As public school educators and administrators, we deal directly with the outcomes of children’s earliest learning experiences. All too often, it’s alarmingly easy for our teachers to tell which students are likely to succeed or struggle in our classrooms within the first days of kindergarten. Neuroscience, educational research and firsthand experience have taught us why children’s experiences during the infant and toddler years matter to whether or not they arrive at preschool and kindergarten with the cognitive skills and social-emotional traits to thrive in a structured environment. Although we’ve long recognized the truth of this, it’s been historically difficult for schools to step outside of our traditional roles as K-12 educators and engage directly with children at the developmental stage when they’re laying the groundwork for school success. Many of Nebraska’s school districts simply lack the facilities and skilled personnel to take on this task, not to mention the fiscal resources it requires.
In 2006 Nebraska took a big step forward with the creation of the Sixpence Early Learning Fund, a public-private endeavor that transformed early childhood education in communities throughout the state. For the first time, we had a solid framework that brought school districts and local early childhood services together to provide efficient, fiscally accountable and quality-driven services for some of our youngest, at-risk kids. At present, Sixpence has grown to include about 25 partnerships, and independent evaluations confirm that these strengthen the skills children need to be truly ready to learn in school.
Far more than 25 of Nebraska’s approximately 240 school districts are eager to expand their own efforts on behalf of children’s earliest education. But they can’t do it alone. A few weeks ago, LB489 and LB547 were introduced in the state Legislature precisely to address this issue. These bills capitalize on federal dollars that are intended to provide high-quality early learning experiences for young, at-risk children by using them to make Sixpence available eventually to all school districts across Nebraska. By creating more opportunities for school districts to collaborate with private child care providers, these bills can offset the demands on schools facing serious space shortages, build the professional caliber of the local early childhood workforce, and guide more children into their first classrooms with the skills they need for academic achievement.
Speaking on behalf of the 15 superintendents who represent STANCE school districts—Schools Taking Action for Nebraska Children’s Education—I’m proud to see that Nebraska has grasped the importance of investing in our students before they reach kindergarten by creating Sixpence. Schools succeed when their students succeed, and the elements of that success first take shape in the earliest years of life. Our work on behalf of Nebraska’s at-risk infants and toddlers may be just beginning, but staying alert to opportunities like LB489 and LB547 can move us forward dramatically. Hopefully, we’ll be able to look at the outcome of this year’s legislative session and say we opened the door when opportunity knocked.
Photo: Broken Bow Sixpence