Group seeks funding for early childhood education council

October 21, 2015




By Erin Jester
The Gainesville Sun

On average, there are about 2,000 days in a child’s life between birth and the first day of kindergarten.

About 90 percent of a child’s critical brain development happens in that same timeframe.

Today, there’s no comprehensive network or program in Alachua County to make sure that each child reaches his or her potential during that time, but a group of early childhood education experts and other supporters are working to get one off the ground.

“The bottom line is, we’ve got students that are not able to succeed in school, and we need to close the academic achievement gap through school readiness,” said Dorothy Benson, a community volunteer who’s helping organize a Children’s Services Council in Alachua County.

Other Florida counties have similar networks, designed to connect agencies and services to reach every child from birth to 5 years old.

Local partners who are already working toward an Alachua County council include the Early Learning Coalition, the University of Florida’s Baby Gator Child Development Centers, UF’s Anita Zucker Center for Excellence in Early Childhood Studies, WellFlorida and Meridian Behavioral Healthcare, along with several private entities and Alachua County Public Schools, which have pledged support.

Benson and the directors of each of those organizations will come before the Board of County Commissioners at 9 a.m. Tuesday to talk about their plan for establishing a local Children’s Services Council and to ask the board to fund it.

The council would serve all children under the age of 5, and provide extra care to children who need it, Benson said.

The plan starts with prenatal care, in which pregnant woman receive information and counseling about how to help children reach their early learning potential.

After the birth of a child, the council would send professionals to visit families in their homes or at pediatrician’s offices to check on the child’s development and provide ongoing school readiness support, along with screening for learning disabilities early, when they’re easier to address.

Other parts of the council would create professional development opportunities for early childhood education providers, increasing the quality of learning for youngsters; expanding subsidized childcare for working families and securing subsidized mental health care for children under 5.

“We can’t wait until children to start K to start supporting them,” Benson said. “We need to start sooner.”

Benson and the group also want the southwest part of the city to have an early learning center, modeled on the Duval Early Learning Academy in east Gainesville.

The center would be a hub for child care and Head Start programs as well as home visiting programs that help parents learn to be their child’s first teacher.

Local agencies have already been working on a plan for a Children’s Services Council for months. Now all that remains is the question of how to fund it.

Benson encouraged anyone with an interest in early childhood education to attend the commission meeting and give feedback. The meeting begins at 9 a.m. Tuesday in the Board of County Commission Chambers, 12 SE First St.

“We have the expertise in the community to do this, now we just need to see if we have the will,” she said.

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