Group aims to boost early childhood development

By Todd Cohen

RALEIGH, N.C. — By the year 2020, two in three  jobs in North Carolina are expected to require higher education. Yet in 2015, only 38 percent of fourth-graders in the state — and only 25 percent of fourth graders eligible for lunch that is either free or at a reduced price in school — scored at or above proficiency in reading.

“Third-grade reading is the single greatest predictor of high school graduation and career success,” says Tracy Zimmerman, executive director and co-founder of the North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation. “Looking at the fact that we have such low reading-proficiency numbers, we will not have the workforce.”

Formed in 2013, the Foundation is working to advance policies and practices to support the best possible development of children from birth to age eight.

Its work has focused on the unglamorous and often tedious process of engaging leaders from a broad range of fields, assembling experts to assess research on early childhood development, getting feedback from the leadership group, and developing metrics to gauge the impact on third-grade reading of policies and practices in the areas of health, family and “high-quality” child care and education.

“This has been a very intentional process,” says Zimmerman.

“Collaboration is hard,” she says. “Our work is really about creating this space, about trust and process and design, but the work is really coming from the people.”

Now, the Foundation is forming three “learning” teams to use metrics a team of experts has developed to determine North Carolina’s status in the areas of health, family and high-quality learning, and to identify early-childhood trends in the state.

Then, the Foundation will create “design” teams to develop strategies and priorities for “what makes the most sense for the state  to be working on,” Zimmerman says.

And with $325,000 from The Duke Endowment in Charlotte, the Foundation is launching a Birth-to-Eight Policy Center to serve as a resource hub for its work.

The Center will examine, screen and synthesize the policies and practices that have shown success in making progress on improving third-grade reading. It also will serve as a resource for and help educate policymakers, business leaders, philanthropists, early childhood professionals, community leaders and others.

Operating with an annual budget of $400,000 and a staff that soon will grow to three people working full-time and one working part-time, the Foundation generates two-third of its funds from North Carolina foundations, and another fourth through contracts and fees — funded mainly with federal dollars — to provide materials and training it has developed to other states.

Those states use the materials and training to try to engage the partners they need to communicate effectively to support public investment in early childhood education.

The remainder of its funds come from corporate sponsorships and individual contributions.

The Foundation aims to help stimulate investment in early childhood education by  “building public will, aligning action around common measures, and advancing policy and practices to support those common measures,” Zimmerman says.

It has provided its materials — such as presentations and sermons — to hundreds of business leaders, clergy and others throughout the state to help them communicate with their networks about the impact of child development on the ability of a community to thrive economically, and to be safe and healthy.

According to a bipartisan poll the Foundation commissioned in 2014, majorities of Democratic, Republican and independent voters in the state support investment in early childhood programs, and 83 percent believe investments in early childhood programs would benefit the state’s economy in the short-term and long-term.

“Now it’s up to policymakers to figure that out to make that investment,” Zimmerman says.

Investment in early learning also is the focus of Mission Readiness, a national group of active and retired military leaders who are targeting the single issue of national security, she says.

“We know from research that during children’s first eight years, their brain is literally forming and the foundation for learning is being built,” she says. “We also know that how the brain is built and how the foundation is formed, is based on the experiences they have and the environments in which they interact.”

For optimal development, “children need health and development on track, they need supported and supportive families and communities, and high-quality birth-to-eight early learning,” Zimmerman says.

“When we do that,” she says, “then we as a society get the best outcomes in education, health and economic well-being for everyone.”

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