Ted’s Talk: Partnerships with a Purpose

On June 7, more than 500 Hoosier business, civic, early childhood, education and political leaders came together at Muncie’s Horizon Convention Center, brought together by Early Learning Indiana, the Indiana Early Learning Advisory Committee, Muncie and Delaware County BY5, and ReadyNation. With a goal of expanding early learning access across the state, those Indiana leaders explored brain research, community coalitions, data-informed practice and many more topics. The event featured a range of speakers, from national figures including former Procter & Gamble CEO John Pepper and University of Pittsburgh professor of neuroscience Dr. Judy Cameron to local representatives of philanthropy, Chambers of Commerce and early childhood practitioners. Early Learning Indiana’s President and CEO, Ted Maple, also spoke at the event, sharing his reflections on our organization’s role as a daily support to more than 900 children and a statewide leader in system-focused work.

These are prepared remarks for a speech given by Ted Maple at the Indiana Summit on Economic Development via Early Learning Coalitions in Muncie, Indiana on June 7, 2016.

photo (9)I am honored to speak with you this morning on behalf of the children, parents and teachers of Early Learning Indiana. Mr. Pepper, thank you for your moving words. I enjoyed listening to you describe your encounter with a kindergarten teacher and her students. That could have been me about 20 years ago. As a fresh-out-of-college kindergarten teacher, I knew children developed at different rates; but I was not prepared for the disparity I saw in the children who entered my classroom. It was clear to me, as well, who had and who hadn’t had the opportunity to attend a good preschool program. Sure, basic academics were an issue. But it seemed some children had not held a pencil or even a crayon, or ever opened a book.

Perhaps most troubling to me in my early years as a kindergarten teacher was the difficult time some of my students had paying attention, following directions and exhibiting self-control. Social skills and executive functions were sorely lacking. Learning to read took a back seat to learning to listen and manage anger. Catching these children up on skills they should have been developing in preschool – earlier than preschool – was a challenge. The window of opportunity for them had been mostly closed.

I may be biased, but I think kindergarten teachers are amazing people. Good teachers can do a lot in a year, but they can’t work magic. They can’t reverse the troubling trajectory of a childhood brought by five years of educational neglect. I felt despair. Even today, there is a child from my teaching years that I think about. His name was Charles. Did I do enough for Charles? Is he OK? I’m sure hundreds of Indiana kindergarten teachers feel this way. I’m sure we all have a child like Charles we wonder about.

We teachers also wonder what might have been had this child’s first five years been different? Why hadn’t he learned what he needed to learn? Who failed him? The parent who didn’t take him to preschool because it would have cost more than rent? The child care provider who makes $8 an hour? The kindergarten teacher that couldn’t work a miracle? The child because of the zip code he was born in? Maybe we all failed him because we had failed to come together and create a solution.

The scary thing is that if we don’t do something soon, our failure to act will leave even more kids behind. In his 2015 book, “Our Kids,” Robert Putnam paints – through statistics and stories – a bleak picture of the future. Putnam’s disheartening thesis is essentially that the opportunity gap is getting worse and starting sooner. He sums up what we see in our own communities: “the disadvantages facing poor kids begin early and run deep, and are firmly established before the kids get to school.”

This problem is very real for Indiana, where – as Mr. Pepper pointed out – about half of our young children are living in or near poverty. Poverty doesn’t mean assured failure, but it certainly correlates. Children in poverty are more likely to experience toxic stress and less likely to have access to the kind of experiences that could mitigate that stress. We simply aren’t doing enough for these kids.

  • Two-thirds of Indiana families need child care, but a good child care or preschool can cost a low-income family up to 42% of its household income.
  • Over 100,000 Hoosier children are enrolled in early childhood programs, but only about 40% of them are in high-quality early childhood programs.
  • There are about 85,000 four-year-olds in Indiana, but only 2,300 attend publicly-funded pre-K through the state’s pre-K pilot program.

We know what works for young children. Especially at-risk children. They have been addressed and will be addressed today. Preschool. Quality child care. Developmental screening. Home visiting programs. While ongoing research will always lead to debate over how to best implement programs, there is little question over what we should do. There is actually less debate now over whether we should do it.

