“Investing in early education is becoming not a question of ‘if’ or ‘why’, but ‘how?’” These introductory comments by

Photo by Chau Ly courtesy of the Department of Early Education and Care
Photo by Chau Ly courtesy of the Department of Early Education and Care

Albert Wat, senior policy analyst at the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, helped set the stage for the day’s conference, Birth Through Grade 3 Policy Forum: Developing Strategic Pathways to College and Career Success.

More than 250 early educators, K-12 administrators, and community leaders gathered at the DCU center on Friday, May 16, to discuss birth-grade three policy strategies at the local and state levels. Community-wide efforts, collaboration, and shared accountability were among the prominent themes of the day.

The event was sponsored by the Department of Early Education and Care, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the Department of Higher Education, the Readiness Centers Network, and Strategies for Children. A team of representatives from these agencies have been working collaboratively on a shared B-8 agenda since Massachusetts was awarded a grant from the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA) back in June, 2013. Five other states received similar NGA policy academy grants.

Saeyun Lee, senior assistant commissioner at the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education, told attendees, “This event is the result of months of analysis from the NGA team. Today, you will be able to contribute to the state’s birth-grade 3 agenda.” Even though the NGA grant ends in four to five months, the work will be ongoing.

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In a strong symbolic gesture, all three education commissioners appeared at the conference in support of the birth through grade 3 agenda. “The first five years of a child’s life present us with an unprecedented opportunity to impact their development and learning trajectories and set them on a path of success,” said Early Education and Care Commissioner Thomas L. Weber. “A seamless education system that begins at birth and links across all sectors is necessary to ensuring that our children achieve at high levels and succeed throughout their education and careers.”

“Across all three of our education agencies, we are focused on building brainpower,” said Richard M. Freeland, Commissioner of Higher Education. “Too many of our students wind up in remedial courses, which greatly reduces their chance of ever earning a college degree. I am pleased to join my colleagues in supporting new strategies to give younger children tools they need to be successful later in life.”

Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester was particularly enthusiastic about the shared vision of the three commissioners, and highlighted new opportunities in the state budget to expand pre-kindergarten. Commissioner Chester was also cautious about rigidly holding young children to artificial standards. “Even the question of ‘readiness’ can lead us astray,” said Chester. “I’ve never met a young person who isn’t ready to learn. The question is, are we ready for them?” which drew a standing ovation from the crowd.

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Keynote speaker Ralph Smith, managing director for the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading and Senior Vice President of the Annie E. Casey Foundation pushed all in attendance towards a shared accountability for children and communities. “We are propelled by the reality of the achievement gap,” said Smith, and “Our broader goal is to disrupt intergenerational poverty.”

Smith pointed out that even if we had high-quality K-12 schools for all children, three types of children would still struggle: those too far behind at the start of kindergarten, those with chronic absence from school [missing 10 percent or more of the school year], and those lacking summer enrichment and suffering ‘summer learning loss.’

Smith sees community-wide efforts as part of the solution to grade-level reading. “We’ve got to recruit the energy of communities,” said Smith, noting that the work of the Campaign in communities across the country has been greatly informed by the communities in Massachusetts, including Springfield, Holyoke, and Pittsfield among others. Smith closed by reminding the audience that reading proficiency creates a sense of agency in children, and helps them become architects of their own destiny.

L-R, Saeyun Lee, Commissioner Tom Weber, Supt. Sergio Páez, Mayor Alex Morse,         Kristine Hazzard, Dexter Johnson, Amy O'Leary, Jason Sachs. Photo by Chau Ly courtesy of the Department of Early Education and Care.
L-R, Saeyun Lee, Commissioner Tom Weber, Supt. Sergio Páez, Mayor Alex Morse, Kristine Hazzard, Dexter Johnson, Amy O’Leary, Jason Sachs. Photo by Chau Ly courtesy of the Department of Early Education and Care.

Next, Early Education for All Campaign Director Amy O’Leary moderated a panel of local leaders discussing the effective practices they have discovered while engaging in local alignment work. Panelists included Kristine Hazzard, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Berkshire United Way; Dexter Johnson, Senior Vice President of Operations and Education for the YMCA of Greater Springfield; Alex Morse, Mayor of the City of Holyoke; Sergio Páez, Superintendent of the Holyoke Public Schools; and Jason Sachs, Director of Early Childhood Education for the Boston Public Schools.

Panelists remarked how their early literacy campaigns and collaborations grew organically over time and have been reinforced by committed leaders and a sense of shared responsibility. “I’ve seen collaborations that are self-serving. This one is self-less. People don’t ‘check-out’ if there’s no immediate benefit for them or their program,” said Dexter Johnson of the community work in Springfield.

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In the afternoon, conference participants met in breakout sessions to discuss critical issues affecting birth – grade three policy and practice. These included:

After the breakout sessions and group reports, Albert Wat provided a synthesis of the day’s discussions with four important reminders for communities engaged in birth through grade 3 work:

  1. Think about infrastructure for adult capacity. Even though birth – grade 3 efforts are all about the children, to do this work well, sometimes it is all about the adults, their skills, supports, and ongoing professional development.
  2. Think about who is missing from your local effort. Who has a stake? Who has a role in the solution? Develop shared language and coherence among diverse stakeholders.
  3. Have families engaged as community partners. What is the role of families as community leaders?
  4. Plan for sustainability. The work should continue past any one grant, so plan ahead and have those discussions.

Department of Early Education and Care Commissioner Tom Weber concluded the day with a passionate plea to attendees to capitalize on the excellent local conversations that are taking place. “The time is now. We don’t have these conversations enough. Political leaders change, so it’s up to you to keep this working. Get out of your comfort zones, advocate across the boards of education, and work to get your priorities into policy, statute, and budgets. Windows close if you don’t have your foot in the door, so jam your foot in the door.”

After the conference, the challenging work of building birth-third grade supports, programs, and collaborations continues. But as Ralph Smith noted in his keynote speech, “To borrow from Nike, ‘Just Do It.’ Do it well, do it together, do it now.”