Editorial: An investment in early childhood

May 15, 2017




Gainesville Sun
By Nathan Crabbe

Alachua County will soon see the benefits of making a greater investment in children long before they get to kindergarten — in fact, starting before they’re even born.

Last year, the County Commission created the Children’s Services Advisory Board to determine how to spend about $1.2 million slated for programs from prenatal to age 5. The board came to the commission last week with its recommendations.
One promising program will provide mothers of newborns with a home visit from a nurse within two weeks of delivery. Local hospitals and midwives are collaborating on the effort in a bid to provide virtually every baby born in the county with a visit.

The idea is starting even before birth, when mothers receive a prenatal screening, with helping families get information and recommendations. The nurse’s visit would go further in helping with issues such as lactation, postpartum depression and infant safety and sleep, and connecting families with needed services including a system of mental health support.

Another initiative would provide training and career development to early child care workers throughout the area in partnership with the University of Florida’s Anita Zucker Center For Excellence in Early Childhood Studies. A pilot demonstration site is planned with training and mentoring provided there, with a site in the lower-income neighborhoods served by the Southwest Advocacy Group being proposed.

The benefits of early childhood education and development programs are well established. Research has found that children’s brains grow and develop around 85 percent of their capacity by age 5. Traumatic events happening in a children’s early years can have lifelong consequences.

Providing children with appropriate education and development opportunities before kindergarten helps address problems that can keep them behind in school. Disadvantaged children exposed to early childhood programs have been found to have higher future earnings and better social and health outcomes.

The Sun-sponsored Gainesville For All initiative has made recommendations aimed at developing solutions that address the racial and socioeconomic disparities in our community, including expanding child care options in east Gainesville. A recently announced community grant from UF will fund the Zucker Center’s plans to connect evidence-based research with practices at an east side Early Head Start center.

The programs planned by children’s services board would benefit east side children as well as all children in the community, no matter where they live or their family’s income level. Creating community-wide support is key if the county or children’s advocates decide to put a property tax initiative on the ballot to provide a continuing funding source for these types of programs.

Several counties around Florida have established children’s services councils to fund programs for young children and their families. While the Alachua County Commission has allocated an initial couple years of funding, possible fiscal challenges looming on the horizon warrant considering another funding source in the near future.

The nurse’s home visit program and other efforts will allow local residents to see the benefits of these initiatives firsthand. But the larger impact will come in the long term as the effects of these efforts are seen in helping address social, education and health issues in our county.

Community members with and without young children or plans for them should hope for the success of these programs. Investing in children even before the start of their lives and expanding these efforts in their earliest years has the promise of creating a better educated and healthier community that benefits us all.

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