Guest commentary: Early Learning Coalition's efforts pay off for community

The Early Learning Coalition (ELC) is the designated agency in Collier, Glades, Hendry and Lee counties for subsidized child care. Yet, few citizens funding this $40 million operation know about it or the work taking place under its umbrella.

There are 31 coalitions in the state. By legislative mandate, they administer subsidized child care, known as School Readiness, Voluntary Prekindergarten (VPK), and work to improve the quality of early learning programs.

The waitress who served you the last time you went out may be a coalition client. She would not be at work unless she had subsidized child care. The newly unemployed interviewing for jobs with local companies are there because their children are in safe facilities subsidized by the ELC.

The same may apply to the person who helped you with your groceries; attended a loved one in a nursing home; assisted you at your club; or, served the adult beverage following the game. Citizens should know that as a result of mom or dad working, there is less stress in the home. Things do not get quite as toxic for children in challenging circumstances when parents can provide housing and meals because they have a job.

Also, we now know from many sources, including the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard, that chronic stress has lifelong impact on brain development.

But, mom or dad cannot get to that job unless they have child care. Child care was arranged for 7,341 children from 4,265 families enrolled in School Readiness subsidized support in Southwest Florida during 2008-09.

There is broad understanding that in 2002 voters passed an amendment providing prekindergarten for the year before school entry. This is one of the programs the ELC administers by monitoring that VPK providers use appropriate curriculum, have been screened for criminal backgrounds and get paid regularly; last year, 7,232 children participated in VPK from this coalition.

What is not as well known is the ELC’s role with School Readiness and program quality improvement. The research base supporting the impact of early learning programs on child development is irrefutable. Eighty-five percent of the brain is fully formed by the age of 5. Moreover, children coming from impoverished circumstances experience about 30 million fewer words prior to school entry than children from wealthier circumstances.

It is not just educators who tout the benefits of quality early care these days; it’s economists. Again, the data is clear. For every dollar a community puts into early learning, somewhere between almost $2 and $17 is returned on the investment. This return, according to the Rand Corp., results from reduced incidents of child maltreatment, teen childbearing, grade repetition, use of special education services, etc.

The ELC works to enhance the quality of child care in the approximately 700 affiliated facilities by providing health and safety inspections to unlicensed providers not monitored by Department of Children and Families; assessing the quality of child-care environments with follow-up improvement plans and support for implementation, ensuring the use of a research-based curriculum and offering teachers opportunities for professional development.

Children in facilities contracted with the coalition receive vision and hearing screenings, and are regularly assessed to determine if their development is evolving within typical ranges. About 85 percent of children served by the ELC do fall within typical ranges. Follow-up inclusion services are provided to the remaining 15 percent.

These services to families, children and caretakers are some of what is offered to our communities by the Early Learning Coalition, with support services provided by trusted contracted partners:

Community Coordinated Care for Children (4C) enrolls families and providers; the Children’s Forum conducts environment quality assessments of facilities; and the Collier and Glades/Hendry health departments offer consultations on health issues and disaster preparation.

There are many ways that community members can support the Early Learning Coalition of Southwest Florida. Visit the Web site, www.elcofswfl.org, to check out Literacy Buddy and other volunteer opportunities, or contact the coalition directly at (239) 267-4105.

The Early Learning Coalition is working to improve the lives of children, help families move toward self-sufficiency, and, overall, enhance the quality of community life, including economic viability, by contributing to a more talented workforce. The well-intentioned goals of our public school districts, to a very great extent, will be determined by the success of ELC initiatives.

Reynolds has a doctorate in reading, language and cognition from Hofstra University and a bachelor’s and master’s degrees from New York University. She was a classroom teacher and administrator in Long Island, N.Y., and was in Massachusetts for 10 years, where she served as superintendent of schools. She has had a home on Marco Island for over 20 years, and has had a long and active interest in the quality of public education, which she considers a national defense issue.

© 2009 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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