1 READY KIDS DENVER Ready Kids, Ready Families, Ready Communities Initiative A Proposal for Educational Achievement and Workforce Excellence With elections in May for a new Mayor and all thirteen City Council members, now is the time to make early childhood, primarily prenatal to three, a priority and begin the development of an integrating framework and city service delivery system that recognize the importance of early social, emotional, and cognitive factors in a child s future ability to succeed in school and to be a productive member of the workforce and the community. The proposed Initiative calls on the City to take a leadership position and act as a focal point for a public/private effort that recognizes the importance of early childhood and provides an organizing framework for looking at what already exists, the gaps, and how to direct existing resources to better meet the needs of our youngest children. While the Initiative calls for a primary focus on our most vulnerable children, prenatal to three, it recognizes the need to strengthen the existing support systems for the healthy development and school achievement of children through the full early childhood continuum of age eight.. The Initiative is not a proposal for a major commitment of new resources, but a call to better use the resources that already exist to help our children get it right-from the start. THE FRAMEWORK 1) The new Mayor, ideally with support from members of City Council, should immediately announce READY KIDS DENVER, an early childhood initiative, primarily prenatal to three, as a major public/private effort led by the City but involving all segments of the community. 2) A high-level appointee in the Mayor s Office should be hired as the point person for the Initiative. Location in the Mayor s Office is critical for demonstrating the priority of the Initiative and the city-wide scope of the effort. In interviewing and selecting appointees for other positions most likely to be central to this Initiative, early childhood expertise and experience should be a qualification considered. 3) An inventory of City services currently supporting early childhood should be undertaken and a survey of programs in the community that currently exist should be completed. 4) A process involving city agencies, community groups, early childhood experts, the schools, foundations and parents should be convened to examine current efforts in Denver and best practice in other cities, and to identify gaps and opportunities for impacting systems change. 5) The City should adopt a service delivery mindset for the services it provides that recognizes the importance of early childhood, i.e. when libraries are open, parks and recreation services for young children, universal applications and single points of entry for families receiving financial assistance through Denver Human Services, cultural
2 opportunities, etc. In other words, an early childhood focus should be an integral part of how the City delivers services. 6)) With a locus for early childhood efforts in City government and a home for a coordinative framework, schools, childcare staff, university experts, and parents should all be involved in developing programming. The foundation and business communities should provide some of the initial funding. While these detailed efforts should occur after the new Mayor is elected and announces the Initiative, the Task Force plans to identify models of participation and illustrative program ideas as a next step in the process. 7) One or two geographic areas should be selected to intensively implement the proposed approach. Integrating services and trying new initiatives can best be implemented and monitored on a geographic basis. Selecting areas with high concentrations of at risk children where the schools, libraries and other City facilities, child care centers, community organizations and businesses exist in close proximity is ideal. Program specifics will need to be tailored to specific communities and will need to emerge through a collaborative process. One size will not fit all. 8) An evaluation and tracking system should be developed that monitors the outcomes for children of various initiatives and efforts over time. Successful practices should be replicated and not forgotten when a pilot project is completed. 9) As programs are developed and processes for coordinating and integrating programs evolve, the lessons learned from working with our youngest children should be expanded to incorporate the full early childhood continuum of prenatal to eight. We need to think about the preparation of our youngest children to succeed in school and as productive members of our future workforce and community. Their time has come, their time is now, and the opportunity lies before us.
3 The Problem BACKGROUND READY KIDS DENVER Ready Kids, Ready Families, Ready Communities A Proposal for Educational Achievement and Workforce Excellence The Denver Department of Human Services administers the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP) for the City and County of Denver. CCAP pays providers for the care of low-income children from birth through 12 years of age. Funding for the program comes from the State and federal governments and has been declining for several years along with Departmental reserves that had previously augmented the program. The Department has gone from being able to serve just over 4,200 children in State fiscal year 2008/2009 to an expected number of children served in State fiscal year 2011/2012 of less than 2,200 children. The current waiting list has over 3,000 children on it and many parents don t apply as they know that funding is extremely limited. Moreover, at its highest levels, CCAP has been able to serve a small fraction of the population in need, and this population is growing. According to Kids Count, the number of children in Denver living in poverty increased 63% from 2000 to 2008, increasing from just over 24,640 to over 40,000 children, and these numbers are prior to the economic recession that hit in late In other words, the number of children at risk is exploding and the resources to meet their needs are not keeping pace. While Head Start, Early Head Start, and the Denver Pre-School Program help to fill some of the need, children under 3 have had the fewest public resources devoted to them and are most impacted by decreases in CCAP funding due to a lack of affordable alternatives. This also is the age group that is most likely to be cared for by family, friends, and neighbors who may lack important resources necessary for quality care. Recognizing the importance of affordable quality child care for the healthy social, emotional, and cognitive development of children and existing resource constraints, the Department determined that a community Task Force was needed to look at the problem and identify creative responses to it. The Task Force initially convened was comprised of members of the Department s two Boards, the Denver Human Services Board and the Welfare Reform Board. In turn, the Task Force members identified other creative, big picture thinkers representing business leadership, non-profits, foundations, and other segments of the community to participate in the discussions. In early March 2011, the Task Force formally expanded and named the larger group the READY KIDS DENVER Steering Committee. The Task Force Response Beginning with the narrow focus of affordable child care, it soon became clear that the real problem was how to support the healthy development of all children, but especially those most at risk, so that they can succeed in school and become productive members of the workforce and the community. The Task Force agreed that learning starts at birth, and that prevention is more cost-effective than remediation. It also agreed that learning
