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.

The Challenge of Quality Child Care

3082839059_43055ea50d_z (1)I moved to Norwich, Vermont from New York City in 1996 with a 14-month-old son and my husband. I was coming to Vermont to take a position in higher education. We were a young family, excited about the future and raising our children in beautiful Vermont.

The search for child care options

When we arrived in Vermont and began our search for child care, we had no idea it would be so difficult. We were coming from a situation where we were fortunate to be able to have someone come into our home and care for our infant son. It hadn’t been difficult to find someone to provide the quality of care that we were looking for—but that was in New York City. Now in Vermont, we found ourselves struggling to find a center or child care provider who even had an opening for our son!

I began to question whether I would be able to start my new job. I remember thinking: if it is so difficult for us to find quality child care, how are other families with working moms making it work?

The search for child care was an extremely eye-opening experience for us, especially as young parents. I quickly learned that many families signed up for waiting lists at child care facilities early in their pregnancies or even before becoming pregnant! I also learned that finding the type of quality care we were looking for was nothing to be taken for granted—it was extremely difficult to find the situation that would work for our family and our children.

That was 18 years ago. Today in Vermont we have the Step Ahead Recognition System (also called STARS), which can help parents identify those providers who go above and beyond what is typically required of any child care program. Providers can earn up to five stars when they make their child care programs better, based on certain quality standards. Still, we have just over half (56%) of providers participating in the state’s STARS quality rating system. The Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children is working through Vermont Birth to Three to help increase that participation rate.

Fragile structure of the child care business

When you look deeper into the business side of child care, it’s easy to see why quality places can be hard to find. The economics of running a child care business are tough. So many families—even with both parents working—cannot afford to pay the “true cost” of caring for their children. And, child care businesses cannot afford to pay enough to keep great teachers on their staff. Too often the good teachers are biding their time at a child care center until an opening appears at a local school district that can pay much higher salaries. So it becomes a vicious cycle.

Quality child care is a societal issue

I see the quest for quality child care as an issue bigger than the children and individual families it affects. It becomes an issue for our companies when their employees can’t find quality care. It becomes an issue for our communities when our children are not getting the solid start in life they need to be successful, productive citizens in the future. All our children deserve the best opportunity to succeed—and it’s in all of our interests to help make that possible.

The Permanent Fund’s work

In the end, we were fortunate to find a wonderful center to care for our children. Our three children are now teenagers, yet I continue to be thankful every day for the child care teachers they had who were also incredible resources for us as young parents. We learned so much from them!

But we still have much work ahead of us to transform the system of caring for our children in Vermont. That’s why I am so excited about the work the Permanent Fund is doing. As a board member, I can bring a first-hand experience of the child care challenges faced by working parents. And I am proud to be part of an organization that is striving to raise the quality of child care throughout Vermont while making it accessible for all children and families.

Permanent Fund Board Member Jennifer Williams, joint venture partner with Norwich Partners, is also executive director of the Children’s Fund of the Upper Valley.

Photo CC via flickr Craig Allen

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.

The Permanent Fund Board Has Grown!

I’ve always felt that one of the best parts about my work with the Permanent Fund is the great people I have been privileged to work with over the years. The early childhood professionals who work with our young children, the dedicated program and policy people in State government, community leaders and our other funding partners—everyone plays such a crucial role in what we’re striving to do for Vermont’s children.

Measuring a growing babySo it always gives me great pleasure when we get to bring some new faces and names into this collaborative effort—namely, new members to the Permanent Fund board. At our first board meeting of 2014 on January 10, we will officially welcome the following people to our board: Buzz Schmidt, founder of GuideStar International; Stuart Comstock-Gay, president and CEO of the Vermont Community Foundation; and, Jennifer Archibald Williams, joint venture partner with Norwich Partners.

We are thrilled to welcome Buzz, Stuart and Jenny to our board. They bring a wealth of philanthropic experience and knowledge and will be instrumental in our quest to work with the State and our other funding partners to strengthen Vermont’s early education and care system and help create positive outcomes for all Vermont children.

I’d like to use this blog post to tell you more about each one of them.

Buzz Schmidt, founder, GuideStar International

As founder of GuideStar International (as well as the GuideStar USA and UK organizations), Buzz is a familiar force in the nonprofit sector. The GuideStar organizations are considered leading information sources on the health and impact of charities and nonprofit organizations. He is board chair of the FB Heron Foundation and GuideStar International. Buzz previously served as board chair of the Nonprofit Quarterly and as visiting scholar at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business. In 2012, The Nonprofit Times named him one of “The Best and Brightest – 25 Leading Charitable Sector Actors” in the past 25 years. He was previously named one of six visionary leaders of philanthropy by Time Magazine. His firm, Building Wherewithal LLC, provides consulting and research services to help citizens establish systems and capital for building stronger, healthier communities. Buzz graduated from Princeton and Stanford’s graduate schools of business and education.

Stuart Comstock-Gay, president/CEO, Vermont Community Foundation

Stuart has been president and CEO of the Vermont Community Foundation (VCF) since 2009. VCF, established in 1986, is a family of funds and foundations that support organizations and issues throughout the state. Stuart previously served as director of the Democracy Program at Demos and executive director at the National Voting Rights Institute in Boston. He has been active on civic engagement issues and foundation work throughout his career. He spent 14 years with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), including 10 years as executive director of the organization’s Maryland affiliate. Stuart serves on the board of the Mission Investors Exchange and as an advisory board member for the Center for Effective Philanthropy. He received his bachelor’s degree in political science from Bucknell University and his master’s degree in public administration from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Jenny Archibald Williams, joint venture partner, Norwich Partners

Jenny’s organization, Norwich Partners, is a developer of and investor in commercial real estate (primarily hotels) in New England and Florida. She is executive director of the Children’s Fund of the Upper Valley, which works to combat childhood obesity and build self-esteem through sports and outdoor activities. Jenny brings more than a decade of fundraising experience in higher education, having worked previously at Dartmouth College for 11 years. Her current and past volunteer roles include: board member of overseers of the Hopkins Center at Dartmouth College; chair of the advisory board of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundations (Upper Valley Region); trustee of the Montshire Museum of Science; trustee of the Children’s Literacy Foundation; and, trustee of WISE of the Upper Valley, a non-profit organization that provides advocacy, crisis services, and community education to those affected by domestic and sexual violence and stalking. Jenny graduated from Dartmouth College and holds a master’s degree in public administration from NYU.

The three of them—Buzz, Stuart and Jenny—join the other wonderful Permanent Fund board members: Tom MacLeay, board chair and former CEO of National Life Group; Cornelius ‘Con’ Hogan, former secretary of the Vermont Agency of Human Services; Tom Johnson, president of the Johnson Family Foundation; Cheryl Mitchell, UVM research professor and former deputy secretary of the Vermont Agency of Human Services; David Rahr, founding president emeritus of the Vermont Community Foundation; and, Carl Ferenbach, board emeritus/co-founder of the Permanent Fund and managing director/co-founder of Berkshire Partners LLC.

I’m excited about the year ahead and look forward to working with this great group of people.


photo via flickr:

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