Risk-taking in Early Care and Learning Systems Design

Take Risks. We cannot afford not to. This was one of the many insights that stood out for me from conversations with Dr. Lynette Fraga, executive director of Child Care Aware of America, and Matthew Melmed, executive director of ZERO TO THREE, who visited the Permanent Fund and spoke at the Turrell Fund annual dinner in June. These national experts on early childhood confirmed what we already know at the Permanent Fund: we’re at a “tipping point in early childhood,” where positive, sustainable change is within reach if we stretch ourselves toward a vision for a thriving future Vermont.

These ideas emerged as most relevant to our work:

1) Think Big. “If we design an early care and learning system that addresses our needs today,” warned Dr. Fraga, “we’ll recreate the problems of today.” Instead, “let’s build a system that will work for our future children and families.” This advice is crucial at a moment when Building Bright Futures is launching a statewide process to design our future early care and learning system. As we think together about how to make high-quality, affordable early care and learning accessible to all Vermonters, let’s think beyond our current structures and dilemmas to imagine the best possible future. Let’s create a system that yields returns not only for today’s young children, but for their future families, business and communities.

2) Take Risks. We’ve invested billions in research on early learning outcomes in the U.S., Mr. Melmed explained. But, unlike our European counterparts, we haven’t yet applied that research into policy and practice. Our opportunity is to take what we know—that early care and learning is the most powerful long-term investment our society can make—and figure out how to do it, to capitalize on the potential of our children, now. This is not an easy task and the Permanent Fund’s timeline—high-quality, affordable early care and learning for Vermonters by 2025—requires significant innovation and leaves little room for error. However, Mr. Melmed and Dr. Fraga recommended using an iterative approach to innovation as a way of both taking risks and capturing feedback needed to course correct. Sometimes known as rapid-cycle testing, this approach enables testing solutions, documenting outcomes and adapting strategies quickly in response to emerging needs and findings.

An iterative approach also aligns well with the Permanent Fund’s strategy. That’s why we’ve built a highly productive, entrepreneurial organization that adapts quickly and yields top-of-line results. Our plan, in addition to building a movement of early childhood supporters and building lasting systems to support high-quality, affordable early care and learning, focuses on piloting new strategies for positive impact to ensure that our future system is as innovative and responsive as it must be so that Vermont children and families thrive in the decades to come.

3) Keep it up. Perhaps the most rewarding feedback from our visiting national experts was their recognition that our work is on the cutting edge of national early childhood efforts. Vermont is the ideal laboratory for scalable social change, Dr. Fraga and Mr. Melmed confirmed. “Many other places in the country don’t have the capacity for change or the ability to break down silos that you do here in Vermont,” Dr. Fraga pointed out. Vermont is small—only 6,000 babies born to Vermonters each year. Our strategy is focused—we’ve zeroed in on an ambitious but achievable goal of high-quality, affordable early care and learning for all Vermonters by 2025. Our forward-thinking political climate has achieved a history of doing things first. We are, in effect, “solution-sized” and poised to lead the nation on what scientists, economists, educators and politicians agree will yield the highest return on investment for our future: early care and education.

So, let’s do it! Let’s stick our necks out to achieve a big vision with even bigger rewards for children and families. Let’s solve an issue plaguing the nation by getting it right for Vermonters. How? Together. Here are just a few of the ways I hope you’ll consider jumping in:

I’m looking forward to making history together!

Best,

Aly

What does child care have to do with Vermont’s economy?

A new study, led by neuroscientists at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and Columbia University Medical Center, has shown that family income and parental education affect child and adolescent brain development. The study highlights that too many children are well-behind their peers in cognitive, social and emotional development by the time they reach the age of three. Having a significant segment of our young population not getting off to a strong start has serious budgetary and economic implications for Vermont.
 
