A child’s early years – from prenatal to age 5 – are the most critical for human development. Building a strong foundation early is the most effective way to assure a healthy and productive life.
What do you think our community should be doing to maximize culturally competent supports for our youngest children and families before they reach the kindergarten door? What role should the schools and school committee play to ensure children have the strongest start?
Cara Berg Powers:
As someone with a child who has just aged out of our "early childhood" designation from the Worcester Public Schools, I have a lot of thoughts about this. According to the district's website, "We recognize that the young child grows and learns at his/her own rate in a safe, nurturing, developmentally appropriate environment." As a kindergarten parent, though, I did not see this. Our incredible teachers are facing pressure to push kids to grow at a standardized rate, and the focus on seat time, worksheets, and the push for reading years before other developed countries shows a lack of commitment to developmentally appropriate expectations. We need to ensure that our curriculum at these grades includes ample play based learning and reduce class sizes at the earlier grades with sufficient aide staffing to support individualized learning needs.
That said, I have seen first hand the value that our head start and pre-school programs bring families and students. We know that universal pre-k would be ideal. Half day pre-school is inaccessible to many families, mine included. While continuing to fight at the city, state, and federal level for the dollars we'd need to embark on such an endeavor, we can be doing more to convene and support the other early childhood programs in our city. I look forward to working with the Head Start and Early Childhood Director and her office to think creatively about how we can support the many wonderful early childhood programs across our city and provide professional development and resources to create consistency for kids across the city. Lastly, I would continue to fight for legislation and policies that ensure living wages for early childhood workers, regardless of the settings they are in to ensure every child has caring, consistent adults in their earliest educational experiences.
I started my journey of advocating and fighting for children at Moc Childcare & Headstart in the Gardner area when my daughter was attending the school. She was my first born and I wanted to ensure that she was well taken care of, I walked into the building and it was so welcoming and open. Every question asked was answered and then I joined the pto, finance committee and then policy council. I was with them for over six years.
While in Worcester I joined the Worcester Head Start and was on their parent committee and then joined the policy council served as chair for two terms and I am not a community rep.
I fully believe that every child should start with Headstart. I feel that we as school committee members should be pushing to ensure that all families have access to the Headstart programs. We must make sure that they have the adequate funding they need to service our families, and the transportation that is needed for families as well. We must advocate on a state level to ensure that they know how important it is for our children to start with Headstart.
Their education program ensures that every child that leaves the program is confident and has the school readiness skills needed to succeed in kindergarten. The positive environment that they provide fosters a respect between the parent, child and staff. The family engagement is amazing they build a strong home to school connection. They understand that the parent is the first teacher of every child. They foster that the responsibility of the education of our children is both the parent and teacher’s responsibility. They work to ensure that each family has goals for their child and themselves to succeed at all fronts.
There is a growing movement in Worcester, led by organizations such as the Greater Worcester Community Foundation, the Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts, Worcester Education Collaborative, and many others to educate the community about the importance of early childhood education and the negative impact that trauma and adverse childhood experiences have on the academic and career success of children and adults. We are seeing this in the Worcester Public Schools as many children are entering kindergarten unprepared for school and socially and emotionally unable to be in a classroom setting.
Challenges here are that funding for public education is primarily targeted for K-12 and that the financial models for early childhood education are barely sufficient and in fact, not viable at all for many families without subsidy.
One encouraging model that is being developed is with the Worcester Public Schools, Greater Worcester Community Foundation, and other partners that will use two neighborhood schools as a center for family education and learning in preparation for kindergarten. This program will use new grant funds to align with existing support services, targeting neighborhood families with children from prenatal to age 8. The goals are to support families with their children’s development in those critical early years, coordinate existing support services so that families gain access to this essential support, and ease the transition into kindergarten by being present in the school and meeting the kindergarten teachers well in advance of that transition.
This growing community recognition of the importance of early childhood education and care, the need to reduce the impact of trauma upon young children, and a new commitment to find community-based solutions represent the best chance we have to address this issue and seek the necessary funding.
