What would you do if you had $250 million to spend on early childhood services?
Linda Gleason, founding director of The Children’s Movement of Fresno, said that question turned out to be a stumper, at least initially, for officials focused on improving the education, health, and well-being of youngsters. But it ultimately helped lead to the organization’s latest report, “Preconception — Age 5 Blueprint for Funding and Advocacy,” which was presented Thursday morning at the eighth annual State of Our Children Breakfast.
The Liberty Ballroom at the Clovis Veterans Memorial District building in Clovis was filled with many of Fresno County’s political, education, health and other leaders as well as representatives of the agencies and nonprofits that provide services for children. About 650 attended the event.
The event serves as The Children’s Movement Fresno’s annual fundraiser, but it’s also the only time that everyone connected with efforts to help make children successful are all in the same room at the same time, Gleason told GV Wire earlier this week.
The keynote speaker was David Lawrence Jr., former publisher of the Miami Herald and founder of The Children’s Movement of Florida, which inspired TCM in Fresno.
Hearing The Call
Gleason noted that Lawrence was the speaker at TCM Fresno’s first breakfast, where the theme was “A Call to Action.”
“I think we can say with certainty that we heard that call,” she told the breakfast attendees. “We have had unwavering dedication, commitment, all so that we can improve the lives of our children in our community.”
Lawrence, who was introduced by former Fresno County Supervisor Susan Anderson, said state and local leaders have to recognize the need for early childhood services and to allocate resources more effectively.
Money is better spent on babies, toddlers, and preschoolers, whose brains are rapidly developing until the age of 3, he said.
He referenced a book by Harvard professor Clayton Christiansen, “Disrupting Class,” who wrote that research shows that starting reforms at kindergarten, let alone elementary, middle or high schools, is too late. “By some estimates, 98% of education spending occurs after the basic intellectual capacities of children have been mostly determined,” Lawrence said.
Almost a third of American schoolchildren start school behind their peers, and some never do catch up, he said. Policymakers also need to consider the impact and challenges of poverty, which affects early childhood development in a number of ways.
Lawrence noted that 40% of Fresno’s kids live in poverty, compared to about 25% for Miami. “If we lose these children, and we are in peril of that, we’ll lose what they might invent or research or discover or give,” he said.
Targeting Younger Kids for Services
There’s been a huge shift in the past 15 years to focus funding for healthcare, education, and other services on children at younger and younger ages — even prenatally — because the impact is greater, Gleason told GV Wire earlier this week.
In Fresno County, $1.3 billion is spent annually on early childhood services, of which a large portion is Medi-Cal, Gleason said.
But even though a lot of time, effort and funding has been devoted, it wasn’t clear which programs are the most successful, and what’s missing, she said. The report identifies home visits, the unavailability of preschool seats in different regions, and quality child care at the hours needed by parents as among the “gap” areas.
Getting Parents Involved
Six hundred parents and service providers in metro and rural areas were surveyed for the report. It turned out that what the providers thought the parents needed or wanted wasn’t always what the parents said they needed, Gleason said.
“That was a really big illumination for all of us,” she said. “We have to be really careful that we’re talking directly to the parents.”
The top request by parents: quality child care, at the hours when parents need it.
The Children’s Movement of Fresno was launched in 2011 to build a network across the agencies that provide services to children and their families, but which had operated independently and separately from each other. Gleason said the network was composed of people she calls the “middles” — the ones responsible for implementing programs, and for making sure they have the desired effect.
But TCM organizers realized after a few years that without also having the leaders on board, the ones with connections to policymakers, “we won’t go anywhere,” she said.
New Network Needed
Former Fresno State President John Welty learned about the national StriveTogether Network, which is focused on helping every child everywhere be successful from birth through schooling and beyond, and he introduced it in Fresno, Gleason said. The result was the founding of Cradle to Career of Fresno County, which provides a forum for leaders in K-12 and post-secondary education, early childhood, local government, health, business, nonprofits, justice, and philanthropy. Gleason is the organization’s executive director.
Cradle to Career provides the link that was previously missing, Jim Yovino, Fresno County Superintendent of Schools, told GV Wire.
“It’s essential in facilitating the conversation about supporting all children from birth to career,” he said. “Those around the C2C table include a variety of organizations representing prenatal care through post-secondary education and employment. Our discussions are not just about our individual goals, but how we can all contribute to the success of children in every stage of life.”
Fresno State President Joseph Castro told GV Wire that the organization has helped tighten the education connections among K-12, community college, and university systems, which he says is “crucial” to student success.
“When our children succeed in life, so does our entire Valley,” he said.
Are Improvements Happening?
Measuring success is also part of the mandate of The Children’s Movement, Gleason said. At a children’s summit in 2013, the decision was made to select one indicator — students reading at grade level — and then measure progress. After five years, schools across Fresno County reported an average 15% improvement in the number of third graders reading at grade level, with some schools reporting a 20% increase, Gleason said.
Part of the improvement could be credited to work at districts like Central Unified, which instituted reading labs at some elementary schools. But researchers also looked at how low birth weights, breastfeeding, prenatal care, and other factors could have an effect.
The data collected and analyzed for TCM’s blueprint report comes at a perfect time. Developers of the DRIVE (Developing the Region’s Inclusive and Vibrant Economy) investment plan for Fresno were the ones who posed the question about how to spend the hypothetical $250 million to help children become successful. Projects are being submitted for consideration in the investment plan, which will be unveiled in November at the California Economic Summit, “Regions Rise Together,” in Fresno.
Creating the networks as well as conditions that enable improvement “has made all the difference in the world,” Gleason said. “That really is reflected in what continues to be referred to as civic infrastructure — and that’s where Fresno really is different.
“We’ve always been able to plan, but can we get it done? That’s where the civic infrastructure is going to be the difference.”