#SmallTalks Gathering Focuses On Common Issues, Need For Unity On Early Childhood

ICS Executive Vice President Joe Waters, at left, moderates a panel discussion at the ICS #SmallTalks event held Feb. 22 in Greenville, South Carolina.

If you were feeling down about national political divisions these days, you should have been at ICS’s #SmallTalks event in Greenville, S.C., the evening of Feb. 22.

National early childhood experts and innovators joined ICS for a panel discussion on how good ideas to improve young children’s lives can truly transcend the partisan divisions of our day. In fact, there’s proof: change is happening for children and families, with support from across the political spectrum.

Katharine Stevens, resident scholar in education policy studies at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington, called early childhood a “little oasis” of bi-partisan cooperation in our country’s political landscape. She and other experts joined ICS Executive Vice President Joe Waters, who moderated the panel, stressing the need to share across disciplines to find better solutions for young children.

The event was held in a room overlooking Greenville—a fast-growing city that’s home base for ICS, with a bustling downtown and gorgeous river-rapids-laden park in the city center. Last fall at ICS’s annual early childhood research symposium, held in Charlotte, a federal official called the Carolinas a hotbed of national innovation in early childhood.

ICS board chairwoman Linda Brees said in opening remarks that she’s pleased with how the organization is expanding national and local dialogue on issues that affect young children and their families. ICS represents “a paradigm shift” in the field, as evidenced by ICS’s work to bring former Gov. Nikki Haley’s administration together with public and private investors to expand the successful Nurse-Family Partnership home visiting program by $30 million across most counties in the state.

“Think about where all of us might be in 20 years if we have not cultivated those services for our children,” she said. “Minds are being changed, and it’s so exciting to be part of thinking about this new way of prioritizing children.”

Indeed, crossing sectors will be the focus of ICS’s first national #SmallTalks early childhood ideas festival, scheduled for Oct. 17-20 in Washington, D.C. (Details at http://smalltalksconf.com.)

On the panel, Betsy Delgado, vice president of mission and education initiatives at Goodwill of Central and Southern Indiana, discussed her work to start the Excel Center high schools for former dropouts in Indianapolis—and how the idea has spread across Indiana and to Washington, D.C., Memphis, and other cities. The high schools provide childcare for students and take an empowerment approach to helping find new successes in their lives, earning impressive graduation rates and helping adults move into the workforce and community college (where most of the graduates who enroll actually complete career certificates or degrees), she said. The programs receive state funding because the work is “politically agnostic,” Delgado said.

Working with students who haven’t succeeded is “95 percent of the time an equity issue,” Delgado said. “We’ve sold our government on it. … This is everybody’s issue, this is everybody’s—not a problem, but an opportunity.” The program also has begun a Nurse-Family Partnership program, modeled in part after South Carolina’s program, she said.

Hassan Brown described his work leading a “community schools” movement in Oakland, Calif. that provides resources for the whole family in one location—including parent training, immigration services, medical clinics, and more. He’s engaging Silicon Valley and San Francisco technology firms and other businesses in the work.

Brown, an ICS board member, community schools manager for the Oakland United School District, and the managing director of the East Bay Asian Youth Center, warned against “complacency” in the early childhood sector, saying leaders need to take advantage of the current interest in these services. “Keep the trains going,” he said.

States and communities must stress “two-generation” solutions “to make sure we’re serving children and the adults in their lives together,” urged Yvette Sanchez Fuentes, former national Head Start director at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under President Obama and now the assistant director for policy at Ascend at Aspen Institute.

She noted that every state’s work to find new solutions in improving early childhood look different but have similar goals. If early childhood leaders and advocates “retreat” to their own specific issues or sectors, then states and communities won’t be able to align the policy, funding, and programs that will make a real difference, she said.

“Helping families and kids,” added Stevens, the scholar at AEI, “that is an equally conservative and liberal idea.” Her biggest worry is “that early childhood would fall victim to this really extraordinary polarization we have in this country.”

For example, Stevens said, research shows that two-parent families really do benefit children, and exploring that issue shouldn’t offend single parents or advocates who work with them.

Early childhood work is such a critical part of our society, Stevens added, that it deserves more rigorous research and greater attention from policymakers in seeking strategies that really work. She’s found in discussing early childhood issues nationally “a common humanity that really rises above the mess that we feel we’re all in.”

-Alan Richard


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