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.

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

Why Babies Matter to Business

Learning why babies matter to business

Several years ago as a member of the Vermont Business Roundtable, I attended an annual meeting at Basin Harbor where I first learned about the latest “brain science” in relation to early childhood development. The Roundtable had long been a big proponent for early childhood issues, but something changed for me that day. Maybe it was being a relatively new grandfather marveling at those new human beings developing before my eyes or maybe it was that the message that day was so compelling on its own. Regardless, I became convinced that the greatest opportunity we have to improve our economy and our community, in so many ways, is in how we support and invest in our youngest citizens.

It wasn’t long before I joined Rick Davis and the board of the Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children.

The economic case for early childhood education

In the program “Are We Crazy About Our Kids?”, economists and others present a powerful economic case for supporting quality early childhood experiences and why this should be of importance to every business in America. It includes much of the same “brain science” message I heard in Basin Harbor. This segment is a supporting piece of the “The Raising of America” documentary series—to be aired on PBS later in 2015—that was recently previewed across Vermont by the Let’s Grow Kids campaign and its many supporting partners. I invite you to take a look, and perhaps you, like I, will feel that sense of urgency and that need to get involved and make a difference for all of Vermont’s children.

Tom MacLeay, treasurer and board member of the Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children, is board chair and former CEO of National Life Group

A Statewide Educational Campaign To Focus on the First Years


It was such a thrill to celebrate the launch of the Let’s Grow Kids campaign on Burlington’s Waterfront in late April. Although spring wasn’t yet fully in bloom in Vermont, the launch event, like the time of year, signifies new beginnings.

The Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children is one of three funders supporting Let’s Grow Kids (our long-time funding partners, the A.D. Henderson Foundation and the Turrell Fund, are the others).

Some have asked us, “Why fund a campaign? Why not continue your focus on the other PF initiatives?” So with these questions in mind, we set out to share our thinking — and the impetus for this campaign — in this blog post.

A continuing collaboration on early childhood

Certainly the campaign represents a new tactic or initiative for the Permanent Fund, however, our focus on early childhood remains firm. The Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children has been collaborating with the A.D. Henderson Foundation and the Turrell Fund for years to support our child-focused initiatives: Vermont Birth to Three, the Vermont Community Preschool Collaborative, and mentoring (formerly the Vermont Mentoring Funders Collaborative, now Mobius). We have made an impact through these demonstration projects so this work and our collaboration will continue.

We’ve also come to realize that to truly make a long-term, lasting impact, it was vitally important that we engage the general public—beyond parents and the early childhood community—and help the broader public understand why this work is so important.

As Abraham Lincoln once said, “…with public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed….”

Education to mobilize public support

We found through our statewide research that many Vermonters were not aware of the significance of the early years of development, especially from birth to age 3. We now know through settled brain science that 80% of a child’s brain development occurs during the first three years and that the early experiences and relationships in a child’s life are so important to their future success.LGK_90_brain_development2-01

So with this research in hand, our charge was clear: We needed to increase awareness about the important early years of development to mobilize support for a stronger, more integrated system that serves all Vermont children and families well.

What the data shows

Here in Vermont, we have data—like rates of kindergarten readiness, third grade literacy, developmental screenings, high school graduation—that tell us things can be better and must get better if we want to strengthen our families, our communities and our economy.

At the event we heard that more than half of Vermont’s children were deemed not ready for kindergarten. (When children show up at kindergarten not ready to learn, they continue to fall further behind and rarely catch up.) We also heard that 32% of our third graders were reading below grade level. Only 32% of our children age 0 to 5 received developmental screenings in 2011-12—but our state goal is 95%.LGK_kindergarten3-01

We also know that things have changed since many of us grew up. In Vermont, 70% of working parents with children under the age of 6 are in the workforce—that’s quite different from the Ozzie and Harriet scenarios that many of us may have grown up with. And it means many of our children are spending as much as 40 hours per week—or more—in care outside the home. So it’s clear that parents are no longer the only ones raising their children. It truly takes a community.LGK_70_parents_work-01

Join the campaign

While the Permanent Fund, A.D. Henderson Fund and the Turrell Fund continue to work on the initiatives already in place, we are working to broaden the base of those who share our vision that all Vermont children should have the opportunity to thrive and the chance to lead happy, healthy, and productive lives. After all, when our children are happy and healthy, we all win.

