Sunday, July 27, 2003

Helping kids get ready to grow

By David Lawrence Jr.

About the author: When David Lawrence Jr. retired in 1999 as publisher of the Miami Herald, he became an advocate in Florida and now nationwide for a burgeoning early childhood education movement. The following is from a speech he gave recently to Greater Cincinnati leaders launching a "Success By 6" initiative.

I come here with profound appreciation for what you are embarking upon in Cincinnati and Hamilton County. I spend a great deal of my time seeking to learn from the leading edge of high-quality early childhood initiatives. Yours is the most complete thinking I have seen thus far. What you are launching is truly impressive.

I come to a state known nationally for testing attitudes, ideas, program and products, making this an especially good place for what you are doing in "school readiness" and perhaps an example to the entire country. Yours is a community and state well known as a good place for business, a good place to raise a family.

"School readiness" is not about "education" in the traditional sense. It is also not about children learning to read, say, by age 3. But it is about children growing, socially, emotionally, physically, intellectually, so that they are ready and eager to learn by the time they reach formal school.

Only a few years ago, the word "readiness" would have set off no bells in my ear. I knew nothing of the national movement for readiness. I had never heard of brain research. I came to believe these matters were so important that I "retired" after 35 years in newspapering to see how I could help children. Then came the hard part - doing it.

In spring 1999, we gathered 177 people who work in child care and health care and education and other areas connected to whether children get off to a good start in life or not. For 2 1/2 days, political, civic and business leaders, education and health professionals, caregivers, and leaders in the faith community met to write a plan with this mission statement: "To ensure that all children in our community have our attention, commitment and resources - and, hence, the chance to develop intellectually, emotionally, socially and physically so that they are ready and eager to learn by the time they reach first grade."

We held 21 community forums - in English, Spanish and Creole - and asked parents to tell us what they thought about the plan. That fall, we gathered 4,500 people in Miami Beach for the Mayor's Children's Summit. There, thousands voted electronically on which parts of the plan to take on first and we announced four major task forces to carry out those priorities.

It was attention-getting. But what would it really do for the future of children and of my community? I was unsure.

The year 2000 arrived and I came to the conclusion that we would never make enough progress on the path we had taken. However well intended, purposeful and hardworking we were, unless we could create real "public will" for real changes - most particularly the public awareness on the part of parents - we were doomed to making incremental rather than genuinely meaningful progress.

I came to appreciate the imperative of high-quality and measurable outcomes. And I came to think about "supply and demand" - that is we would never create enough "supply" of the high-quality basics until we could create the "demand" for such. Hence, I decided to focus on increasing measure of my own energies on building "demand." I asked six advertising agencies to compete for a years-long public awareness campaign, with the first target being parents and caregivers. We said we'd pay real money because pro bono campaigns tend to get bad space and bad time. We raised more than $2.5 million in private dollars.

Two years ago, we launched Teach More/Love More, a campaign that underscores the crucial nature of "teachable moments" in the first several years of life as well as the necessity of love and nurturing in growing successful children. Our television, radio and print ads began to build a "demand" for high-quality early childhood basics.

We then involved 35 early childhood experts in producing the best local early childhood Web site in the country. That site changes daily with the latest early childhood news and research. Meanwhile, 24-hour, seven-days-a-week phone lines are staffed by volunteers trained to answer questions about child care, health insurance, breast-feeding and more.

On the "supply" side, we built partnerships with 38 neighborhood health clinics, 13 birthing hospitals and 5 birthing centers in our community, giving every expectant mother a video covering the first several years of life; then, after birth, we give every new parent, again for free, a high-quality baby book, published by Little Brown. Its accompanying message speaks to the crucial nature of reading with our child way before the child's first birthday. Parents also receive a preview copy of a locally Teach More/Love More newsletter, all focused on help for parents.

Today, 13,441 parents receive this newsletter at home. All parents also get a temporary library cards as well as a free one-time, round-trip bus pass to the closest library to get a permanent library card and access to all sorts of early childhood resources.

What are we really trying to build in Miami? And what might be the real lessons of our experience for Cincinnati? In my community we now believe that a good future for children depends on our building a "movement" in behalf of all children in their early childhood years. Let me use kindergarten as an example of a "movement."

Kindergarten was "invented" in 1837 and came in this country a century and a half ago. Taking more than a century to be genuinely widespread, kindergarten was frequently fought as unnecessary and even "anti-family." For decades, kindergarten was seen as mostly for society's worst off and society's best off. Only when it became a "movement" in behalf of everyone's child did it become a full reality. Today, a high-quality kindergarten for all children has become an expectation on the part of every parent of every 5 year old.

We can never build a real movement for "school readiness" unless we do so for everyone's child. Most often, well-intended, good-hearted people target one deeply disadvantaged neighborhood or another and then devote extra resources. The rest of the community sees how we target our resources, and reasons "Oh, I see, it is about those children." But "readiness" is not and should not be just about those children; rather it should be about and for everyone's child. That is my definition of a "movement."

All children need all the quality early care and education that your children and my own need: Love and nurturing. All their shots. Real relationships with medical caregivers, not the emergency room as basic medical care. Excellent nutrition. The fullest opportunity to be safe. Stimulating early care and education experiences. Child care that engages the mind, not the "warehousing" that most children receive.

Florida has become the second state, behind only Georgia, to make high-quality pre-K available for all 4 year olds, beginning in 2005.We tried to go the legislative route first, but no one with real power was willing to give this a hearing. So after three years of trying that path, we gathered 722,000 signatures and the people of Florida passed this constitutional amendment last November.

Meanwhile, in Miami-Dade County, we worked for more than two years to put a dedicated funding source for children on the ballot, providing up to $60 million a year to be spent on early interventions and prevention.

We must involve, deeply so, the private sector. Some of the most visible leaders must come from the general community, including the business community - most of all the need to involve parents. If they ever knew what their children were entitled to in a civilized society, a mighty army would emerge to insist upon real change and a holistic approach.

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