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New state plan aims to improve early education programs

Last modified: 11/19/2013 12:22:04 AM
While the federal government continues a push for pre-kindergarten programs, New Hampshire is taking its own steps to improve early education and child development services.

The state’s Early Childhood Advisory Council, known as Spark NH, unveiled a three-year early education plan yesterday during a day-long conference with educators, care providers and nonprofit leaders across the state. The plan aims to raise awareness about the importance of early development and study best practices nationwide that will translate into policy initiatives aimed at the 2015 legislative session. At yesterday’s event, providers and educators heard from experts and broke into groups based on region to discuss preliminary plans.

“It proposes to better coordinate the systems that already exist, to strengthen those systems and build the connections between them,” said Spark NH Director Laura Milliken.

The Spark NH advisory council was appointed by then-Gov. John Lynch in 2011 as part of a federal initiative to put a greater focus on early childhood education.

Since the plan is in its early stages, there is no price attached yet, but the Department of Education has applied for $37.5 million in federal money under a Race to the Top program aimed at early childhood education programs. This new plan served as a guide for the grant application, and the state should hear by December whether its application was accepted.

As the grant is encouraging an early education focus at the state level, the federal government is also working on pre-kindergarten initiatives. President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union address set the goal of achieving universal pre-K for all children, specifically those from low- and moderate-income families. A bill to develop state-federal partnerships for pre-K programs was introduced in the Senate last week.

Unlike that federal effort, New Hampshire’s plan doesn’t set a specific goal of getting all children into programs. Instead, the overarching purpose is to improve coordination between everyone involved in early childhood development. That means looking at health and family support in addition to early learning and development.

“There’s wonderful research out there that shows the brain development that’s needed to make the fourth-grader read is happening when he’s 2, 3, 4, and so we really are very, very focused on making those connections,” Milliken said.

Key pieces of the plan include developing a consistent rating system for early programs and improving data collection systems. Right now, there is a disconnect between programs for birth through age 5, which fall under the Department of Health and Human Services, and public education programs from kindergarten on, which fall under the Department of Education. Data aren’t linked across programs, meaning there’s no way to tell whether early interventions, particularly for developmentally disabled students, are effective later on.

“We don’t know whether kids are getting all of the services that they’re eligible for and that they need, because we have no way to have these systems talk to each other,” Milliken said.

Beyond data, more communication between the two departments will ensure a smoother transition between pre-K and kindergarten programs.

“In (the Department of Education) we’ve never really been involved with the birth to 5 group,” said Education Commissioner Virginia Barry. “But in (Spark’s) effort to really make the partnerships work, we’re getting more involved and we’re seeing our public schools getting more involved with early childhood providers in the community, so I think it’s a process.”

Finally, the plan aims to promote overall awareness of the importance of early learning. The theme of Spark’s initiative is that children are the “bedrock of the Granite State.” Yesterday, speakers talked about research that overwhelmingly shows the importance of early development on students’ abilities to learn later in life. Focusing on children before age 5 is one key to ensuring those children become successful in the future, Milliken said.

“You can either have a strong or fragile foundation,” Milliken said. “A fragile foundation is really hard to go back and rebuild.”


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