State Board of Education briefed on early childhood needs

Services to help young Kansans before they start school are inconsistent across the state and many families are struggling to provide the basics for their children. Those were the key findings of a state assessment of early childhood needs in Kansas that was provided Tuesday to the State Board of Education.

Through a $4.5 million federal planning grant, the state conducted 53 public meetings across Kansas this spring and summer to gather input on what programs are available for children before they enter school and what needs are out there. Advocates also gathered stories online and conducted surveys to gather input from more than 6,000 Kansans.

The goal is to put together a statewide system that improves early childhood on numerous levels, such as learning, health care, developmental screenings and parent education.

“I find this to be extremely exciting,” said State Board member Jim Porter. Porter said he hopes the state can expand the availability of low-cost preschool programs while increasing the pay for those who work in preschools and childcare.

“We do have a lot of work ahead,” said Melissa Rooker, the executive director of the Kansas Children’s Cabinet. Rooker said a draft strategic plan will be unveiled and worked on Oct. 7 during the Governor’s Symposium on Early Childhood in Wichita. “We are excited about the work that is emerging and the opportunities,” she said.

State Board member Ben Jones said it is important for the state to “keep in mind our private partners.” Rooker said the state plan will “honor” the mixed delivery system of child care, which includes numerous private child-care settings.

The early childhood effort has been led by the Kansas State Department of Education, Kansas Children’s Cabinet, Kansas Department for Children and Families and Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

The key findings and themes of the needs assessment are:

— Families with young children experience inequitable access to high quality programs and services across the broader early childhood system;

— Families with young children experience a gap between the services that are available and their actual needs, especially among underserved populations;

— Families must adopt a `connect the dots’ approach to navigate services across sectors; disruptors are frequent and common;

— Early childhood providers and stakeholders share a desire for collaboration and cooperation but these are often disconnected and uncoordinated;

— Early childhood workforce needs at the leadership and direct service levels include preparation, compensation and financial relief, ongoing training and support recruitment and retention;

— Needs exist related to the physical conditions and environments of early childhood facilities across the state;

— Greater systems alignment is needed in order to fully realize an efficient and robust early childhood care and education infrastructure;

— Efficient, innovative, responsive efforts are occurring among early childhood care and education system partners in communities throughout the state.

In a recent KASB Live interview, Rooker and and Amanda Petersen, director of early childhood for the Kansas State Department of Education, emphasized the importance of helping children from birth through five-years-old to develop mentally and be ready for kindergarten. Here is the link to that interview.

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