The Permanent Fund is now focusing on the following four messages related to strengthening the Vermont economy:
 
1. Pay now or pay later. 
Health and human services-related costs have been far outpacing the rise in inflation and the growth of our economy. Special education costs alone have risen from approximately $150 million to $300 million in the last 20 years largely due to increased behavioral issues linked to social-emotional development, while general student enrollment was decreasing. Sound research has shown that high-quality early care and learning reduces the need for special education services. A recent study out of Duke University found that an investment of $1,100 per child in high-quality early care and education reduced children’s odds of needing special education by 39% in third grade.  This smart investment would allow us to save significantly on a wide variety of costs which are putting a tremendous strain on our state’s budget year after year.
 
2. Making Vermont the best place in the nation in which to raise a family is a savvy economic development strategy. 
Over the past 20 years, Vermont births have been steadily declining and enrollment in K-12 has decreased by 18,000 students. These are troubling statistics as we need more, not fewer, young people entering the state’s workforce and contributing to a strong economy. A system of high-quality, affordable child care will create a favorable environment for parents to have children and, as important, for those children to thrive. Chambers of Commerce tell us that when small businesses and young families are considering a move to Vermont, the top three questions they ask are related to the quality of our education system, the affordability of housing and access to high-quality, affordable child care.
 
3. Since our children will become the engine that drives the economy, we cannot afford to give up on any of them.
We know that 90% of the core development of a child’s brain occurs by the age of five and that, by far, the highest return on investment in education is in the very early years. When children show up at kindergarten prepared for school they have a chance to have success in school, continue on to higher education and contribute to a skilled workforce. We are at a point now in Vermont when we must pay attention to the research and invest our available funds where they will produce the highest returns.
 
4. Access to high-quality, affordable child care contributes to workforce development. 
We can’t be our best at work if we’re worried about who is going to care for our children. Vermont businesses’ ability to recruit and retain productive employees is greatly enhanced when parents in the workforce have access to high-quality, affordable child care.
 
In addition to the public awareness efforts of Let’s Grow Kids and the systems-building work of Vermont Birth to Five, here are two areas of innovation where we will focus in 2017:
 
1. The early childhood professional as a key member of the population health care team.
By recognizing that child care providers can play a critical role in the health of children and even their families, we make it possible to both streamline services and cut down on health care costs down the road. For more on the connection between high-quality child care and cost effective approaches to health care, go to: http://www.permanentfund.org/healthcare-integration/.
 
Alan Guttmacher, recent director of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), has joined the Permanent Fund team and will assist Aly Richards, our CEO, in forwarding this effort. With his extensive experience in pediatric research and commitment to improving health outcomes for children and families, we are so lucky to have Alan working with us on this important initiative.
 
2. The Shared Services model as a way to make child care more cost effective. 
Vermont, as a small, rural state with small and widely-dispersed child care programs, is challenged to take advantage of the cost-efficiencies associated with larger child care centers. A Shared Services Network is a community-based partnership comprised of child care programs working together to share services such as bookkeeping, billing and collections, purchasing, insurance, access to nurses, mental health consultants and substitutes.
 
Our focus on a statewide systems change presents quite different challenges than investing individually in good programs and requires a determined patience. At the same time, our short, now 8-year, timeframe creates a sense of urgency for the Permanent Fund team and all associated with this movement. We would not have begun to accomplish what we have without the enduring commitment of our supporters and now, more than ever, we appreciate that continued support.
 
There is a noticeable buzz and increase in momentum in the child care movement from where we were a year ago. Aly will keep you up to date on the details of Permanent Fund progress as we work toward our goal of all Vermont children having access to high-quality, affordable early care and learning by the year 2025.

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.

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.

Looking ahead: 2015 and beyond

6919539028_71c540da4e_zIn our last post summarizing the highlights of 2014, I shared a major decision that the board of the Permanent Fund made that will affect how we move forward over the next 10 years. In our decision to spend down our endowment and “put all our chips on the table,” our board is communicating a sense of urgency in our work. We strongly believe there is no time to waste as we work to transform Vermont’s early care and education system and give all Vermont children a solid start in life. As board member Tom MacLeay said in a previous post: “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.”

