State officials gathering information to form early childhood strategic plan

By Scott Rothschild, srothschild@kasb.org

When it comes to providing early childhood education and health care, the earlier the better.

That’s why Kansas officials are holding public meetings to gather input on what early childhood services are available in communities across the state and how improvements can be made in the quality of and access to those services.

The goal of the “community engagement sessions” is to put together a statewide plan that covers all facets of the early growing years — learning, health care, child care, family resources and many other areas.

Once a plan is put together, it will be aired out during additional public meetings later to get further feedback. The process is similar to what Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson did several years ago, which resulted in the State Board of Education’s Kansans Can vision of leading the world in the success of each student and the Kansas school redesign project focusing on the whole student.

The early childhood planning push is funded through a federal grant authorized by the Every Student Succeeds Act and conducted by several state agencies, including the Kansas State Department of Education, Kansas Children’s Cabinet and Trust Fund, Kansas Department for Children and Families and Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

“It is important for everyday Kansans’ voices to be reflected in our plan,” said Amanda Petersen, director of early childhood at KSDE. “We have a number of communities leading the conversation in these areas,” Petersen said.

In addition to gathering information at community meetings, officials are inviting families to share stories of family challenges called “Our Tomorrows” through an online tool at kucppr.org/ourtomorrows.

Melissa Rooker, executive director of the Kansas Children’s Cabinet, said she hopes the plan will help lead to a system where families that are struggling are able to get the help they need so they can quickly recover.

Rooker and Petersen said another important aspect of early childhood services that often gets overlooked is its impact on economic development.

“I have heard from city administrators who are struggling to grow business in their communities because when asked by business owners about relocation, one of the key questions is what child care opportunities exist,” Rooker said. Another problem that affects the availability of child care is that child care jobs are usually low pay, she said.

But Rooker said Kansas is moving in the right direction with the planning grant. “It’s exciting to see barriers breaking down between the agencies,” she said.

The emphasis on early childhood has come from the top. Gov. Laura Kelly has said she is passionate about early childhood, noting that research shows how important it is to provide quality learning opportunities for children during the early years of life.

“We must continually build on our past successes and aim higher,” Kelly recently said to a roomful of child advocates.
Rooker said children who are not ready to learn when they start kindergarten will require extra help throughout school. “It’s really hard to close that gap,” she said.

In May, community engagement meetings were held in Chanute, Fort Scott, Syracuse, Oakley, Goodland, Ness City, Great Bend, Osborne, Junction City, Overland Park, Concordia and Marysville.
A calendar of further meetings can be found at kschildrenscabinet.org/events-calendar

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