applied towards continuous improvement. Mears commented, “There’s a heart to act on that data,” further saying that, with it, “We’ll have lifted up the whole system.”
Block, who daily observes the role the Early Learning Coalition plays in helping families as well as early learning providers, is firm in her perspective that high-quality early childhood development is closely tied to a robust regional community, workforce, and economy. Working parents with young children need to have access to reliable early learning centers so they can go to work every day. Block cited research from the esteemed expert James Heckman, finding a “13% [return on investment] for comprehensive, high-quality, birth-to-five early education.” Mears echoed Block’s sentiments by saying that he is unaware of any other social investment that has such an exceptionally high return. Concluding simply, the more resources go into supporting early development, and the wellbeing of children and their families, the more dollars and positive outcomes are generated for the community.
Challenges to Successful Early Learning and Ways to Help
In Collier County, as elsewhere in Florida and nationally, and in some part due to the pandemic, early learning is critically threatened by staffing shortages. The nature of early learning requires a high ratio of adults to children, and many centers have found their businesses to be simply unsustainable financially. Happily, some increased funding and grant support has been made available during the pandemic, and additional relief is on the way. The Early Learning Coalition is in the process of evaluating applications for stabilization grants, and the state is considering proposals to increase overall levels of funding.
Moreover, there is expanding awareness among other constituents about how closely early learning is tied to a region’s economy. To that end, the Greater Naples Chamber has embraced early learning as one of its primary state-level legislative priorities. Outreach to area businesses can be helpful to educate them about the necessity of early learning options for their employees, and ancillary supports so parents can fulfill their professional roles while tending to their families’ needs.
In addition, within the education system, higher education can be leveraged to help ensure that early learning providers gain the right skills and credentials. This strategic upskilling may occur over time, with help given to entering providers to obtain credentials and degrees while serving children and families.
Families, as well, need to be helped with resources and tools. Recognizing that, for many families a full-time early learning center may not be necessary, and perhaps an at-home environment is fully equipped to engage an infant or toddler’s developmental progress, information that is accessible through free websites, digital apps, or mail delivery may be appropriate. The unifying priority is to ensure that any caregiver with a connection to early childhood development embraces the nuances of that role. Face-to-face, hands-on, focused attention is correlated with more robust development. In fact, as Chancellor Mears pointed out, a child’s brain is developing at its most rapid and impressionable pace during the first three years of life.
The role of groups like Future Ready Collier is important to aggregate and distribute helpful information, as well as to convene conversations like this one with respected experts. For more detail about how to get involved, or about relevant resources, please visit the Future Ready Collier website or send an email inquiry to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo courtesy of Pathways Early Education Center of Immokalee.
Prepared by Caroline Ridgway of C1B1 Communications.