The real gamble, if you will, is in not making these strategic early investments. Fasten your seatbelts, as you read what we’ve got on the plate for this year, you’ll see, it is: Full. Speed. Ahead.

VB3 and VCPC to merge: Continued emphasis on quality

To increase their efficiency and effectiveness, plans are underway to merge our Vermont Birth to Three (VB3) and the Vermont Community Preschool Collaborative initiatives. A new name and a more public announcement will be forthcoming, but those who have worked with either team can continue to expect an emphasis on the importance of high quality in early care and education. VB3 will continue to provide incentives, mentoring and training for child care professionals to gain credentials and achieve high quality ratings through many services. And VCPC will continue to provide technical assistance to school districts and child care providers as Vermont implements the universal preschool law. Both teams are committed to strengthening our network of home-based, center-based and school-based early care for all Vermont children from birth to five.

New partnership with the health care community

In an effort to align our work with that of the health care community, VB3 will partner with the Vermont Child Health Improvement Project (VCHIP) to improve early identification and response to potential developmental delays. Child care professionals are in a unique position to identify potential developmental issues in the children in their care. They see the children and families year-round, five days a week and have established trusting relationships with the families they serve. VCHIP will provide training to support registered and licensed child care professionals in using developmental screening within their programs.

Blue Ribbon Commission to study costs and affordabilityLGK_Logo_4c

Let’s Grow Kids has been working with many individuals and organizations in the early childhood community to clearly define high quality care—what it is and what it looks like. At the same time, they’ve been working to garner support for the formation of a Blue Ribbon Commission that would study the costs of providing high quality, affordable child care and research how to fund it in a sustainable manner. Affordability and quality are two key issues that we must tackle in our quest to develop an early care and education system that benefits all Vermont children.
(While on the theme of affordability, we’re also researching the potential of privately-funded scholarships for child care, including what has worked well in other states. Stay tuned for more on this.)

New tools for tracking early childhood data

We know that children who arrive in kindergarten “ready to learn” are much more likely to experience success later in life. The Kindergarten Readiness Survey is one tool for assessing whether or not our children are prepared for kindergarten. Unfortunately, the tool is not used in a uniform way by every Vermont teacher. That’s why we’re advocating for a credible, reliable, and universally-applied Kindergarten Readiness Survey and continuing to explore other viable measurement tools from birth to five so that we can measure a child’s progress before entering preschool.

New pilot projects in the works

You may have seen Burlington Mayor Weinberger’s February announcement about the launch of a pilot project in Burlington, 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. We were happy to provide funding to support this exciting launch and it inspired us to explore the possibility of piloting a similar project in a rural Vermont community. The hope is that these pilots, while collecting good data, will demonstrate the benefits of strategic early investments, connecting high quality experiences to successful childhood outcomes.

Why babies matter to business

We travel around the state talking to CEOs and HR professionals about why babies—and quality childcare—are important to economic development and a company’s bottom line. Surveys have shown that businesses that offer child care as a benefit to their employees experience increased productivity. After all, when parents know their children are well cared for, they can focus on their jobs without worrying about how their children are spending their time. These children are also our future workers. Giving them a solid start in life through quality care and nurturing environments supports their healthy development socially, emotionally, physically and cognitively—skills that will help ensure their future success. This year, we plan to develop several models of business-supported child care and promote these concepts to Vermont businesses.

Recognizing the work of early educators

You may have heard that the Permanent Fund announced the Early Educator of the Year award, an annual award established to recognize the important work of early educators—our children’s first teachers—and educate Vermonters that education does indeed begin at birth. We received many nominations for outstanding home-based child care professionals—those that go above and beyond for our children. The nomination period for 2015 is now closed and nominees must submit an application by May 31 to be considered for the award. We plan to announce the top two individuals in October at the annual VAEYC conference.

This year is shaping up to be a busy one and we’re excited to see how everything unfolds. Be sure to subscribe to our blog to continue to receive our updates and be on the lookout for the next issue of our newsletter.