Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children

When Dr. Gregory Hagan took over as president of the Massachusetts Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics last year, he had an idea. Convene an early childhood summit to help propel an agenda for young children. The chapter, under the previous president, had already made a commitment to promote early education and early childhood development, but the fiscal and economic crisis made action difficult.

Last week the summit that Hagan envisioned took place at the Massachusetts Medical Society headquarters in Waltham. We at Early Education for All, a campaign of Strategies for Children, were delighted to co-sponsor the statewide summit on young children, along with the pediatricians group, the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the Boston Children’s Museum.

Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, legendary pediatrician and child development specialist, was among the diverse crowd of pediatricians, early educators, mental health and child health professionals and others who filled the medical society’s auditorium. The summit was significant as much for bringing together advocates and experts across the disciplines as for the information shared.

“My main goal is to reinvigorate a sustainable, durable coalition that can move this agenda forward,” Dr. Hagan said in his welcoming remarks. “Our prospects of advancing this agenda are good if we work hard.”

Recent advances in scientists’ understanding of how early experiences shape the physical architecture of the brain – the very wiring of the mind – underscore the importance of focusing policies and resources on children’s earliest years. So first up at last week’s summit was a presentation, “New Insights in Early Childhood Brain Development,” by Dr. Charles Nelson, Ph.D., research director of the Division of Developmental Medicine at Children’s Hospital Boston. His illustrated PowerPoint highlighted the brain’s fascinating journey from conception to adulthood.

“Genetics supplies [the] basic blueprint for brain development. Experience adjusts the blueprint and shapes the architecture of its neural circuits,” the PowerPoint explained. “Genetics specifies the properties of neurons and neural connections to different degrees in different pathways and at different levels of processing. But, because many aspects of an individual’s world are not predictable, the circuitry of the brain relies on experience to customize connections to serve the needs of the individual. Experience shapes these neural connections and interactions but always within the constraints imposed by genetics.”

Some areas of the brain, such as vision and hearing, attain adult levels of synapses by age 2-6. Other areas, such as the front lobe, which is responsible for higher-level cognition and emotional regulation, do not reach adult levels until middle or late adolescence. “Early experience,” Dr. Nelson said, “often exerts a particularly strong influence in shaping the functional properties of the immature brain.”

Translating the science into action was the business of the rest of the day. “We really see this as being about taking action beyond today,” Amy O’Leary, director of Early Education for All, told the gathering. “We need to make sure our unified voice is heard by policymakers.”

O’Leary outlined the status of children and progress to date in Massachusetts. The state’s population of 6.5 million is up 3% since 2000, but the number of children dropped by 5.4% or 81,000, putting the burden of future productivity on fewer shoulders. Although Massachusetts leads the nation in fourth grade reading, according to recently released results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, half of fourth graders here scored below proficient. And 39% of third graders scored below proficient on the 2011 MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System). Massachusetts also leads the nation in accredited early education programs (35% of center-based programs), but most programs are not accredited.

Progress includes creation of the nation’s first consolidated Department of Early Education and Care, establishment of a scholarship program for early educators, and the launch of a Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS). More progress is needed, O’Leary noted, in such areas as reading proficiency and bringing QRIS to scale.

Marylou Sudders, CEO of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the commonwealth’s former commissioner of mental health, spoke about the current state of children’s mental health services.  “It is still a mess but there are signs of hope,” Sudders said. If mental health is the step-child of the health care system, she said, then “the mental health system for children is the step- step-child.” Too many children, for example, do not have access to services. The 2006 Rosie D federal court decision requiring the state to provide mental health services for Massachusetts children on Medicaid is one sign of hope.

“Mental health has been about treating disorders,” Sudders said. Mental health “starts early. It starts with all of us committing to the mental health and well-being of children,” she added. “It is very hard for public officials to be actively engaged in prevention activities. It is up to us to be the face of prevention.”

The morning sessions ended with Commissioner Sherri Killins of the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care. “This is a really exciting time for early childhood,” she said. “I can’t do it all in education.” The first step, she said, came with the merging of the child care and early education bureaucracies to create the department. The second phase was using the science of early childhood to define quality and establish QRIS. Next is validation. “Did we get it right?” she said. “We need to assess child growth….

“The 2012 challenge is for us to share the responsibility,” the commissioner added. “That’s why this meeting is so important.”

Luncheon speaker Robert H. Dugger, co-founder and advisory board chairman of the Partnership for America’s Economic Success, made the business case for investing in early childhood and challenged the group to flex more political muscle. “I think of myself as a kids-firster,” rather than Democrat or Republican, Dugger, the founder and managing partner of the Hanover Investment Group, told the summit. “Why is it that we don’t succeed? We don’t succeed because we are too passive,” he said.

“None of us are getting younger. Global competition is getting much more intense. You need an educated workforce,” he added. “The business community is recognizing we have to compete.”

Afternoon breakout sessions focused on early education, family supports, at-risk children and families, and coordinating early childhood service and health care services.

“We need to make this a beginning. We need to build a coalition that is sustainable over time,” Dr. Hagan said in his closing remarks. “We will think about the best ways to move this coalition forward.”

Stay tuned for next steps.