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Q&A: Down East Partnership’s Henrietta Zalkind on early childhood Leandro work

Henrietta Zalkind is the executive director of the Down East Partnership for Children, a 25-year nonprofit that provides resources for young children and their families and communities in Nash and Edgecombe counties. The organization also serves as the infrastructure for pre-K in the region.  If you get involved in North Carolina early childhood education, you will inevitably cross paths with Zalkind. She has led the partnership — one of 75 local Smart Start partnerships across the state — since its inception and driven the organization in creating a framework that encompasses the “whole child.” That framework is broken into four “building blocks:” health, early care and education, K-3 environments, and family and community.

Though Zalkind is embedded in a specific region in eastern North Carolina, she has become an expert and advocate for early learning on a statewide platform. In 2018, Zalkind was named the chair of the early childhood education working group on the Governor’s Commission on Access to a Sound Basic Education, which is working to produce recommendations in the historic Leandro case on how to ensure every child in the state has equal educational opportunity. Below, Zalkind talks about her work on the commission, what she hopes will come from that work, and what she’s most excited about as Down East celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. 

Why do you think this commission’s work is important and what does your role on the commission mean to you?

I think that the commission’s work is important because for 20 years we have been struggling to devise a plan to provide every child with a sound basic education in North Carolina, and that the commission has recognized early childhood and 0-8 as the foundation of the education system, and has a workgroup which they asked me to chair around early education, that’s really a paradigm shift. That is a huge advance in thinking about how to really launch every child as a healthy lifelong learner by the end of the third grade.

… I was honored to be able to do it, and that the work of the partnership around building a local system for families and children 0-8 that crossed the kindergarten divide that really focuses on the four big building blocks of early literacy and learning — that that system could inform the process of building out a statewide remedy.

Can you explain why it’s important to have the early childhood system at the table in forming these recommendations?

The decisions, there have been multiple decisions in this case — it’s been up and down to the Supreme Court a couple of times — talk about prospective enrollees and that those are not limited by age. And the remedy that the state has been working on and put forward over the course of the last several years has really been focused on pre-K but expanding that vision to what happens earlier on for all kids and recognizing that the earlier you start in terms of healthy growth and development starting before birth, that’s huge. 

And that the commission is considering a whole child approach, that’s also a huge shift. But I think there’s a real recognition that this case started 20 years ago, more than 20 years ago, and that both the content has shifted, the pedagogy has advanced, and now the parties are trying to define what would be a remedy to provide a sound basic education to all children and have hired WestEd as an expert to work with the commission to come up with a set of recommendations that would then become part of a consent order that would resolve the ongoing school finance case.

But pre-K been for four-year-olds has been one of the big pieces that the state has put out as a piece of the remedy, but the recognition that you have to start earlier than four is great.

How have you balanced thinking outside the box and being innovative (something like an entire new system) with ideas that can fit within current systems and frameworks (like raising pay or having better professional development)?

Well I think we’re still working. These are not the recommendations of the full commission. We are still researching and trying to prioritize the recommendations that the work group will make to the full commission, then work on those with the help of the court-appointed expert. So I think the process will have to be trying to figure out what will be the most powerful, the most feasible, that have the best evidence of getting kids launched as learners by the end of the third grade and then continuing to fund that progress, because not only do kids have to be ready for school but schools have to be ready for kids, and then, it’s not just success at end of third grade, it’s at the end of every grade until they are successfully graduated and moving on to either higher ed or productive employment.

So it’s a process, and we’re in that process right now. But it’s exciting that there is so much agreement about really starting early, taking a whole child approach, focusing on competent, well-compensated teachers, principals, giving enough resources to scale up an effective system and reach all children with a sound basic education.

In the June meeting, you heard a lot of things from a lot of different people — about trauma and ACES, the current landscape of pre-K and Smart Start in the state, the importance of alignment between pre-K and K-12, and funding for early ed teachers and programs. What’s next for the work group/commission?

Right now, at the next meeting, we are going to hear presentations on the Department of Health and Human Services’s Early Childhood Action Plan. What the work group is trying to do is align all of these different efforts that are happening and come up with the recommendations for the full commission, which probably we will be able to do around the beginning of the calendar year.

We are working with the experts who are researching different choices to help inform what we bring forward. And we are going to have to prioritize, and look at what other resources are out there financially. So, it’s a process. Simultaneously, there are other work groups meeting around teachers, principals, finance, accountability. So you’ve got to put all those pieces together, and hopefully by the spring, we will have a set of recommendations from the full commission, and then the parties will have to work out their agreement based on what the commission recommends, the expert recommends, and the parties agree to.

It’s a very thoughtful and I’d have to say practical group of people who have dedicated a tremendous amount of time and energy and expertise to this process on an ongoing basis. I feel really confident that we’ll come out with a set of recommendations that are informed by many many different stakeholder processes … there’s the Pathways, there’s ECAC, there’s the B-3 council. There are multiple different things happening just in early childhood and also in the other work groups.

Again, there are lots of good minds thinking about what makes sense to move the state forward, and so you want to take best thinking in each of those groups and try to put it together into a set of recommendations that will move us forward as a state.

Has there been anything that has surprised you in what you have learned through this process?

Well, pleasantly. I have been really surprised at how, from the very beginning in the first meeting of the commission, how supportive people have been of starting early, that it starts before kindergarten, and that investing in the work that happens before kids actually get to school and recognizing that school readiness and our state definition of school readiness is not only the condition of kids when they enter school but the conditions of schools being ready for all children. I was very glad that I was not even the first person who brought that up at the first meeting.

How does your work in Nash and Edgecombe counties inform your work on the commission?

It helps frame out what we’re thinking about in terms of recommendations and using the sort of four building blocks of early education that we use, and being able to inform where’s the current system, where are the things that need to change in that current system of Smart Start and NC Pre-K, and K-3. So us being involved in that work, having our own strategic plan, being part of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, being part of the Pathways planning process, has helped I think ground the work in what is actually happening day to day and what are both the strengths of the current system but where there needs to be additional investment to be able to both build out the capacity to serve every child and bring the early part of the education system to scale.

DEPC celebrates 25 years this year. What are you most excited about in the coming year in supporting students and families with a strong early learning foundation?

I’m excited that people are seeing the 0-8 developmental period as the foundation of our state’s education system. What keeps me up at night is that we do not have adequate resources for kids either before they get to kindergarten or (in) our early grades, we don’t have near the kind of investment that we need to actually scale that up and reach every child with the kind of resources that they need to be successful.

… On the plus side, I just heard a presentation that you should look at on the Early Childhood Foundation’s website about the huge number of … people that participated in the poll about the support for investing in early education. I’m thrilled at that. This is an intergenerational problem. This is only the first 25 years.

… There’s so many different pieces that have to happen to make this whole system work. Our current context of facing the tax cuts that will mean there’s less revenue available to fund education, that keeps me up at night. But I think we have the component pieces, I think we have the pedagogy, I think we have the political will. We just need to keep moving forward strategically one piece at a time … And I’m glad to be on the commission that can help move that forward.

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.