Early learning panelists say state has ways to go

Indiana has made some progress in improving access to early education opportunities for Hoosier children, but the state still has a ways to go.

That was the consensus in a panel discussion presented by Early Learning Indiana and the Indianapolis Business Journal at the Marriott Indianapolis Downtown on Thursday morning focused on the importance of early education in developing the state’s future workforce.

The discussion featured experts in education and child development: Dr. Paul R. Haut, chief operating officer at Riley Hospital for Children and associate professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine; Aleesia Johnson, superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools; Jason Kloth, president and CEO of Ascend Indiana; Ted Maple, program director of the Education Lilly Endowment Inc.; and Dr. Jennifer Walthall, secretary of the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration.

Titled “How We’re Failing Tomorrow’s Workforce,” the event focused on why quality early education programs, like pre-kindergarten, are vital to developing a strong workforce.

But the panelists agreed that early childhood education is about more than just schooling.

By the time a child reaches 5 years old, brain architecture is largely in place, Haut said. With that in mind, he looks at early learning more broadly and said it needs to include an emphasis on health and wellness.

Toxic stresses children are exposed to early in their development—hunger, abuse, unsanitary living conditions, and a lack of love—will impact them for the rest of their lives, and constant exposure to toxic stress before a child turns 3 keeps nerve cells from developing normally, Haut said.

It’s harder for children who have exposure to such stresses to develop the skills they need to be successful. So ensuring students grow up in a healthy environment is critical in preparing them for school and the workforce, he said.

Walthall said the state FSSA recognizes the impact of those stresses and has several programs in place that focus on the first five years of life.

The OB Navigator program, for example, sopplies a home visitor to pregnant Hoosier mothers on Medicaid who provides in-home guidance and support during the mother’s pregnancy and the first year of her baby’s life.

“The commitment to starting life right, regardless of where you were born, is absolutely fundamental to what state of Indiana is committed to,” Walthall said.

FSSA also manages Paths to Quality, the statewide rating system for early care and education programs. Today, 39 percent of child care centers across the state are ranked Level 1 on Paths to Quality, meaning they meet the health and safety needs of children but don’t address their learning needs. Only 16 percent of centers are rated Level 4, which is the highest rating and means they meet health and safety needs while also providing a learning environment with a planned curriculum.

Child care can’t just provide babysitting if the state is going to develop a skilled workforce, Haut said. So increasing the number of Level 3 and Level 4 centers is vital.

At Indianapolis Public Schools, the city school system has used Title 1 funding to start pre-K programs in several neighborhoods, Johnson said. But the district can’t provide pre-K to every 4-year-old in the city, so government bodies, businesses, schools and not-for-profits will need to work together to make a difference.

Still, Indiana has made headway, the panelists said.

It wasn’t all that many years ago the state had no childcare quality assessment program and no state-funded pre-kindergarten program, Maple said.

Today, Paths to Quality helps parents find quality child care and early learning centers in their communities. The state’s On My Way To Pre-K is a statewide program that provides grants to low-income families to help them enroll their 4-year-olds in high quality pre-K programs.

“Most would agree we’ve made some positive steps in the state,” Maple said. “We shouldn’t take our foot off of the pedal.”

And Kloth argued that shoring up early learning opportunities won’t just help kids. Improving the availability and affordability of quality early learning drives economic development, he said.

In a veiled reference to the city’s Amazon HQ2 bid, he said one company wanted to know how many  high-quality pre-K programs there were in Indianapolis. Having many increases participation in the labor market, he said, because parents know their children are not only safe while they’re at work but also getting the educational footing they need to be successful.

Still, one of the biggest challenges in providing more early childhood learning programs rests on finding a balance between paying pre-school teachers a living wage and making programs affordable for families.

“The financial model of childcare is really a challenge,” Maple said. “It’s hard to pay teachers what they deserve when parents are footing most of the bill.”

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