4 occurs outside of schools, and that supporting the healthy development of our children needs to involve families and the entire community. At the same time, the Task Force fully recognized and understands the fiscal reality that government and the private sector are currently experiencing. The commitment of new dollars in the near future is simply not an option. The group began looking at ways existing resources could be better utilized. There are many existing and potential resources in the community that can be brought to bear on the problem. What they lack is the leadership, coordination and integrating framework to make it happen The Task Force believes that any sustainable effort for early childhood must be firmly imbedded in an on-going institutional environment that is sustainable, part of the City s infrastructure, and not subject to changes in leadership or fiscal hardships. As they continued to brainstorm the issues, it soon became clear that the City of Denver and its existing services offered a unique opportunity for a new and exciting early childhood initiative. The result is READY KIDS DENVER. The Task Force determined we need to build comprehensive systems that coordinate and integrate health, mental health, family support, education, human services and other programs to improve child outcomes. The core of the initiative is for the City to look at the facilities it already has and the services it already delivers and determine how an early childhood focus can be incorporated on an ongoing basis. Just as with Denver s Road Home, a community-wide effort to end homelessness, the City of Denver is the logical institutional base to convene a community-wide effort on preparing our children to succeed The Initiative is a call to enlist all of City government, working with the community, in the mission of raising healthy children who can succeed in school and be productive members of the workforce and the community. When early childhood development is viewed from this broad, city service delivery perspective, the resources and possibilities are endless. The Importance of Early Childhood The future of any society depends on its ability to foster the health and well-being of the next generation. Simply stated, today s children will become tomorrow s citizens, workers and parents. Children who enter school ready to succeed grow up to be the booksmart, team capable, job-ready workers who help businesses prosper, and communities thrive. When we invest wisely in children and families, the next generation will pay that back through a lifetime of productivity and responsible citizenship. When we fail to provide children with what they need to build a strong foundation for healthy and productive lives, we put the economic vitality and quality of life of our community at risk. Several recent developments have stimulated a growing public discussion about the right balance between individual and shared responsibility for that strong foundation. The first is the explosion of research in neurobiology that defines the extent of early experience in shaping the brain s architecture, especially the period from birth to three. By age five, a child s brain reaches 85% of its adult weight, developing 700 neural synapses every
5 second the connections that help them to learn and the foundation for who they are as adults are already established. Second, there is an increasingly recognized need for a highly skilled workforce and an educated population to confront the growing challenges of global competition and the changing nature of the structure of jobs in the U.S. Tomorrow s bankers, teachers, military leaders and business leaders are starting their school careers today, in the earliest years of development. For the next two decades, our young children will be learning how to think, act and compete in the global market place and the foundation of their ability to be innovative, creative and team players begins now, in the earliest years. Third, despite many efforts, our schools have not been able to consistently produce students proficient in basic skill areas such as reading, writing, and math. According to the Kids Count Data Center, in 2009 Denver s high school graduation rate was 53%. Moreover, based on average CSAP scores, only 46.6% of students were proficient in reading and only 37% were proficient in math. Just as troubling is the significant, continuing gap in achievement between children who come from families living in poverty and other children. Study after study demonstrate that early preventive intervention through pre-school and all day kindergarten deliver better achievement than later remediation efforts. We know that of 50 children who have trouble reading in the first grade, 44 of them will still have trouble reading in the fourth grade. These are the children who did not have the high quality early childhood experience, they did not have the community support they deserve, they did not have health and dental health care and in many cases did not have family support or mental health services. Moreover, it is increasingly clear that by age 3 or 4, many children enter pre-school already behind and therefore we need to begin addressing learning capacity much earlier than entry into pre-school. Finally, and most recently, there is a growing recognition that children s lives and learning don t begin and end in school or pre-school. Children most at risk, those under 3 and living in poverty, spend much of their lives in their communities with family, friends and neighbors. We need to work with parents and informal care givers to provide the tools they need to be effective and integral parts of their children s healthy development. Parents want their children to succeed. We need to partner with parents to identify the kind of support they need to be most effective. Learning ready families and learning ready communities are essential to producing learning ready children. Getting it right from the start is easier and less costly than trying to fix it later. To assure that our children succeed in school and are productive members of the workforce and our community, we need to broaden the way we look at learning and not focus solely on what occurs in school. We must engage families and the broader community in ways to support the social, emotional and cognitive development of our children. It is time to recognize that school achievement is not just a school issue but a family and community issue and the full community s resources need to be brought to bear on the problem Basic Assumptions Supporting the Initiative
