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

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.