Let's Be Honest (Part 2): Early Investments in Kids Pay Off Big, So We Must Invest
This year I have had the great privilege to be part of the inaugural cohort of the McCormick Foundation's Executive Fellowship in Early Childhood Policy. I am one of 32 Fellows from the education, legislative, judicial and nonprofit sectors brought together by the Erikson Institute to better understand the critical importance of early childhood learning and family supports to long-term success. I want to thank the Evanston Community Foundation for nominating me for this fellowship. It has been a truly transformational experience and one of the pivotal experiences that led me to take the leap and run for state representative this year.
As a school board member, I have learned firsthand how important early supports are to the readiness of children as they enter school and to their ability to reach their full potential. So many of the gaps in the opportunity to achieve are fermented, if not cemented before children even show up in our schools. This by no means says to me that we have any less obligation to reduce those gaps and unleash children's potential while in school. Yet, I can't help but believe that earlier supports for families and children are our best leverage in eliminating the gaps overall. This is what drew me to the fellowship, and why I believe that early childhood systems need to re-emerge as a top priority for our state, and we need to figure a way to appropriately fund it. Only half of Pre-K students are able to access the Pre-K for All program developed in Illinois because of the ongoing pullback in support. This must change.
Here are a few numbers to help make my point:
13% - The estimated return on investment for every dollar invested in high-quality birth-to-five early childhood education for vulnerable children.
74% - The percentage of working families at or below 185% of the poverty line who DO NOT receive any state child care assistance.
21% vs 1% - 21% of children aged five and under estimated to be living in poverty; yet only 1% of children under age 3 are being served by Early Head Start
-188, -5,654 - In Cook County alone the number of lost Pre-K for All sites and reduction in children served from 2010-2015. We are moving backward, not forward in serving our youngest children.
Systems Approach vs Program Approach
For me, it starts with the programs and how many children we are serving, which are inadequate but doesn't end there. I have personally witnessed moms in Evanston and Skokie who are struggling to give their children what they need that time and again our systems fall short. It's as much about the lack of dignity and effectiveness of how we deliver the services as it is about the programs themselves. In a society where we can get shoes delivered to our door in two hours, there is no reason our state can't provide adequate systems and infrastructure such that a mom, dad or caregiver doesn't have to prove they are poor at every turn to access services. Wouldn't it make sense that when a mom signs up for WIC, she automatically is enrolled in a series of family supports that guide her through access to child care, preschool, parental coaching/support, healthcare, etc? Our ability to achieve better outcomes for families will accelerate exponentially if we truly put them at the center of our policies and implementation.
Promising Trends - Kindergarten Readiness in D65 Matters!
Our school district continues to have unacceptable opportunity and achievement gaps based on race. Evanston/Skokie District 65 began tracking "kindergarten readiness" several years ago. We know our measures are incomplete, but the trend is telling. In D65, when both black and white, low income and non-low-income students were considered kindergarten ready (primarily based on early literacy skills), any opportunity or achievement gap was eliminated in by third grade. But when students were not kindergarten ready, the gaps between white and black students widened from kindergarten to third grade. The evidence is clear that 0-3 and 0-5 is the essential element in creating more equitable outcomes for students later on. So let's be honest, and let's figure out how to make it happen as a state.
Thank you, McCormick Foundation and the Erikson Institute for advancing my knowledge, igniting my passion, and fortifying my commitment to helping Illinois be the very best it can be for our smallest and their families. It would be such an honor to move this work forward as a member of the Illinois General Assembly. We have a good start - but we are not nearly finished. We just need the political will to prioritize what we value over political agendas and personal interests.