After (Photos: Children's Investment Fund)

More than 90% of children attending Square One’s network of early education and care programs in Springfield and Holyoke live below the poverty line. More than 10% are homeless,  20% have asthma, and 30% are obese or at risk of obesity. The recent renovations of one of Square One’s centers was about more than cosmetics, President and CEO Joan Kagan told the audience at a Boston event yesterday. It was about delivering high-quality service to a high-needs population of young children.

“They’re coming from a chaotic environment,” Kagan said. “To have an environment that’s calming, relaxing and consistent shows they’re respected, and their parents are respected. They’re deserving of respect. The environment reflects our attitude toward them.”

The event was the release of the Children’s Investment Fund’s new report, “Building an Infrastructure for Quality: An Inventory of Early Childhood Education and Out-of-School Time Facilities in Massachusetts,” which found shortcomings in safety, air quality, indoor space for physical activity and other measures.  Kagan’s comments on a panel underscored the report’s message that the quality of the physical space of early learning programs has a direct impact on the quality of the experience for children.

Too often, the report notes, the physical environment of early education settings creates barriers to delivering the high-quality programs that research consistently shows produce positive results, particularly for children from low-income families.

“The noted Italian educator Loris Malaguzzi,” the report states, “emphasized that a well-designed environment acts as ‘the third teacher’ because it promotes exploratory learning and physical activity, facilitates positive interactions, and keeps children safer and healthier.”

CIF commissioned the study from the Wellesley Centers for Women and On-Site Insight, which has expertise in capital needs assessments. Researchers visited 130 randomly selected licensed sites in low-income communities across the commonwealth. Of these, 73 were early childhood education centers, and 57 were out-of-school time sites. Researchers also examined 97 licensed sites in Boston — 45 from the statewide sample plus an additional 52 sites. The samples did not include programs in public schools, which have access to financing through the Massachusetts School Building Authority, and employer-sponsored worksite programs, because they also have access to the capital needed to create appropriate physical infrastructure. Statewide, approximately 85% of early childhood programs that the researchers visited operate in space designed for other uses.

The report gives relatively good marks to early childhood programs in creating learning environments with adequate space per child and with appropriate room arrangements, displays and furnishing – with more than 90% of early education sites meeting these critieria.

However, on many other measures of the physical environment, a significant proportion of early education and out-of-school-time centers fell short. CIF’s statewide findings include:

The report makes several recommendations:

In addition to Kagan, the panel included David McGrath, deputy commissioner for field operations at the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care, and Steven Kenney, president of N.B. Kenney Co., Inc., and a CIF board member. Kenney noted that investing in the physical infrastructure of early education and out-of-school time programs produces benefits that extend beyond those children reap from improved environments. It would create jobs.  A $100 million road project, he said, produces 100-200 jobs for construction workers. A $100 million vertical construction project creates 500-600 construction jobs. “Imagine the possibilities,” he said.