Early Childhood Issues Attract Attention

Kathy Hersh
January 11, 2000

Never had so many people from such diverse backgrounds come together in one place to talk about the future of Miami's children. Under clouds of balloons and banks of television lights, 4,500 parents, educators, nurses, judges, community activists, psychologists and child advocates converged at the Miami Beach Convention Center on September 30 to become better informed about early childhood development and insist that all children, regardless of economic status, have access to quality daycare and adequate health coverage.

The conference was widely publicized, not only in the media but also by posted notices and pamphlets in English, Spanish and Haitian Creole in places certain to reach the general public. Free child care was provided and by mid-morning the nurseries were full.

The upbeat event was organized by David Lawrence, former publisher of The Miami Herald, now head of The Early Childhood Initiative Foundation, and Alex Penelas, Miami-Dade County's young mayor, who brought his two pre-school aged sons onto the stage to underscore his personal commitment to bettering the lives of Dade County's half million children. Scores of county employees were enlisted to assist as facilitators at the event.

The focus was school readiness, part of a state-generated mandate to Florida county governments to improve zero-to-five childhood education. The desire for more information about early childhood is what motivated many parents to attend the summit.

Laura La Porte, 29, a first time mom, saw a flyer at her local grocery and decided to come, leaving one-year-old Nicole in the provided nursery. ? I'm here to learn the best things I can do for her in order to help in her education,? she said,

The summit was the culmination of several months of meetings to produce a "master plan" for improving the status of Miami-Dade's growing number of children living in poverty. The statistics are grim. According to the United Way, 1 out of every 3 children in the county is poor. Seven out of every 10 public elementary school students qualify for free or reduced price school lunches due to low family income. Florida students' standardized test scores consistently rank below average in comparison to other states.

The plan outlines an integrated services approach, focusing on boosting the quality and number of affordable child care centers, and providing a baseline of family services, including health care and abuse prevention. Partnerships with businesses, schools, service providers and faith communities are expected to help ensure that all children aged zero to 5 can start school ready to learn.

For that purpose, four task forces were named, dealing with early childhood and development, child health and well-being, parent and family skills and services, and prevention and intervention of violence, abuse and neglect.

Florida Governor Jeb Bush addressed the summit, pledging state support.

?We are going to fortify family life in our state,? he said, while reminding the crowd that education is one of his top priorities. The state legislature is requiring all Florida counties to form coalitions involving school superintendents, community leaders and the private sector in support of early childhood education. A state board will provide oversight of the coalitions' plans and assign funds.

"These coalitions will have the responsibility for all state dollars used in health and education between prenatal and the age of 5,? says Lawrence. ?Instead of doing a program here and a program there, having control of the money will give us a genuine opportunity to have a holistic plan.?

Miami-Dade's master plan will then be implemented by the task forces.

"Today signifies a new step for our community,? said Penelas. ?Pre-school education is a matter of right, not economic status,? he said to enthusiastic applause.

Even so, there were doubters in the crowd.

?Show me the money,? said Eduardo Diaz, a psychologist and crime prevention advocate.

"The community needs to become aware of the limitations of this process,? said John Due, a long-time civil rights activist with the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Due felt that the communities and parents need to be empowered rather than a group ?selling the commodity of ?readiness'?.

Even David Lawrence voiced a caveat to the audience. ?We are all going to be in a struggle to understand each other.? Given Miami-Dade's ethnic and cultural diversity, this was no understatement.

While the policy-makers and child care professionals congregated in the workshops on funding, business partnerships and agency integration, parents flocked to lectures on parenting and infant intelligence.

Dr. Wil Blechman, a Miami physician and an expert on brain development, lectured to a packed room. ?We have learned more about how the brain works in the past ten years than we have in all previous medical history. Knowledge of the brain will change how we look at education and health.?

Blechman summed up the ongoing nature v. nurture debate in light of recent research. ?The brain is the hardware and its experience of the world is the software.?

?What can I do to help my baby get a good start?? asked a mother during questions and answers. Blechman's answer was swift. ?Love her, hold her and talk to her, just like you would to any other person.?

Other parent workshops focused on family and child care, child safety and school readiness, given in Spanish and Haitian Creole.

The summit was intended to energize the community, as well as inform the public about the initiative, says Lawrence. It is an ambitious plan even for a community not beset with Miami's huge influx of immigrants and its economically disadvantaged African American communities. For years, local agencies have struggled to provide services, competing with other programs, many of them under-funded or dependent upon precarious funding sources. Widespread frustration was vocalized in a workshop intended for family service providers.

?We need a dedicated source of funding for children's programs,? declared one participant from the floor. "Can you tell them that?? she said, referring to the summit organizers.

?There is a lack of a centralized agency to get referrals,? complained Charlotte Shea, a Department of Labor monitor for the YWCA Childcare Network. To make her point, she mentioned vacancies in a Head Start program she monitors. Due to lack of coordination, coveted places are going unfilled.

In the plenary sessions, participants were given the chance to vote electronically on a series of priorities which had been established at previous task force meetings. Although not everyone voted, the message was clear: Give parents more information on effective parenting, extend health coverage to all children living in poverty, and provide first-class training of child care professionals.

?These priorities are the place to start,? says David Lawrence. ?But it doesn't mean we won't move on to other fronts. You can't put out a genuinely holistic plan unless you're willing to work on many fronts.?

?This was well organized and well meaning, but I'm looking to see if we get positive results,? said Sandy Baker Hoover, an elementary school counselor who spends much of her work day in conference with parents, helping them improve their parenting skills. ?This is not an effort than can wait for months and years. We need it now.?

Her sentiments were echoed in a quote by Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral found on a page in the summit's program booklet:

?Many things we need can wait, the child cannot.
Now is the time his bones are being formed,
his blood is being made,
his mind is being developed.
To him we cannot say tomorrow, his name is today.?

Kathy Hersh is a writer and mother of two. She has been honored by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Parenting Publications of America and Miami's Hands in Action Foundation for her media work on education and children's issues.