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Early Bird

A moment for early learning in North Carolina

'Any system has to shift as the context shifts.'

A Perquimans Central preschooler poses on the playground on pajama day. Liz Bell/EducationNC

I spent the last couple of months getting back on the road, traveling to classrooms and community organizations and reporting on local early childhood issues. Along the way, I also asked educators and local leaders their biggest hopes and concerns for young children in North Carolina.

Then I reached out to statewide and national experts in early childhood policy, advocacy, and research. There were many pandemic lessons learned and issues exposed across learning environments in the first eight years of children’s lives. The last year will inform how we address major challenges ahead — teacher shortages, drops in enrollment, longstanding financing issues, and inequities in access and quality.

How will the pandemic shape early learning in North Carolina?

“Any system has to shift as the context shifts,” said Henrietta Zalkind, executive director of the Down East Partnership for Children, the local Smart Start partnership serving children and families in Edgecombe and Nash counties. This is an important moment for the state, Zalkind said, with many moving pieces: federal relief funds and early childhood proposals, early childhood recommendations in the Leandro lawsuit, and state efforts to create a learning continuum that boosts stagnant reading proficiency.

“We have to look at those pieces of the puzzle,” she said, “but we have to look at it through an equity lens — and not on a really academic conversation — we have to look at it through a lens that a parent looks at it through: ‘What do I need to have my child be successful?'”

Increasing pay, benefits, and respect for early childhood teachers is key to answering that question, experts said. The pandemic brought differences in expectations and treatment of early educators in different settings and age groups, said Iheoma Iruka, research professor of public policy and the founding director of the Equity Research Action Coalition at Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill.

“We need to create a unified workforce system that recognizes that early education teachers can work in whatever settings, and can teach whatever age group, but at the minimum, we should expect a level of a wage and benefit that is commensurate with how we believe that early childhood education matters,” Iruka said. “If you believe that the first 1,000 days is so important, but then you pay a teacher basically $10 an hour, that tells me you don’t believe that.”

The past year underscored the importance of early care and education, experts said, for children’s learning, families’ economic participation and health, and the state’s pandemic recovery. Read on for stories and insights from Polk to Pitt counties.

And go here for EdNC’s entire special report, “2020-21 Lesson/Plan,” with deep dives into trends along the state’s educational continuum.

Below, I’ve got legislative updates, engaging perspectives, and lots of national early childhood news. Thanks for reading and for all you do for our youngest learners.

Early Bird reads: What we’re writing

How will the pandemic shape early learning in North Carolina?

From supporting educators across the early learning continuum to rethinking the dichotomy between care and education, here are the post-pandemic trends and challenges facing North Carolina.

‘We believe child care is essential here.’ — A conversation with Rebecca Planchard of DHHS

Analisa Sorrells, EdNC’s chief of staff and associate director of policy, spoke with Rebecca Planchard, who worked between state agencies to coordinate the state’s K-12 pandemic response. Planchard is also a senior early childhood policy advisor at the state’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). From their conversation:

“We are seeing just so plainly how essential child care is and how, right now, without ongoing infrastructural support, the system is not sustainable. And that has everything to do with salaries being too low and public funding not being enough.”

What will the American Rescue Plan mean for North Carolina child care?

In case you missed it in the last Early Bird, I spoke with DHHS Chief Deputy Secretary Susan Perry on how the department plans to spend the $1.3 billion in federal relief funds coming its way. From continuing the stabilization of child care providers experiencing pandemic-related costs and declined enrollment to investing in the teacher workforce, here are the state’s initial plans.

Your take, for goodness sake: EdNC perspectives

Perspective | For too many infants and toddlers, a slow start

EdNC Vice Chairman Ferrel Guillory explores Zero to Three’s 2021 State of Babies Yearbook, which ranks states on policies that support the wellbeing of infants and toddlers.

The report says the state performs better than national averages on:

  • Babies receiving recommended vaccinations and receiving preventive dental care
  • Babies living in crowded housing and unsafe neighborhoods
  • Parents who read to a child every day.

North Carolina performs worse than national averages on:

  • Infant mortality
  • Babies experiencing food insecurity
  • Infant care costs as a percentage of the state’s median income for single and married parents

Guillory writes: “North Carolina had once earned a reputation as a national leader in addressing childhood issues — with such complementary and interlocking initiatives as Smart Start, NC Pre-K, child care subsidies, early intervention services, Head Start and Early Head Start, and a rating system that has driven up the quality of child care providers. At issue now is whether North Carolina will move ahead anew into the top tier.”

Perspective | What stands out to you from what these parents of young children had to say?

Mary Mathew, the collaboration and policy leader at the NC Early Childhood Foundation, invites us to spend time with a recent report on parent and caregiver experiences with the state’s social and emotional health ecosystem. NCECF hopes the report’s insights, which include qualitative data from surveys and interviews of more than 200 parents and caregivers, will shape state-level early childhood systems planning.

Mathew says: “Surveys, interviews, and quotes in a report are not the answer to centering family voices. They are a start. What’s more important are the presence and leadership of parents and caregivers in the rooms where decisions are being made, from the beginning. And, if appropriate, being invited into parents’ rooms, spaces, and communities to listen and learn, particularly from families of color whose voices have historically not been heard or valued.”

In other early learning news: What I’m reading

The Power of Pre-K - From The New York Times

Research & Resources: Let's talk child care buildings

Early care and education providers continue to be stretched thin financially as enrollment has yet to return to pre-pandemic levels.

A new issue brief highlights a financial need of many providers that — in a sea of needs — might not be on states’ radars: facilities and physical spaces. The brief, from the National Children’s Facilities Network along with several early childhood policy organizations, provides guidance on how state policymakers can use different federal relief streams to ensure safe and high-quality learning environments for children.

In an NAEYC survey, 37% of centers and 30% of home-based providers were dealing with additional facility-related expenses, from creating new outdoor spaces to purchasing sanitization equipment and improving ventilation systems.

The brief points out that these facility concerns disproportionately affect providers of color: “These business owners, and especially women of color, are more likely to be declined for loans to improve their businesses, and to receive smaller loans and pay higher interest rates than white-owned businesses. In addition to the impact of these inequities on the stability, security, and financial health and well-being of business owners and early childhood educators, they also result in fewer children, especially in communities served by providers of color, having access to the benefits of facilities that support high quality child care.”

Read more for how policymakers and officials can leverage federal relief dollars across different settings to help address these inequities.

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.