Linking Climate Change and Early Childhood Development

I was greatly honored when I heard I would receive the Vermont Lifetime Achievement Award from the Vermont Council on Rural Development (VCRD). But I was surprised when I realized I would be accepting this award during the organization’s second Summit on Vermont’s Climate Economy. What would someone from an organization that has made high-quality early childhood education its mission say to a group of climate change advocates? After learning the Summit’s theme was “Ideas to Action,” I understood the parallels between the Permanent Fund’s work and the climate summit. The two are more closely related than one might think.

children at play on beach

Climate science and brain science: Neither is rocket science

Climate science is credible, reliable and offers a clear picture of what contributes to our changing climate and how we can reverse the trend. The brain science is equally compelling, irrefutable and offers a clear blueprint for a child’s healthy brain development and what contributes to unhealthy development. Amazingly, the brain science shows us that 80% of a child’s brain is developed by the age of three—telling us that we must act in the very early years to get it right.

Inaction or missteps will lead to serious consequences

There are serious consequences for Vermont if we don’t reverse the effects of climate change. More extreme weather events (think, Tropical Storm Irene) are an example. In early childhood, our extreme weather event is represented by the dramatic increase in special education costs, which have increased by $137 million, a doubling in the last 15 years, while enrollment has decreased by 20,000 students. Early identification of developmental delays and improved nutrition can help. We must work to identify at-risk children earlier—from birth to five—so we can start services earlier when the developing brain and body are most receptive to these interventions. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, starting services earlier can in some cases reduce the need for costly services during the school years or eliminate the need for them altogether.

We’re on an unsustainable path

With climate change, melting glaciers and rising waters tell us that we are not on a sustainable path. With early childhood development, nearly 50% of our kids are showing up at kindergarten “not ready to learn” and it’s likely that same 50% are not going on to college. Like other rural states, Vermont has one of the highest rates in the nation of kids not going to college! This is not sustainable. With an aging demographic in Vermont, we cannot afford to give up on any of our children. We need all of them in a trained workforce contributing to a healthy economy.

Time is of the essence: Act now or pay (much more) later

With climate change, we cannot afford to wait—we have to act now. The same is true of early childhood development in Vermont—it is no longer a case of whether or not we can afford to make these strategic investments in the early years….we cannot afford not to make them. We must act now or we will pay dearly later. We know that the investment we make during the earliest years of life (from birth to age five) will provide a much greater return than any dollars we invest later.

One difference between climate change and early childhood

While the work Vermont is doing on climate change is extremely important and we SHOULD be a leader in addressing this issue, the effects of climate change are largely influenced by the actions of other states and other countries. The environmental and economic impacts of climate change pose global challenges. With early childhood development in Vermont, we have full control of our destiny. By following the science, making smart, strategic investments in the early years and acting swiftly, we will improve outcomes for all our children and create a healthier Vermont.

Building stronger communities

While on the surface we may seem like different organizations, both the VCRD and the Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children are working toward the same end: building stronger, more sustainable, Vermont communities. The success of both organizations relies on bringing great ideas to the table, pulling together the right people and organizations and developing collaborations and partnerships to turn “Ideas to Action.”

 

Comparison Table between Climate Change and Child Care

Click on the image to download a PDF file.

Education Begins at Birth

Many of you have heard me talk about the brain science and the latest research that tells us how crucial the first five years of a child’s life are. So why when we talk about education, do we tend to think about the public education system, K through 12?

It tells me that we still have much work to do to educate Vermonters that education does indeed begin at birth and that those professionals teaching our youngest children are doing very important work —which brings me to the reason for this blog post.

Recognizing the Work of Our Children’s First Teachers

Permanent_Fund_EEOYaward_250I’m excited to announce the Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children second Early Educator of the Year Award. Through this award, we are proud to recognize the unsung heroes—the childcare professionals—who work so hard for our children. After all, besides parents, these individuals are a child’s first teacher. This award honors individuals who have truly gone above and beyond to positively impact the lives of children and has been a valuable resource for families.

The top two finalists will be honored at the October 2016 VAEYC Conference, where the top finalist will be announced as the Early Educator of the Year and will receive $5,000 and all expenses paid to attend the VAEYC Conference as well as one national conference. The second finalist will receive a $1,000 award and all expenses paid to attend the VAEYC Conference.

