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Listening…and learning

[This op-ed originally appeared in the Winston-Salem Journal on March 2, 2017.]

During my years as a pediatrician in Lumberton, I saw thousands of children, along with their parents.

Two lessons from my time examining new babies and diagnosing coughs and ear infections stand out. First, parents are experts in their own children. Second, the most effective pediatricians are the kind who listen before acting.

Though I’m no longer practicing medicine daily, in my new role as the president of the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, I understand we need to listen collectively to the parents in Forsyth County, so that together we can find ways to best prepare children to succeed in school. This listening process is at the heart of Great Expectations — our initiative working to ensure our children begin kindergarten ready to learn and finish set for success in school and life. We’re eager to hear what parents say they need and what they bring to the table, before we prescribe solutions.


We also have to listen to what the whole community needs and take stock of the good work being done by so many for our children. This helps us identify what’s working, spot gaps or redundancies in services, and stimulate solutions.

Too many of our children still enter school not ready to learn. More than half in Forsyth County enter kindergarten at risk for trailing their ready peers in reading. Our students of color have been particularly underserved.

The Trust launched Great Expectations in 2015 to address these challenges. We’re devoting up to $40 million to meet them over the next decade. It’s imperative to understand where investments can make the most significant impact.

So, over the past year, we’ve listened. A lot.

Working with 13 organizations — ranging from individual childcare centers to large public agencies — we conducted interviews with more than 300 parents and caregivers about what they need to help their children succeed. In close partnership with The Forsyth Promise, we’ve worked with more than 35 local organizations to create a comprehensive map of services that affect early childhood development.

Simultaneously, we’re supporting proven ideas, like Novant’s Forsyth Connects, which provides more than 5,000 home visits each year to new moms. At each visit, nurses begin by — you guessed it — listening to new mothers about what they and their families need.

What we’ve learned from this listening process as well as the investments we have made to date is guiding our work forward.

Tuesday, we announced a new round of funding for Great Expectations. We plan to work with the community to improve early childhood health; provide access to and supports for quality childcare; and strengthen a continuum that ensures a child enters each stage of the early childhood system prepared to succeed.

Each of these areas is part of a connected path. For a child to learn and grow, she and her family need access to high quality health services, starting in the prenatal period through the early years.

Families must also have access to quality childcare, whether in a professional daycare setting or an informal family environment. And providers should have the tools and ability to support young children’s learning, so they’re ready to advance into school.

Finally, we are working with community organizations to ensure that services are working together to provide a clear educational pathway. Coordinated, developmentally-appropriate curriculums from one level to the next, along with tools that keep families informed about milestones and progress, will help to create a well-functioning roadmap for student success.

However, just because we’ve launched this new funding doesn’t mean we’ve stopped listening. We’ve now expanded our Forsyth Family Voices initiative — with 25 new organizations beginning an ongoing dialogue with families, to hear about what they think and need.

It’s a continual cycle of investment and improvement.

Doing our job well means that more families will have more opportunities for their children to succeed. That’s good for families, of course. But it’s also good for neighborhoods and schools and businesses across Forsyth County.

Our hearts are open. And so are our ears. 

Learn more about Great Expectations and its 2017 funding announcement.

Dr. Laura Gerald

A pediatrician who was born and raised in rural North Carolina, Dr. Laura Gerald is president of the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust.