2014 Bright Spots in Early Care and Education

bright spots - cat with sunglassesWhen I am out and about talking to folks, I like to refer to Vermont’s “bright spots”—processes, projects and collaborations that are working well in our early care and education system. As I prepared a recent communication to the Permanent Fund board, I was pleased to report on many “bright spots” that we were able to celebrate during the past year and I wanted to share them here.

Welcome to a new board member

Dr. Breena Holmes, director of Maternal and Child Health in Vermont and chair-elect of the National Council on School Health for the American Academy of Pediatrics, joined the Permanent Fund board. Breena is on the pediatric faculty at the University of Vermont College of Medicine and is a key figure in Vermont’s early childhood movement. In just a short time, Breena has already contributed by helping us forge a partnership between Vermont Birth to Three and the Vermont Health Department on an exciting provider training initiative related to developmental screenings.

New leadership and growth for Vermont Birth to Three

Becky Gonyea joined Vermont Birth to Three in April as our new executive director. Under Becky’s leadership, Vermont Birth to Three met the goal of having 75% of home-based child care providers participate in the STARS quality rating system–up from 38% at the beginning of 2014!

Universal pre-K passed

The Vermont pre-K bill (Act 166) passed by the Vermont Legislature last year will make Vermont the first state in the nation to offer universal pre-K for both 3- and 4-year-olds. We will be very much involved in the implementation via the Vermont Community Preschool Collaborative as they work with many Vermont communities identified as “early adopters” of universal pre-K.

Vermont received Federal pre-K expansion grant

We provided funding for a professional grant writer who successfully competed for a Federal pre-K expansion grant. As a result, Vermont will receive up to $33 million to build capacity for low income children to attend full-day preschool. (This is in addition to our successful Race to the Top/Early Learning Challenge grant last year in the amount of $37 million.)

Strengthening Families training grant

The Child Development Division awarded us $1.02 million to implement Strengthening Families training for home-based child care professionals in six regions over the next three years. This supports our two-generational approach to child care: Well-trained child care professionals, who see families twice a day, five days a week, are in a unique position to develop the critical trust and relationships that enable them to have meaningful engagement with parents.

Let’s Grow Kids launchedchild_pf

We successfully launched the Let’s Grow Kids public education and awareness campaign that aims to raise understanding about the importance of the first five years of development in a child’s life. More than 3,000 Vermonters have signed the LGK pledge, indicating their support to giving every Vermont child a strong start in life. More than 200 volunteers signed up to speak at Town Meetings across the state, educating their neighbors about the impact of the first five years on cognitive, social and emotional development.

Vermont’s preschool census grows

The Vermont Community Preschool Collaborative supported 21 projects, serving 23 communities and adding more than 400 preschool children to the school census in the fall of 2014.

Increased funding capacity

We’ve increased our funding capacity from $1 million per year in recent years to $3 million per year. When combined with the support of our funding partners, Permanent Fund projects will total more than $5 million this year.

Laying the foundation for the next ten years

Last year, our board also made an important decision that will affect how we move forward. While we are still investing in our communities and nonprofit organizations, we have placed a priority on funding and operating our own initiatives with a concentrated focus on the next ten years. In doing so, we’ve reframed our mission: “To assure that every Vermont child has access to high quality and affordable early care and education—by the year 2025.”

What does this mean?

Placing a 10-year time frame on our mission creates a sense of urgency and reminds us that we do not have a moment to waste. We will spend down our endowment and put all of our chips on the table during the next 10 years. The science and research tells us that building a strong foundation in the early years of our children’s lives is too important of an issue for Vermont to wait—we must seize the moment.

Working in close collaboration with our funding partners, especially the Turrell Fund and the A.D. Henderson Foundation, we will continue to develop and expand our board of directors and will develop a 10-year strategic plan to reflect this change in mission. We are also continuing our search for an executive director to serve as the CEO and help lead this effort.

Building on the bright spots

These are what I saw as the many “bright spots” of 2014—each and every one a cause for celebration no doubt. Despite this progress, however, the heavy lifting is not done.
We’d like to see Vermont build upon what’s working well as we all work toward that ultimate “bright spot”—a high quality and affordable early care and education that gives all Vermont children the opportunity to succeed in life.

Nominations Open for the Permanent Fund’s Early Educator of the Year Award

infantEducation 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

I’m thrilled to announce the Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children Early Educator of the Year Award. Through this award, we want 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 will honor an individual who has 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 2015 VAEYC Conference in Killington, VT, 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.

readingEarly Educator of the Year Eligibility

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

To be eligible for this year’s award, a home-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. The nomination period is now open but will close on May 1, 2015. Those nominated will be notified and must complete and submit an application to the Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children by May 31, 2015 to be considered for the award. Nomination forms are available here.

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); Sherry Carlson (Vermont Community Preschool Collaborative); Becky Gonyea (Vermont Birth to Three); Scott Johnson (Lamoille Family Center); and, Melissa Riegel-Garrett (Vermont Association for the Education of Young Children).

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 Learning Initiative Pilot Launched with PF Support

February 12 was a special day for those of us who braved the cold to attend Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger’s news conference at the Visiting Nurse Association’s (VNA) family room. I joined Mayor Weinberger, Governor Peter Shumlin and many others from the early childhood community to speak about the Mayor’s new early learning initiative, which is designed to improve kindergarten readiness, reduce special education costs and other public spending and help break the cycle of multi-generational poverty in Vermont’s Queen City. The Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children has committed $122,000 for the initial planning stage of the pilot project that will move from concept to implementation in 2016.
mayor weinberger
During the news conference, Mayor Weinberger shared highlights of the program, which includes three components: home visiting for pregnant mothers and new parents; scholarships for high quality child care; and, rigorous evaluation. The Mayor discussed the challenges that children living in poverty face and referred to projects in other cities that have shown promise in breaking the cycle of poverty.

Governor Peter Shumlin echoed the Mayor’s concerns about children living in poverty and said we cannot afford to leave any children behind.
I touched on the Permanent Fund’s mission and reiterated the importance of investing in the early years of life by sharing the latest research on the brain science.

There are many excellent organizations and early educators doing good work in Burlington and the pilot will help these groups collaborate more effectively under the leadership of the Mayor’s team. The pilot design is based on concepts proposed in a white paper written by educator and consultant Jessica Nordhaus and produced through a partnership involving the City, the United Way of Chittenden County, and philanthropic support.

The Permanent Fund is pleased to invest in projects that can demonstrate to all Vermonters that a strong foundation built upon quality early experiences for our children leads to kindergarten readiness, school success, and, ultimately, contributes to a trained workforce and a strong economy. Mayor Weinberger and his team can offer the strong leadership and collaboration that is essential to transform the early childhood system in Burlington and we look forward to working with him and the many others involved in the early learning initiative.

Julie Coffey, executive director of Building Bright Futures, Diana Langston, director of the Burlington School District’s Essential Early Education Center, Judy Peterson, president and CEO of VNA of Chittenden and Grand Isle Counties, Mary Alice McKenzie, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of Burlington, TJ Donovan, Chittenden County State’s Attorney, and Dave Hartnett, Burlington Ward 4 city councilor also spoke at the Mayor’s news conference.

Resources for more information on the Burlington Early Learning Initiative:

White paper (.pdf)
Advisory Board Members (.pdf)
Mayor’s news release

The Access and Quality Gap in Vermont’s Child Care System

Most people agree that “choice” is a good thing. But when it comes to choosing a child care provider, many Vermont parents may not feel like they have much choice available to them. And that’s something we need to change.PreK_children2_mixed-large

In a rural state access to child care is a challenge

In a previous post, PF board member Jenny Williams shared her struggle to find quality child care when she moved to Vermont some years ago. It remains a struggle for many working parents today.

We know from our experience talking with parents that they tend to look for a provider they’ve heard about from friends or family, or is close to their home or convenient to their workplace. In many of Vermont’s small communities there may be only a handful of providers—some licensed, some not. Many of the higher quality providers have waiting lists or are simply unaffordable to families. (Did you realize that many working families spend from 27 to 33% of their total income to pay for child care?) So parents end up patching together child care options, trying to make it work for their family.

Early experiences build the foundation for life

In Vermont, 72% of our children under the age of 6 have both parents in the workforce. That means children may spend 40 hours per week or more in the care of someone else.
We know that during these earliest years the brain is developing most rapidly—forming 700 to 1000 neural connections a second. Never again will the brain undergo a period of such rapid development. These connections are building a foundation for cognitive and social-emotional skills that will serve a child for their lifetime. If we don’t provide the early experiences and environments to help our children build a firm foundation early in life, when the brain is most pliable, it’s much harder to do so later and we end up paying more as a society.

When we look at child care through this lens, providing every family with access to quality child care is an issue that affects us all.

Defining quality child care

What does quality look like? I offer these descriptions:

  • Trained, professional workforce. Child care providers should be well trained and fairly paid for the important job they are doing—they are, after all, our children’s first teachers after parents. They should have a deep understanding of child development. Quality programs and providers provide a responsive, nurturing environment that feeds the child’s developing brain.
  • Consistent standards and quality outcomes. Providers should follow consistent standards that set high expectations and promote different age-appropriate approaches to learning, social-emotional development and physical growth. Programs should be evaluated regularly to make sure they have implemented the practices that work.
  • Engaged families. Child care providers should serve as resources to the family, providing information on developmental milestones, linking families to resources in their community should they need them, and helping them implement positive experiences and home environments that will promote their child’s learning and development.

How do we get there?

Here in Vermont we’re working on many fronts to improve our early care and education system. Efforts to improve quality and access, strengthen and invest in the child care workforce and build stronger community networks are underway through initiatives including Vermont Birth to Three, STARS, the Vermont Community Preschool Collaborative, the Let’s Grow Kids campaign and the Race to the Top Grant work. We recently initiated community conversations around the state to jumpstart a dialogue about the importance of early childhood.

Still, there’s more to do. If you believe all Vermont children deserve a solid start in life, please get involved and join the discussion. Visit LetsGrowKids.org for more information and to sign the pledge.

The future is brighter for everyone, when our children our happy, healthy and well cared for.

Summertime and the Learning Never Stops

Summer has officially arrived in the Green Mountain State. The mosquitoes are buzzing. Gardens are growing. Children are wrapping up their busy school years. And, working parents have turned their attention to summer camps. Transitioning from the structure of preK and school to the less-structured summer schedule is a big change in the daily routine, especially for Vermont families with young children.

Learning begins at birth_Summer child in sprinklerPiecing together childcare, camps and other activities that don’t always correspond with a parent’s full-day work schedule can be a juggling act. And trying to find quality programs for children can be tough. But sometimes we need to look no further than our own backyard for quality experiences and learning opportunities.

Learning begins at birth

As I speak with people about the work of the Permanent Fund, I’ve noticed that the words “learning” and “education” can conjure up somewhat narrow definitions. Many people equate learning with cognitive skills like knowing the ABCs, colors, how to count to ten or tie shoes. And they usually connect education to the public schools—kindergarten and beyond.

But as I’ve written before, we know that learning and education begins the moment a newborn enters this world. The brain develops very rapidly in the first few years. And during this time, the child is not only building a foundation for future cognitive development, but also for social-emotional skills that will enable her to cope with life’s ups and downs.

These skills are developed through the interactions babies and toddlers have with their parents and other caregivers. The relationships that a child has during these early years are so important. Babies develop trust, empathy and self-esteem from positive relationships in their lives.

Serve and return interactions like talking, cooing and playing with babies provide the baby’s developing brain with the input they need and crave. They are forming 700 neural connections every second! Their brains are like little sponges working to soak up every experience and interaction to create the foundation for future learning and development. The quality of the environment that a child spends their time in can impact them greatly—positively or negatively. Children thrive when they have safe, stimulating places to play, grow and live.

Learning opportunities abound

While the older children are relishing in their new-found freedom from the academic demands of school, we know that learning never stops—even with the start of summer. So whatever the activities your summer includes, I hope it is filled with much fun, sunshine, laughter and learning with the children in your life!

photo credit CC via flickr: Matt Molinari