When kids succeed, we all win
Photography by Tina Sargeant
Six thousand babies are born each year in Polk County. And, each year, Polk County has six thousand opportunities to create a better and brighter future, a stronger community for itself. The Early Learning Coalition of Polk County is harnessing these opportunities and building a solid foundation for our future by offering engaging early education initiatives to Polk County’s families, giving kids the tools they need to flourish.
For Avery Diane, a bright, spunky four-year-old, bubbling with personality and spark, the world should have been hers to explore. Early in her life, however, Avery encountered devastating challenges that resulted in a move away from her biological parents and into the home and care of a family friend. Since the onset of these life-altering circumstances, those who love and care for Avery have rallied around her to be sure she doesn’t fall behind. Avery’s guardian enrolled her at FurtureCare Learning Center, where her caregivers quickly noticed that Avery experienced intense separation anxiety, did not respond well to transitions or schedule changes, and lacked developmentally appropriate social, language, and communication skills. Without the Early Learning Coalition’s interventions and the caregivers who supported Avery’s success, her future may have had a very different outlook.
Like most children, Avery was born with nearly all of the nerve cells she will ever use. Years of brain research confirm that this is so for most children who develop normally in utero. In order to thrive, babies need these cells to form strong connections in the first five years of life. How and to what degree their brain cells connect are critical to a child’s development and can provide an accurate predictor of some key indicators of later success. Consistent stimulation and activity build and strengthen brain connections, while weak and unused connections are discarded as a child develops. These connections, or lack thereof, can accurately predict whether or not a child will stay in school, have behavioral or health problems, or face early pregnancy or incarceration down the road, travesties that cost Polk County nearly $1,000,000,000 (yes, one billion dollars) each year, according to the Early Learning Coalition of Polk County.
…early childhood care can and should be an interactive, sensory-enlivening experience for young children
The Early Learning Coalition of Polk County is a cornerstone of our community working to prevent these travesties by investing in young children like Avery. The ELC ensures that children are given ample opportunities to make the necessary brain connections through meaningful interactions and early childhood experiences within their contracted childcare provider sites.
Every experience in a child’s life offers them the opportunity for healthy brain development: a trip to the grocery store, story time with a parent, leaf piles in the yard, clouds in the sky, library bookshelves, interaction with peers, a Sunday afternoon bike ride, a phone conversation with a loved one, paints and scraps of paper. The most mundane materials can become the framework for encouraging brain connectivity, exercising the brain to be ready to learn and keep learning later. Since 1999, the Early Learning Coalition has implemented initiatives to redefine childcare, teaching the community that early childhood care should be more than a loving babysitting environment, but can and should be an interactive, sensory-enlivening experience for young children.
In 2001, the Commission on the Study of Children with Developmental Delays reported that 17.3 percent of students were not ready for kindergarten. Today, Polk County Schools and United Way of Central Florida’s Success by Six Program report that more than one out of every three beginning kindergartners is not proficient in “school ready” skills. Key variables specific to Polk County, such as sheer size and geographic spread as well as rising poverty rates, contribute to the challenges of effectively preparing children for learning. Thus, the need for the Early Learning Coalition’s programs and initiatives is on the rise.
It’s no secret that when children start behind, they stay behind. While it’s certainly possible to fill learning gaps in later school years, this approach is often met with frustration and little success. In December of 2013, James Campbell, a noted senior communications manager at the Johns Hopkins School of Education reported that, “New research is finding learning deficits can start as early as eighteen months. The United States has one of the highest poverty rates of all developed countries — twenty-two percent for school-aged children — and income inequality, the disparity between society’s richest and poorest, is now greater in the U.S. than all developed countries.
Since the 1970s, income inequality has risen drastically, leading to levels not seen for the past century.”
According to the Washington, D.C.– based Brookings Institute, 17.7 percent of Lakeland’s suburban population lives in poverty (2010), making Lakeland the nation’s seventh-highest poverty-stricken community among the nation’s one hundred largest metro areas. “In 2011, there were more than 94,000 people living in poverty in suburban Polk — defined as all of the cities and communities surrounding Lakeland. That reflected a ninety-percent increase in a little more than a decade” (The Ledger, 2013).
Stanford Researcher Sean Reardon posits that poverty and family income, or the income achievement gap, is quickly becoming a “much stronger predictor of school success than the black-white gap” once was. Children who enter school from disparate backgrounds differ dramatically in the preparation they receive for learning, especially in language development. According to extensive research by child psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley, children from low socio-economic families come to school with significantly smaller vocabularies than their peers from working-class and professional family situations. By age four there is a staggering gap of nearly thirty million words between children reared in poverty stricken situations and children from middle- to upper-class scenarios.
Serving as many as nine thousand children every month through a variety of programs, the Early Learning Coalition believes passionately in improving the lives of all of Polk County’s children. Voluntary Prekindergarten, School Readiness programs, quality improvement measures, and a handful of awareness-raising and outreach activities make up the bulk of the ELC’s efforts to improve early childhood education in Polk County.
The free-to-parents Voluntary Prekindergarten Program is charged with preparing children for their first year of school by focusing on teaching and learning that is grounded in a whole-child approach. Instruction accounts for physical, social, cognitive, and emotional development, language, communication, and general knowledge. Rising kindergarten students receive up to 540 hours (three hundred hours in the summer) of quality instruction from qualified early childhood professionals. Unlike many government programs, VPK has no eligibility requirements and is open to any child who is a Florida resident and who turns four by September 1. Last year, through the VPK program, the ELC of Polk County served nearly five thousand students at more than two hundred sites across the county, and disbursed more than $10,500,000 to make it happen.