An article from Eye on Education in 2017 wrote that "Worcester planned to expand preschool by opening eight new full-day preschool classrooms with four partners (Guild of St. Agnes, Rainbow Child Development, Worcester Child Development Head Start, and the YWCA) in a repurposed building." Worcester PreSchool Strategic Plan shows that we need to do more than just that. The data shows that we need to focus on providing competitive salaries for educators at the preschool-age level (currently being paid $12 an hour). The same strategic plan portrays 32% of parents reported that their children had no preschool experience at kindergarten entry in 2015. This is alarming. We need to focus on providing opportunities for families from low-income background to afford the cost of preschool, provide transportation and access to the needed information. However, being the vibrant Gateway City that we are, without the funding, none of this would be possible. A look at the Commonwealth Preschool Partnership (CPPI) Initiative shows the fiscal year is in the second round of state-funded high-quality preschool expansion in MA. To date, nine communities have been funded through CPPI. Worcester has not received CPPI funding. The School Committee should advocate and support the Worcester Public Schools (WPS) and Preschool Expansion Grant (PEG) and its goal of reaching children from birth to 3rd grade. The School Committee should also advocate and push legislators to support the CPPI funding to aid communities like Worcester meet the demand to support preschool expansion. When elected on the School Committee, I will ensure to support the expansion of early childhood education as listed above.
The preschool years are essential if we are to make a difference in the lives of our children. A preschool education is all about PREVENTION! Since the 1983 publication of A Nation at Risk educators have been looking for various means of lowering the achievement gap in education and many call for prevention programs. If you want to see and hear about the importance of the early years watch the documentary film on “No Small Matter.” It is about the critical issues facing the early care and education of our youngest children.
Creating a literate society starts at birth… parents reading to their children. Hundreds of experts such as author Jim Trelease, of the Reading Aloud Handbook agree. The preschool years are crucial and we need more outreach to our parents.
In the Worcester Public Schools we have a program, Books for Babies, where volunteers bring books to hospital with information on the importance of reading but it doesn’t go far enough. I would like to see our school nurses be involved and visit the homes of the new born and give them additional books as well as talk to mom about good health practices. This is a program that I have given 1000’s of books to through Worcester: the City that Reads.
The district needs to continue to work with various early learning agencies in partnership to assist pre-school parents. In addition, I have advocated for additional FULL-DAY pre-schools especially for our low income families. We should all lobby our legislators to increase funding for the program. As a principal I had a full day preschool program for three years and every one of those children in the program were reading on grade level by the end of grade three.
Despite what is widely agreed as the significant impact that early childhood education has on children, on the adults they become, and on our society, “Massachusetts ranks among the lowest in the nation in regards to EEC access and spending per child” per the National Institute for Early Childhood Research (2017). The need for early childhood education was among the “recognitions”—but not recommendations—of the 2015 Foundation Budget Review Commission. Worcester thus is part of a wider statewide chasm in meeting the needs of young children and families. The first role of the Worcester School Committee on this issue is that of advocacy in moving Massachusetts from being behind states across the country on taking care of our youngest learners.
There are, however, models we can follow now. New York City is widely recognized for having partnered with private preschools in moving to universal access. Were Worcester to do likewise, given the significant number of young children who are cared for by multilingual and multicultural family daycares, both access and cultural competency would be more in reach. This takes, however, true partnership, in which both parties enter the relationship understanding they have things to learn from one another; the district thus must recognize that it can learn from families and their local daycares. The School Committee has an important role in setting the tone of collaboration.
Credible scholarly research – highlighted by the 2005 Rand Corporation study – demonstrates that a child’s vital skills, habits, and knowledge mastery talents are most easily cultivated and internalized prior to age 5. Thus, dollars invested in well-crafted programs for pre-school children pay significant dividends in helping those students to maximize their potential later in school and in life. These programs are productive for young people, and they are highly “cost-effective”.
Vicki Palmer, a career early childhood educator, has accurately highlighted, in the Huffington Post, the following benefits of early childhood education:
2. Concept of Cooperation
3. Encouraging Holistic Development
4. Enthusiasm for Lifelong Learning
5. Convey the Value of Education Through Experience
11. Confidence and Self-Esteem
12. Exposure to Diversity
She is absolutely correct:
Early childhood, however, is the time when inequities develop. A child with strong parental support, who is treated to the range of opportunities which a stable and economically sound family can provide in pre-school years, will enter kindergarten months – or even years – developmentally ahead of his or her young friends who lack those opportunities. Such a child begins school with a knowledge base, skills range and confidence which will maximize his or her progress in kindergarten and throughout life.
All children should have the opportunity for early childhood education. Schools can provide this, but other community agencies can and should do so as well – this is an area in which both private and public sector agencies can play a constructive role. The financial cost can be material, but, as noted above, such initiatives pay significant dividends later in life, in terms of productivity, and they are invaluable in nurturing a healthy, vibrant, productive community.