We hope you will join our cause. Find out how you can get involved in Let’s Grow Kids and help us in our effort.

The year ahead: Ambitions and promise

6919539028_71c540da4e_zIn my last post, I talked about the impact our current demonstration projects—Vermont Birth to Three, the Vermont Community Preschool Collaborative and Mobius—have had since the Permanent Fund began its work in 2000. This year, we will continue to focus on these demonstration projects and have set some ambitious, but necessary, goals so we can continue to make a difference for Vermont’s children and families. In this post I’d like to take a quick look at our priorities for 2014.

A focus on education

Those who know me have heard me talk about the link between poverty and education. I view education as the great equalizer—it is the key to eliminating the achievement gap between young children from lower-income families and their more well-off peers, to creating a path out of poverty, and developing a strong workforce and vital economy.
In this vein, we are focusing much of our resources on education in 2014 (and the coming years). In April we will launch an early childhood public awareness campaign, called Let’s Grow Kids. We have raised $1,050,000 to fund the first of this three-year effort. (I will write more about the campaign in a future blog post.)

Through this effort, we want to educate the general public about the significance of brain development in the early years and how it connects to our children’s well-being and our economic future. It is our hope that this focus on education will help create the public support and sense of urgency to create positive, lasting change for all of Vermont’s children.

Continuing our demonstration projects

During 2014, we will also continue to work through our other initiatives.

For Vermont Birth to Three, we have set a goal of achieving a 75% participation rate in STARS (Step Ahead Recognition System) among home-based providers. With 42% participating at the end of 2013, this is certainly an ambitious, but achievable, goal that will continue to build a stronger home-based provider network throughout Vermont.

The Vermont Community Preschool Collaborative team will continue to provide technical support and resources to communities to help bring quality preK to their 3- and 4-year-old children. Legislation (H.270) has been passed by the Vermont House to give parents (of 3- and 4-year-olds) the choice of where and what type of local preschool their child attends, regardless of the town or school district in which they live. This legislation requires that preK programs meet specific quality standards (either through NAEYC accreditation or Vermont’s STARS program). That means more Vermont 3- and 4-year-olds will have access to high quality programs. Seeing the Senate pass this legislation and watching the Governor sign it into law will give us all a reason to celebrate!

We will continue to support Vermont’s mentoring efforts through the statewide mentoring partnership, Mobius, as we believe every child can benefit by having a positive, non-parental, adult role model in his or her life. Today, Mobius supports about 2,500 adult-to-youth mentoring matches. But they believe there are at least 15,500 Vermont youth who are in need of a mentor. We want to continue to help them in their effort to close this gap.

We will also continue to be involved in the State’s plans to implement the $37 million Race to the Top grant monies as well as its closely related work with the early childhood community to establish priorities for the Early Childhood Action Plan. The Permanent Fund and our funding partners have helped support both of these efforts and we want to see the hard work continue.

Join our quest to make Vermont the best place to raise children

Our vision is a future for Vermont where all our children have an equal opportunity to realize their promise and potential. The likelihood of a child’s promise being realized is greatly diminished without a solid foundation, built from birth with the pillars of stimulating education, social-emotional support from caring adults, and basic physical needs. And yet Vermont lacks the early childhood infrastructure to support solid foundations for all our children.

It is the need to close this gap between what is now, and what could be for Vermont’s children that will continue to drive everything we do in 2014 and the years ahead.
Marion Wright Edelman, long-time director of the Children’s Defense Fund, once said, “It is not a matter of whether or not we can afford to make these investments. We cannot afford NOT to make them.”

We are at that point in Vermont. Vermont can be and should be the best place in the nation in which to raise children. Find out how you can join us.