State leaders talk solutions for school readiness

NCSU’s Emerging Issues Forum brought together teacher, lawmakers and policy leaders to figure out how to help parents get their kids ready for school.

RALEIGH — Business leaders and policymakers, Democrats and Republicans, gathered in downtown Raleigh on Monday to hammer out some common ground on education. All agreed that early childhood development played a critical part in the formula for success, but how to reach every family, and how to pay for it, was a topic of much discussion.

“The goal is to simply get a child out of 8 (years old) that is physically healthy, has a good attitude and can read,” said Rep. Craig Horn (R-Union), “If we can get a child at 8 who has those, their chances for success in life are exponential; miss one of those and the floor falls out.”

Chairs of the House and Senate Education Committees, Horn (R-Union) and Sen. Chad Barefoot (R-Wake), were on a panel with Secretary Mandy Cohen, head of the Department of Health and Human Services, and Superintendent Mark Johnson, head of the Department of Public Instruction.

The moderated discussion centered around the new B3 Interagency Council, created by the General Assembly for DHHS an DPI to run a council of multiple stakeholders to develop a vision and accountability for the birth-to-age 8 system.

“We are really trying to think very comprehensively about early childhood,” said Cohen. “We’ve been thinking around health, around safety and nurturing, and around ready to learn for success in school; and we need measurements across all of those.”

The need to get kids ready to start kindergarten was a key point of agreement among the policy leaders, despite party affiliation.

“Ask any parent, ‘Is your child ready for kindergarten?’ and they are probably going to say yes — not knowing what we in this room consider to be ready for kindergarten,” said Johnson. “Knowing how to hold a pencil, recognizing all your letters, count to 20, or spell your name. … I’d love for part of the action plan for the B3 Interagency Council to talk about how to reach these parents before kindergarten.”

Cohen said the agency is working on a holistic approach to identify student stumbling blocks. She said trauma or an unstable home life plays a critical role in later academic success.

“Are we measuring maternal depression? Are we measuring substance abuse in moms and dads?” said Cohen. “How do we link that back to some of the things we are doing in the health care space, and how does it impact our young children and their ability to be ready for kindergarten?

“I don’t think it’s going to be, unfortunately, just about, ‘Here’s this checklist,’” she added. “It’s about really digging to the next level … the health, the nurturing and safety piece.”

Horn said universal pre-K should be available to every child in N.C., whether it is in for-profit child care facilities, church preschools, or at home with parents or grandparents.

“I think that’s absolutely critical to the future of the state and the future of the nation,” said Horn. “Whether or not it should be government-funded is a separate issue.”

Johnson said he sees promise in new technologies to work kindergarten readiness into existing environments, so kids can hit the ground running once they get to kindergarten.

“One of the exciting things that’s happening in education right now is personalized learning,” said Johnson. “All this disruptive technology that is invading our lives, personalizing our news, our entertainment, you can even personalize your fast food order. … All that disruptive technology can be a very powerful tool for our educators.

“At DPI, we are looking at some really exciting programs that aren’t focused as much on traditional pre-k ideas, but more kindergarten readiness,” he added. “Can you give a 4-year-old access to this technology for just 15 minutes a day, five days a week and have them kindergarten-ready by the time they walk into kindergarten?”

In an earlier panel, SAS CEO Jim Goodnight also talked about a future for technology in pre-K, saying that mining the data from the pre-K programs could help agencies more effectively pinpoint and predict trouble spots. Lawmakers say that engaging business leaders, private philanthropies and different agencies will play a key role in ensuring kindergarten readiness.

The state’s Blue Ribbon Commission, chaired by Barefoot, issued recommendations in a report released at the forum that outlined financing options for smaller-scale, local early childhood education initiatives. Some of the suggestions offered included child care as an employee benefit, funding from local taxes, private donations and grants.

From the report, Barefoot said that improving the transition process into kindergarten is “low-hanging fruit,” ensuring that kids have proper assessments early in kindergarten, and that information and advocacy don’t fall off once the student is in school. Tackling some of the social issues, before preschool, should be a priority, according to Barefoot.

“When I think of what the state can do, on a statewide basis, and where we should be directing our funding, it is helping with some of the (birth-to-age 3) issues,” he said.

The B3 Interagency Council is forming and has held initial meetings to set goals and processes. The policymakers on the panel thought that bipartisanship was a priority for the members, so far.

“There is a diverse group of people on this commission, and that’s important because we can talk about these issues,” said Johnson. “But then we walk out those doors and the partisan realities come back into the conversations. We have to work hard not to let them.”