This past month marked a return to school for elementary and secondary students. At the same time, more than 700 of our city’s youngest students started the school year in publicly supported early childhood classrooms. Alexandria’s early care and education community is working hard to give our city’s youngest residents rich experiences that will help prepare them to enter school ready to learn and thrive. Research has shown that high quality early care and education substantially influence outcomes later in life and can help bridge gaps in learning readiness among children from different backgrounds.
A 2010 Risk and Reach Study found that the under-five population in Alexandria is growing faster than the rest of the population, and more than a quarter of children under age 6 are living in poverty — a percentage three times that of the rate in 2005. Alexandria’s youngest demographic is also diverse: More than a third of kindergarteners qualify for English language services, and in a single zip code in the west end of Alexandria, 27 different languages are spoken.
While the needs are significant, quality early care and education can have a tremendous impact. Kindergarten readiness is a strong predictor of middle and high school success. Better childcare offerings can result in an improved workforce, with higher employee retention and lower absenteeism. Home buyers are attracted not only to areas with good schools, but also with high quality early education programs.
Alexandria already has many great programs — including more than 100 organizations, agencies, and providers — that serve young children. But how do we develop a great system?
This need was identified in the Children and Youth Master Plan adopted by the city in 2014, and the Alexandria Early Care and Education Workgroup convened by ACT for Alexandria was asked to take on this challenge.
The Early Care and Education Workgroup (ECEW) works across sectors to support the development of “an early care and education system that prepares children to succeed in life and in school.” The ECEW includes ACPS, city agencies, funders and the non-profit community. Its goal is to build a system that is of high quality, culturally and financially accessible, and comprehensive (including health, education, socio-emotional, family and community support). Finally, we want the system to be equitable, that is, it should help eliminate disparities in life opportunities for children and families.
Last year, the ECEW organized itself around a common agenda, a framework and set of strategies for ensuring that every child in Alexandria has a strong start in life and in school. Creating the Common Agenda helped the group identify and outline a set of short- and long-term priorities. The work is ambitious with many moving parts. Here are a few of the efforts underway:
‘Glass Doors’: Programs that provide publicly funded pre-school are working together to develop a process that will help families figure out what programs they are eligible for and learn how to enroll.
QuALLity: Programs and services should be of the highest quality. The Quality Collaborative, for example, is a shared professional development pilot involving all of the publicly funded early childhood programs in the city. The objective is to improve the quality of teacher-child interactions through research-based professional development. This project includes intensive coaching/mentoring, videotaped classroom observations and reflection, as well as peer networks/learning communities across early childhood programs.
Seamless Support: This effort to connect health and early education providers will help deliver coordinated and comprehensive care to children from prenatal to three years old. A recent survey of providers serving this population helped identify challenges in this area, and the ECEW will be convening a group of providers later this fall to identify priorities for building stronger connections.
For more about the ECEW and the Common Agenda, visit: http://www.actforalexandria.org/early-care-education. To learn more about how we can work together to address the critical issues related to early care and education, join ACT at their Early Care and Education Forum on Oct. 26 at First Baptist Church on 2932 King St. To register, visit www.impactece2016.eventbrite.com.
Cynthia Skinner is currently the project manager for the Early Care and Education Workgroup and the Quality Collaborative. She also served on the design team for the Children & Youth Master Plan as a member of the Children, Youth & Families Collaborative Commission from 2011 through 2014.