By Nina Auerbach and Anthony Berkley

We need to do more to give children the best start possible. Young children learn more and do better in school and, ultimately, in the workplace when they move seamlessly from home to other early learning settings and to the early grades. Unfortunately, far too few children experience such seamlessness, thanks to a disconnected and deficient educational system that moves them from one place and grade to the next with no sense of continuity. These trends are changing though.

The federal government is promoting meaningful education reform and putting up meaningful money to help pay for it.

President Obama is asking states and communities with innovative ideas to help reshape American education. To propel this innovation, two new federal funds will provide a total of $5 billion to do nothing less than inspire communities to shake up the education landscape.

We’ve long known the best ideas for education bubble up from the community level. Now the stars seem aligned to give this type of bottom-up innovation serious consideration.

Communities large and small – urban and rural – are hard at work. Promising early learning initiatives through a W.K. Kellogg Foundation-sponsored project called Supporting Partnerships to Assure Ready Kids (SPARK), are working with schools, families and community partners to smooth crucial transitions from home, child care and preschool to elementary school. The goal is to ensure children are ready for school and schools are ready for them.

In Washington, a partnership between the State Department of Early Learning, the nonprofit public-private partnership Thrive by Five Washington and the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction is working to make a difference. The three organizations have joined forces to lead the creation of a statewide 10-year Early Learning Plan that will help make sure children are ready to start school.

More than 1,000 Washington residents helped shape the draft plan that is expected to be finalized early this summer. It calls for a coordinated approach to delivering optional early learning opportunities for children and families, based on what they need to enter school ready to succeed. This means expanding access to high-quality child care and preschool programs, to physical and mental health care, home-visiting programs, parenting support and information, and to training and education opportunities for early care and education professionals.

When finished, the plan will bring under one umbrella key efforts to maximize learning from birth through grade three.

In the meantime, efforts are already under way throughout the state to improve early learning. We are developing the state’s voluntary quality rating and improvement system designed to boost the quality of licensed child care and provide families with more information when they’re choosing child care. Local early learning coalitions throughout the state are helping their communities rally around children and families with programs and outreach. A growing statewide public awareness campaign helps convey the importance of early learning and what parents can do to help their children. Additionally, two Thrive by Five Washington Demonstration Communities—in White Center and East Yakima communities – have spent the past few years working in new and different ways to share information, leverage resources, and connect systems and supports, so that families can do the best job possible to get their children ready for school – and so that we can all benefit from what they’re learning.

Sharing lessons from these experiences in here in Washington and from other initiatives such as SPARK is critical. Public awareness campaigns, community and governors’ forums, and targeted efforts such as the W.K. Kellogg Foundation Partnership with IDEO, a renowned design and innovation firm that helps communities improve their learning systems, play an important role in expanding success.

Communities, school districts, and policymakers are creating new ways to teach and nurture children from birth through the third grade.

Now we have the chance to revolutionize learning and set our children on a path to long-term success. Such groundbreaking strategies can help shape federal and state policies. In turn, federal and state governments must allow communities the flexibility to implement policies that help their children learn best.
Auerbach is president and CEO of Thrive by Five Washington, the state’s nonprofit public-private partnership for early learning. Berkley is the deputy director for education and learning at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
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