Early Educator of the Year nomination

Early Educator of the Year Eligibility

In the second year of this award, we are accepting nominations for an outstanding center- or school-based childcare professional who has demonstrated a commitment to quality early childhood education. The award alternates between honoring home-based and center-based programs each year.

To be eligible for this year’s award, a center- or school based childcare professional must have at least four stars in the Vermont STep Ahead Recognition System (STARS). Nominees must also have been providing care for at least three years, and must currently have infants and toddlers enrolled in their program.

Award Nomination and Review Process

Individuals may self-nominate or can be nominated by others, though family members may not submit a nomination. The nomination period is now open but will close on May 1, 2016. Those nominated will be notified and must complete and submit an application to the Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children by May 31, 2016 to be considered for the award.

An award selection committee comprised of leaders in early education and child development will review all award applications and choose two finalists. Committee members are:

  • Laurel Bongiorno (Champlain College);
  • Mitch Golub (Vermont Achievement Center);
  • Bethany Hale (Vermont Association for the Education of Young Children);
  • Reeva Murphy (Child Development Division);
  • Melissa Riegel-Garrett (Agency of Education); and
  • A representative from Building Bright Futures.

Nominate an Early Educator Today!

We hope that you—parents, folks from the early childhood community and others—will take time to consider the childcare professionals you know. Is there someone that stands out from the rest and truly exemplifies excellence in the teaching of young children? Nominate someone today!

Early Educator of the Year nomination

Earning a Greater Return on Our Educational Investment

PreK_children2_mixed-largeIn Vermont we have seen education costs rise, while our student population has decreased by 23,000 students since 1997. The steepest increase in costs has been for special education. Outside of teacher salaries and benefits, special education costs represent a lion’s share of our school budgets.

Vermont’s Agency of Education reports that while the share of federal funding for special education stagnated between fiscal years 2001 and 2014, Vermont’s share of costs have more than doubled from $137,789,654 to $271,185,794.

Nationally, we know it costs about twice as much to educate a student who requires special education services versus a student who does not. I believe we can reduce these costs while improving outcomes for all children.

Start earlier: Learning begins at birth
infant-adult-handAm I suggesting we cut special education? Absolutely not! Special education programs serve our most vulnerable children. But we do have an opportunity to make these services far more effective.

By identifying at-risk children earlier and starting services earlier, we have the greatest opportunity to improve outcomes for these children and the potential to reduce costs over the long-term.

Here’s why: From birth to age five, a child’s brain is developing most rapidly, making connections and building a foundation for skills that will serve them for a lifetime. If we miss these most receptive stages of development, a child may find it more difficult to learn particular skills later. The greatest return on any investment comes in these early years when the brain is most ready to learn.

Here are a few Vermont stats to put this in perspective:

  • Only 26% of Vermont children age 0 to 3 receive all three recommended developmental screenings by age three. We can change that.
  • 20,000 young children spend a portion of their day outside their home in the care of someone else. And, only 24.1% of Vermont’s regulated care and education programs are designated as high-quality programs (a 4- or 5-level rating in STARS or national accreditation). We must build quality into the early care and education system.
  • In 2013-14, less than half (49%) of Vermont children were deemed ready for kindergarten in all areas of health and development. High-quality early care and education programs will ensure that more of our children are ready to learn.

A recent North Carolina study suggests that state-supported high-quality early childhood programs can reduce special education costs and reduce the number of special ed placements, providing great cost savings to school districts. In the study, an investment of $1,100 per child (made during the early years) reduced third grade students’ odds of needing special education placement by 39%.

While early intervention will not eliminate the need for special education entirely, studies have shown that starting these services earlier can make a difference. Such services can lessen the need for more intensive, and more costly, services later, or, in some cases, can eliminate the need for special services altogether.

Gaining a greater return on our educational investment

We can tackle the quality and cost challenges by reframing how we define public education. By providing high-quality programs and services starting at birth, during the most crucial years of development, we can ensure that all children receive the support they need to develop a solid foundation for their future cognitive, social and emotional development.

Strong communities and a healthy economy are based on the well-being and health of our children. After all, if we want our children to be productive members of society as adults, we must invest in them while they’re young.

