BUILDing Strong Foundations

Improving the Odds for Children At Risk - Can we Rise to the Challenge?

5/11/2015 12:00:00 AM
Posted by: Meghan

Joan Lombardi, Ph.D.
Director, Early Opportunities LLC

Heading into the 2008 election, I remember a small group meeting of advocates talking about what really needed to happen next in early childhood policy. While there were a lot of different strategies mentioned, one goal stood out and seemed to bring everyone together: 

To assure that more young children from low income families have access to higher quality services. 

While this goal became central to the Early Learning Challenge launched three years later, it built on lessons learned from decades of knowledge gained from implementation of Head Start’s comprehensive services to more recent state systems efforts, including the BUILD Initiative. 

What we had learned both from research and from these earlier efforts was that to meet the needs of children at risk and families, we have to recognize at least four principles of child development: first, that health and education are not isolated components, but are integrated developmental processes; second, that no one program alone or single point in time, whether it be the prenatal period or age three or age five, provides the magic moment for development, that, in fact, one developmental period builds on another; third, that for young children, care and education are not separate but, rather, those hours in care provide an opportunity for learning; and fourth, that the adults in children’s lives, both parents as well as the teachers and other caregivers who work with them every day, are the primary influence on developing children.

The problem that the Early Learning Challenge set out to solve was that the range of programs and services that had emerged over the years were not organized or supported in a way that reflected these developmental principles. For example, there was a lack of continuity: too often the infant program, the preschool and the school did not have common goals or activities that built off each other; or what happened to a child at the doctor’s office or the health clinic was not related to what happened in the early childhood program; or a program with a child care label may have had fewer resources and be held to a lower standard than the a neighboring program serving similar children but labeled and funded as pre-k. And finally, across all of these services, too often the adults in children’s lives–parents and teachers–were not receiving the support they needed to be successful.  

To address these issues, something needed to change. Not only were new and expanded services needed, but those programs that were already available needed to be shored up and to be pieced together to address the comprehensive needs of children and to have a more collective impact on the developing child. It was this latter issue, assuring quality and continuity, that the Early Learning Challenge sought to address. 

The E-Book, launched today, Rising to the Challenge: Building Effective Systems for Young Children and Families, represents an effort to begin to tell the story of what states and communities have done to meet the challenge. In the upcoming months, you will read various chapters as they emerge which document the lessons learned across core areas the Early Learning Challenge was designed to address: coordinated governance, integration of health and education, the development of common quality standards and improvement systems, appropriate use of assessment, family engagement, workforce supports, as well as the role of philanthropy and other issues.

The series begins with governance because the journey to bring these services into alignment and to improve their quality must start with the agencies that govern them. Building on what was already taking place in some states, this initiative started with the development of a new relationship between the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education at the federal level and led to new ways of doing business, of managing programs together and bringing more cohesion and efficiency into the system. As the chapters by Harriet Dichter and Karen Ponder illustrate, it also led to much stronger ties between the state and communities, and increased opportunities for families and other stakeholders to have a voice in service design and delivery. 

We are grateful to Harriet Dichter, Editor and General Manager, Susan Hibbard and the leadership of BUILD, Sherri Killins co-chair of the advisory group, and to all of the writers and reviewers who took time out of their busy schedules to contribute to this E-Book series. Moreover, we salute all of the innovative public servants who were open to new ideas and the many dedicated people across the country working to make change and to assure the very best for children and families. 

Yet the story is far from complete and the challenge still remains in front of us. Only 20 states were provided this opportunity and secured additional funds, yet we are a nation of 50 states, DC, Puerto Rico, the Territories and Tribes. All the children in the country deserve to live in communities with equal opportunities. Moreover, new resources are needed to sustain these efforts and improve and expand services for children prenatal–age eight and beyond.

All of us who worked on this initiative hope that this E-Book series will provide insight to those of you working in states and communities across the country, that it will spark an idea, and that it will keep your enthusiasm strong as you continue to improve the lives of young children and families.


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