BUILD Initiative Blog | Collective Action: A Key to State Pre-K I
Strong Foundations For Our Youngest Children

BUILDing Strong Foundations

BUILD Initiative Blog



By Dana Friedman

Implementing state pre-k policy is extremely challenging for several reasons.  In many communities where the demographics are changing, underlying racism and xenophobia can turn away non-native English speaking parents seeking to register their children for pre-k because they have not brought with them documentation proving residency. I witnessed this firsthand at a Long Island school in one of the eleven underserved districts where The Early Years Institute works to improve school readiness.  While at first I was excited when a school principal invited me to observe the pre-k and kindergarten registration process at her school, that excitement waned when I arrived and saw the long line out the door, with parents and children waiting for the chance to come in from the cold.  It was clear that parents realized there weren’t enough pre-k slots for all of these children, and I could feel their tension mounting as the line grew.  As many as 100 out of 400 kindergarteners started school a few weeks late because of complicated paperwork, which seemed designed to minimize the participation of immigrant families in the school. Despite a push by many state agencies for a more respectful way to welcome and engage families, many school administrators didn’t get the memo. Many seem fearful about what the demographic changes will mean for their communities.

A challenge compounding this fear is insufficient funding –  the state does not  cover pre-k for everyone who needs it,  the per child amount does not cover the true costs of quality pre-k, and there is virtually no  government support to meet the varied needs of children from birth to kindergarten age. Further, the agencies responsible for distributing the funds remain separate and in silos.  Either the state and local levels participate in parallel play or the local level is left to break down silos on its own. It would be an improvement even if the state simply promoted the concept of partnerships and community coalitions—at least this might catalyze efforts to work together locally.

Working together locally toward state policy created in a more bottom-up fashion could make its implementation less challenging because:


  • Getting input from the start from the families you hope to serve will lead to the most useful policies. This feedback will also shed slight on racial inequities that must be addressed while improving services.
  • Social service professionals may instigate the change, but community members are the ones who sustain it.  A maxim of Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD), developed out of Northwestern University, is to “lead by stepping back.”
  • Grassroots efforts leverage limited state dollars by combining and maximizing the contributions of several groups, all of whom have inadequate funds to do the work they are committed to doing. In the parlance of ABCD, the trick is to find both organizational resources as well as individual gifts for supporting local families and children.  In Westbury, we tapped into a pool of retired teachers who remained in the community and still cared about young children. No one before had ever asked them to re-engage.

In collective action, just like in a baseball game or an orchestra, everyone needs to know the score, their own parts, and how the combination of all the players’ contributions leads to a positive result—a winning game or beautiful music.  In order to know the score about school readiness, community groups working together need to know: where they are starting (the baseline); where they hope to go (end results or goals); what obstacles they might face and what strategies are likely to lead to the desired goal (strategic plan); and what success looks like at the beginning and along the way (measuring progress and results).

Most importantly, we need to keep the focus on the children and their families. Parents need to know about all the options – Head Start, child care, and pre-k. They don’t care what pot the money comes from, as long as it is used to create programs that help their children and allow them to work. Pediatricians need to know that their administration of developmental screenings affects school readiness and third grade reading scores.  The superintendent needs to be thinking about what is happening to the children under age five because they will soon become district kindergarteners. So many of the problems that children may come to kindergarten with could be ameliorated or reduced if someone in the community were thinking about the whole child and all the experiences a child requires to have optimal brain development, healthy bodies, social and emotional maturity, cognitive skills, and a joy of learning.

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