Thanks to people like John Pepper, Tom Kinghorn, Andy Goebel, Kate Lee and Kevin Bain leading the charge; most Hoosiers think we should invest more in early childhood. The focus now is rightly on how.

Partnerships, when purposeful, can be powerful. We have many great examples right here in Indiana.

  • Over 20 early learning coalitions are represented here today. They help plan action, find resources and advocate for children in their community.
  • Local United Ways are working to improve literacy and child care quality. United Way of Central Indiana partners with Child Care Answers, a local child care resource and referral agency, to help family child care homes and unlicensed child care centers improve quality.
  • Businesses in Indianapolis and all over the state are stepping up to contribute funding, volunteers and influence to expand preschool and pre-K in their communities. On My Way Pre-K has been successful in the pilot counties with their help.
  • The Indiana Family and Social Services Administration and Indiana Department of Education work together to tackle issues like data collection, kindergarten assessment and pre-K implementation in schools.
  • Many faith-based organizations are naturally inclined to partner to serve children and families in their communities.

Early Learning Indiana has been fortunate to partner with Eastern Star Church on the east side of Indianapolis, where child poverty is higher than anywhere else in the city. Thanks to this partnership and On My Way Pre-K, we’ve been able to serve a hundred families who wouldn’t have other options were it not for the program and unique collaboration.

IMG_1198Families like Chancellor and Glenn. Chancellor is three. (He’s the little guy in the blue soccer shirt.) He and his father, Glenn, moved to Indianapolis recently. Glenn does odd jobs and is looking for full time work. Glenn and Chancellor received an Indianapolis Preschool Scholarship and now Chancellor attends Day Early Learning at Eastern Star Church where he has blossomed. Chancellor was withdrawn and shy before coming to preschool, but now he is actively learning and socializing with his classmates. The preschool at Eastern Star offers extended hours, making it work for father and son. It’s a big help for the entire family that is trying to make ends meet and provide a strong start for this bright-eyed boy.

Our Day Early Learning center at Eastern Star Church and the other partnerships I mentioned are just some examples of how people and organizations can come together with purpose. Partnerships like these can make a real difference for children and families.

Our path forward must be walked together. Hand in hand with parents and teachers. Together, they can have the biggest impact on children; but their partnership needs strong support from the institutions around them. Schools, early learning programs, social services, businesses, faith-based institutions, philanthropists, community volunteers, and (yes) a little more help from the public sector would be good. Not only do we need to do all we can for children, but we need to do it collectively and in partnership. We need to be “all in” for Indiana children. It is the Indiana way.

I’ve been a Hoosier my whole life. My family hails from Portland, Wabash, Ft. Wayne, Speedway, Muncie, Irvington, Southport, Lawrence, and New Pal. I know a few things about Hoosiers. We have a strong sense of the importance of fairness and equity. Most Hoosiers I know believe in individual empowerment and personal responsibility, given equal opportunity. We also believe in public-private partnership. Solutions don’t reside only in schools or the statehouse. They can also be born in neighborhoods, community centers, congregations, and boardrooms. And they are every day. We Hoosiers believe in strengthening families as well. Say what you will about Indiana. It is a great place to raise a child. I wouldn’t want to raise mine anywhere else. Hoosiers take pride in putting families first.

IMG_1174It would seem to me that Indiana is the perfect place to build a world-class early childhood education system, designed and built by public-private partnerships, that give all families (like Glenn and Chancellor) equal ability to empower their children to be smart, strong, competent – and responsible – citizens that meaningfully contribute to a bright future for our communities and state.

For my fellow dedicated kindergarten teachers who worry about children (like Charles) with a precarious start to school, for early childhood teachers all over the state who give all they have every day despite challenges of their own, and for parents who want nothing but the best for their children and will do all they can to give it to them; we thank you for the work you do in building coalitions to advance early learning in your communities. We hope you will continue to partner with us and each other and be “all in” for Indiana children this year, next year and years to come. Thank you.