Recognizing high quality care and early education in Vermont

PermFund_award_presentation_web-320x202

(From left) Aly Richards (Permanent Fund CEO), 2015 Early Educator of the Year Award winner Gerri Barrows, award finalist Elsa Bosma, and Rick Davis (Permanent Fund president/co-founder) in Killington during the VAEYC Annual Conference (photo credit: Karen Pike photography)

The beautiful foliage in Killington provided an excellent backdrop for the presentation of Vermont’s first Early Educator of the Year Award last week. Holding the award ceremony during the VAEYC Conference was the obvious choice for recognizing the important work being done in Vermont’s early childhood community. After all, this is where the early childhood community comes together to share ideas and experiences, learn from one another, and celebrate their work.

In an earlier post, I mentioned why the Permanent Fund created its Early Educator of the Year Award. But it’s worth repeating: Besides parents, early educators are the first teachers our children have and their work lays an important foundation at the most crucial time of development in our children’s lives.

Early educators are working in what I believe is Vermont’s most important profession. By honoring those who are doing great work, we are demonstrating to all Vermonters what high quality early care and learning looks like.

In this post, we give you a look at the two providers (and their programs) that we honored with this year’s award: Award finalist Elsa Bosma (Puddle Jumpers) and award winner Gerri Barrows (Discovery Hill Family Child Care and Preschool).

 

Making a Difference in the Lives of Children

infant-adult-handOne thing I’ve discovered over the years is that seemingly small efforts can make a huge difference in someone’s life.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I came to Vermont from New York City in 1996 with my husband and infant son to take a job in higher education. At the time, I was focused on my growing family and my job. Like most working parents, this consumed my time and energy.

As my children grew, I looked for a way to give back to the community. Working with young children was important to me.

Finding a way to give back

In 2006, David Leatherwood, Robin Shield and I founded the Children’s Fund, a component fund of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation that focuses on children in the Upper Valley. We invest in charities that work with at-risk children and provide support to help them build their self-esteem through sports and outdoor activities.

Last year, I also joined the board of the Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children. I was attracted to the Permanent Fund because of its unique approach and focus on very young children. The Permanent Fund works through focused initiatives (Vermont Birth to Three, Vermont Community Preschool Collaborative and Let’s Grow Kids) and brings together (and collaborates with) other funders to make strategic, systemic change in Vermont’s early care and education system.

Stories of courage and making a difference

When I am asked why I choose to invest in children, I like to share a couple of stories.
One story is about a middle school aged girl who lived with her aunt and uncle because her own parents couldn’t take care of her. The Children’s Fund provided funding for running shoes and coaches for her school cross country team. Despite the adversity and challenges she faced in her young life, this student found a sense of purpose through running. Now, the running shoes alone didn’t make the difference—she had the resilience and courage within herself—the shoes simply helped make it possible for her to run. Support from our foundation, a compassionate coach and loving aunt and uncle helped her build her self-confidence and overcome adversity in her life.

Another story comes from our work with an organization called WISE. WISE provides advocacy, crisis services and community education to those affected by domestic and sexual violence. WISE works with students and schools to prevent violence before it affects young lives. Last year through support from the Children’s Fund, WISE was able to engage students in every middle and high school across seven school districts in the greater Upper Valley. After learning about WISE during a classroom presentation, a student shared with her principal that she and her mom were living in a domestic abuse situation. It took a lot of strength and courage for her to share this experience with anyone. As a result of this student stepping forward, WISE was able to provide support to the girl and her mother and continues to help them through a very complicated and difficult situation.

The resilience of children

I’ve learned through the Children’s Fund that children can be incredibly resourceful and resilient. Although the Children’s Fund tends to reach them when they are a little older, I know from my work with the Permanent Fund that providing safe, healthy and nurturing environments during the earliest years can prevent the need for help later. Right now, I’m lucky enough to work with children of all ages.

So why invest in kids: because of their amazing capacity to be courageous, hopeful and resilient; because they are the future; because they deserve the best life has to offer.
If you’d like to make a difference for children, I offer this guidance: Identify where you can make a difference. Start small. Work with others who share that passion. You’ll be amazed at the difference it can make.

Permanent Fund Board Member Jenny Williams is a joint venture partner to Norwich Partners and is executive director of the Children’s Fund in Lebanon, NH. This article also appeared in the Champlain Business Journal.