6 Policy initiatives that promote supportive relationships and rich learning opportunities for young children create a strong foundation for higher school achievement followed by greater productivity in the workplace and solid citizenship in the community. Growth promoting experiences need to be provided both at home and in communitybased settings, through a range of parent education, family support, early care and education, and intervention services. When parents, informal community groups, and professionally staffed early childhood services focus on young children s social and emotional needs, as well as their mastery of literacy and cognitive skills, they have maximum impact on healthy brain development and success in school. When basic health and early childhood programs monitor the development of all children, problems that require attention can be identified in a timely way and intervention can be provided. While the healthy development of all children should be the ultimate goal of this initiative, initial attention should be placed on the youngest and most vulnerable children. Later remediation for highly vulnerable children will produce less favorable outcomes at greater cost than appropriate interventions at an early age. Leadership in early childhood development needs an institutional home that can provide continuity of effort and focus regardless of increases or decreases in funding, episodic State or federal initiatives, and other variables. In Denver, as in most places in the country, City government is the principal service delivery system and/or coordinator of service delivery on the ground for most public services that our residents and business community receive. As a result, it is the logical place for an institutionalized, broad-based focus on early childhood, partnering with others, such as the school district, child care centers, community organizations, foundations, parents and the business community. A major early childhood effort will eventually require additional funding beyond what currently is available. Subsidies for affordable, quality care for pre-kindergarten lowincome children is a critical unmet need by itself as federal and state funds continue to decline at the same time that the number of children living in poverty in Denver continues to increase dramatically. However, long-term, sustainable funding is not the starting place but the logical outgrowth of the development of a framework which identifies service opportunities and service gaps in relation to needs. Why Denver Is The Ideal City For The Initiative Institutionally, no city in the country is better positioned to take a leadership role in coordinating and implementing a comprehensive approach to early childhood development that engages families and the community in the effort. As a city and county, the county function of Human Services is part of the City s overall service delivery system. Denver Health offers a model public health system that provides prenatal and pediatric care and offers a great opportunity for further partnering efforts on early childhood development. The school boundaries for Denver Public Schools are coterminus with the City and County of Denver s and there is a long history of collaboration with the City.
7 City government houses the Head Start program and Denver taxpayers approved a sales tax increase to fund the Denver Pre-School Program, Denver Kids. Denver has a strong early childhood community with many quality child care programs and an excellent system, Qualistar, for rating and improving the quality of child care programs. The business community has demonstrated that it recognizes and will support and mobilize a constituency for children. Executives Partnering to Invest in Children (EPIC) is a recently developed coalition of business leaders who advocate for quality investments in early childhood development for Colorado children birth to age eight. We also have an active foundation community committed to young children. However, despite these many assets, the state of early childhood efforts in Denver is one of fragmentation and the absence of a sponsor for the development of an integrating framework for current and future efforts. While as previously mentioned, the Denver Kids Program, Head Start, and the development of quality child care centers have been very positive, efforts taking a broader approach of family and community development to support learning ready children have been more limited. Resources devoted to our youngest children have been particularly limited. Further, the number and affordability of the programs offered is inadequate to meet the need. Once we realize that the success of young children requires ready children (including health, mental health, and family support) ready families, ready schools, and ready communities, the options to achieve and succeed expand exponentially so that all children are healthy, valued and thriving. Why Now With elections in May for a new Mayor and all 13 City Council members, now is the opportune time to make early childhood a priority and begin the development of an integrating framework that recognizes the importance of social, emotional, and cognitive factors in a child s ability to succeed in school and to be a productive member of the workforce and the community. The new Mayor can bring the excitement and visibility the Initiative needs to succeed. City employees expect and are most receptive to new direction at the beginning of an administration. With 50 appointed positions, many of which are flexible and can be used to advance the priorities of a new Mayor, recruitment and selection of key staff with an understanding and appreciation of early childhood is possible. Likewise, a broad initiative as is proposed here offers an opportunity for the Mayor and the new City Council to begin their relationship on a collaborative basis working toward a shared vision on a significant issue of community-wide importance. Conclusion We need to think about the preparation of our children to succeed in school and as productive members of our workforce and community the same way we think about other aspects of our infrastructure, such as transportation. Just as we have evolved from thinking about only cars and roads to also thinking about buses, rail, bicycles, and walking as varied and essential elements of a quality transportation system that needs to be integrated, coordinated and funded on an on-going basis, so does the development of our children need to be integrated, varied and adequately funded on an on-going basis.
8 Just as transportation is essential to the livability and economic vibrancy of our community, so is the early development of our children. It is time to act on that recognition.