The School Readiness program provides childcare subsidies to economically needy families. Eligibility is determined by referrals from Heartland for Children, the Department of Children and Families, Career Source, or simply by meeting income eligibility requirements (at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty line). Last year, the Coalition contracted with 343 sites to serve 7,783 students, and invested 14.4 million dollars into quality childcare through the School Readiness Program.
Committed to ameliorating the quality of childcare in Polk County, the ELC also provides the infrastructure in which these childcare programs operate. Quality Specialists visit each childcare site every four to six week to evaluate curriculum, health and safety, learning gains, classroom environment, language and literacy implementation, and the provision of age appropriate care. Quality specialists work with staff to improve efforts when needed, creating action plans with targeted goals and strategies as well as time frames for completion. Additionally, the Coalition provides training opportunities for early childhood practitioners, and contracts with the Polk County Health Department to provide vision and hearing screenings to eligible students. The Child Care Resource and Referral service assists families in making an educated and well-informed decision when selecting a childcare provider. Teaching Strategies GOLD, a comprehensive assessment tools grounded in the principles of early learning, provides valuable feedback and measurement to teachers and parents about a child’s progression through an early education program.
FutureCare Learning Center, where Avery Diane attends preschool, implements many of ELC’s tools and programs. Using Teaching Strategies GOLD, Avery’s caregivers developed strategies and techniques to help her reach important developmental markers. With this tool, they were able to regularly track her progress and adjust the program as needed. Within a few months, Avery was able to communicate with friends, express emotions, speak clearly, and engage in conversations with teachers. Her language and literacy skills rose to a level on par with her peers. She was becoming herself again, and beginning to flourish.
Through Florida legislation, The School Readiness Act was passed in 1999, mandating the creation of thirty-one Early Learning Coalitions throughout the state to help children like Avery. Though the ELC is mandated to exist and does receive both federal and state funds to oversee and provide quality early education programs, the coalition still requires local dollars (private donations from people like you and me) to fully function and meet local needs. Some of the Early Learning Coalition of Polk County’s current community partnerships include Disney, United Way of Central Florida, Walmart, Teachers’ Exchange, Citrus Center and Citrus Center Kiwanis, the Board of County Commissioners, Lakeshore Learning, Kaplan Early Learning, First Book, Winn Dixie, Nemours, TD Charitable Foundation, Lakeland Electric, and Polk State College.
The old adage, a penny saved is a penny earned, gets tipped on its head when it comes to early learning. In fact, in the case of early learning, a penny spent is a penny saved. Investing in early childhood education, allocating resources to programs for children from birth to six, is sure to save millions later. James Heckman, a Nobel laureate in economics and an expert in the economics of human development, urges communities to invest in early childhood development in order to bolster local economies and significantly reduce spending deficits. Combining the work of economists, psychologists, statisticians, and neuroscientists, Heckman concludes that, “Early childhood development directly influences economic, health, and social outcomes for individuals and society. Adverse environments create deficits in skills and abilities that drive down productivity and increase social costs — thereby adding to the financial deficits borne by the public” (Heckman, 2012).
Heckman’s research proves that when dollars are invested in early childhood education, communities will likely see as much as a 7-10 percent return on investment due to reduced expenditures in remedial education, health services, and criminal justice. In a recent study, preschoolers in Chicago were less likely to have been held back in school, need remediation or to have been arrested by age twenty. Strong early childhood education programs that develop the whole child and focus on both cognitive and social skills early in a child’s life correlate to increased high school graduation rates, which in turn boost the economy. High school graduates earn an estimated $400,000 more over a lifetime than an individual who drops out of high school.
The six thousand children that are born in Polk County this year are filled with potential, spark, and creativity
The benefits are clear: Investing in early childhood education is a smart way for Polk County to build a strong foundation for our growing community.
It’s no secret that kids like Avery Diane hold the future. Because of programs through the Early Learning Coalition, Avery is a happy, healthy four-year old, with big dreams and plans to explore the world. The ELC’s programs gave Avery the gift of childhood; a future full of friendships, exploration, and learning; and the tools to live a full life. The six thousand children that are born in Polk County this year are filled with potential, spark, and creativity. They are an integral part of the better future for which we all strive. It’s our responsibility to join organizations like the Early Learning Coalition to ensure their potential is realized because, after all, when children succeed, we all win.
Campbell, J. (2013, December 3). Early Learning Programs are Crucial. The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved from https://articles.baltimoresun.com/2013-12-03/news/bs-ed-early-childhood-20131203_1_income-inequality-sean-reardon-education-secretary-arne-duncan.
Early Learning Coalition of Polk County, Inc. (2013). Building a Solid Foundation for our Future: 2012-2013 Annual Report. Lakeland, FL: Rincon, Gilbert, Chief Executive Officer.
Early Learning Coalition of Polk County (2014). Retrieved from: https://bit.ly/STzB7c
Hart, B. & Risley, T.R. “The Early Catastrophe” (2004). Education Review, 77 (1), 100-118. <https://www.gsa.gov/graphics/pbs/The_Early_Catastrophe_30_Million_Word_Gap_by_Age_3.pdf>
The Heckman Equation (2014). [Graphic illustration of Returns to a Unit Dollar Invested, 2008]. Invest in Early Childhood Development: Reduce deficits strengthen Florida’s economy. Retrieved from: https://heckmanequation.org/content/resource/invest-early-childhood-development-means-deficit-reduction-florida.
Johns Hopkins University (2014). Why is Early Learning Important? Retrieved from: https://web.jhu.edu/CSOS/early_learning.
Kennedy, K. (2013, May 19). New Study: Polk Ranks High in U.S. Suburban Poverty Rates. The Ledger, p. A1.
United Way of Central Florida, Success by Six (2014). Retrieved from: https://www.uwcf.org/servlet/eAndar.article/386/Success+By+6.