President Barack Obama touted the value of early childhood education in the 2013 State of the Union address and then proposed a budget increase to improve access.

Gov. Jay Nixon did the same on the state level.

In Springfield, as a result of community interest, the Every Child Initiative was formed to explore the need to expand early childhood education as part of a plan to discuss critical issues facing children.

“It’s extremely encouraging, and I think one of the reasons (the initiative) came about is because there’s a realization that quality early childhood education is the best investment we can make,” said Brian Fogle, president and CEO of Community Foundation of the Ozarks. “There seems to be an opportunity here unlike any time in my 30-plus years in Springfield.”

All this talk about providing more opportunities for children in the vital early years comes as expectations for academic achievement are ramping up.

The state recently revised its accreditation standards — the fifth cycle of the Missouri School Improvement Program, or MSIP5 — to put more emphasis on making sure high school graduates tackle enough rigorous courses to succeed in college and careers.

Missouri is also revamping reading and math standards, as part of the 45-state Common Core State Standards Initiative, and more will be expected of students. The goal is to create more consistency and clarity about what students are expected to know to compete globally.

Jennifer Tilley, principal of the Nixa Early Learning Center, said higher expectations in kindergarten put more pressure on families to make sure their children come to school equipped with basic academic and social skills.

With the Common Core, the expectations have definitely changed for kindergartners,” she said, noting school officials are following the proposals closely. “If and when the Common Core are implemented, one of the goals for exiting — going into first grade — is writing complete paragraphs with appropriate punctuation. It’s no longer ‘I know how to write my name or some basic elementary skills of learning how to identify letters.’”

Tilley said even though Nixa already expects students to be able to write a sentence with correct punctuation by the end of kindergarten, going even further might be tough for kids with no preschool experience.

“It’s just alarming for a lot of people,” she said. “But if you’ve never had that exposure to those pre-emergent literacy skills, leaving kindergarten writing a fluent paragraph, that’s a big jump to make.”

State Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro said the increased interest in early childhood education is coming along at the right time.

She said said regardless of the outcome of the state and federal funding proposals and the fate of recently proposed legislation — to create a dedicated funding stream for preschool — progress is evident.

“The importance is that we’ve started, for the first time in Missouri, a widespread conversation about making early childhood education accessible for each and every child, and that’s an important landmark,” she said. “It’s an important point where we are right now.”

Springfield is also at an important point.

There has been a call to action by community leaders eager to address the critical issues — such as poverty, abuse and neglect, poor parenting, and lack of school readiness — facing children. Better access to early childhood programs is frequently listed among the possible solutions.

The Every Child Initiative was formed as a way to capitalize on heightened public awareness about the critical issues facing children and build upon existing community efforts to lead to real and lasting change. It grew out of the News-Leader’s Every Child public service journalism project started more than a year ago.

The Initiative is also designed to draw on the local groundwork — in community focus reports and the city’s strategic plan — and build on the momentum from recent discussions by the Good Community, a local think tank of community leaders.

Superintendent Norm Ridder has high hopes for what will emerge from the initiative: “Good research, a good understanding of where the community is and where the community would like to see their children — and what is best for their children.”

Early childhood experiences aimed at making sure more enter kindergarten with the tools to be successful in school and beyond is a top priority for Initiative co-chairs Todd and Betty Parnell.

They’ve both repeatedly said that action is needed and that they won’t be satisfied until this community has a detailed and achievable plan in place to improve the lives of children.

Founding members include Mayor Bob Stephens and top leaders from the United Way of the Ozarks, the Community Partnership of the Ozarks, Springfield Public Schools and the Community Foundation of the Ozarks. That group grew to become an executive committee and now includes community volunteers and representatives from the Mayor’s Commission for Children, Council of Churches of the Ozarks, Greene County Commission and the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce.

Springfield’s Child Advocate, a paid staff position, was recently named. Dana Carroll, deputy director of early childhood for CPO, will start the new job July 1.

Carroll will be instrumental in developing a long-range plan — with two or three “game-changing” goals — by the end of the year.

“I’d like to see this coalition do a good job of working with the community — understanding where the community is at — and then eventually building an early childhood program,” Ridder said. “It may have a totally different dimension or a look than you’re going to find in some other parts of the community.”


By Claudette Riley

Source: Springfield News-Leader –