Monday, January 30, 2017

Quality Matters in Washington Early Learning: Early Start Act Progress

It has now been more than a year since I came to the Department of Early Learning as its new director, and I am gratified by the successes we’ve had in that time. We met the deadline to enroll all existing subsidy providers into Early Achievers head-on. Nearly all providers required to sign up did so - serving more than 37,000 children under 5, or 98 percent of those served in subsidy in FY 2016. This is an inspirational embrace by the provider community of our quest for quality.

In this past year, we also: 
  • rolled out 12-month eligibility, providing increased stability and peace of mind for children and families; 
  • released a report on culturally responsive professional development to serve as a statewide resource by providing expectations for professional development creation, delivery, and evaluation; and 
  • embarked on a robust community input process to align our family home and center child care regulations. 
Governor Inslee signs the Early Start Act, 2015.
We’ve also taken on the Early Start Act’s charge to make the early learning system more diverse and racially equitable. I’ve dedicated staff and resources to the implementation of a racial equity initiative across the agency, and we’ve worked with partners to innovate new ways of supporting our diverse providers and children.

At DEL, we are the stewards of the public trust and the investment made through the Early Start Act. With that in mind, last year we set out an aspirational goal for the agency and the system to get 90 percent of kids ready for kindergarten by the year 2020, with race and family income no longer predictors of success. 
In the intervening months we have made great progress towards that goal, and have developed clear and coherent next steps to move us further down that path. The two most significant levers in supporting child outcomes that the ESA funded, the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP) and Early Achievers, have begun to yield results.
ECEAP is in 36 of 39 counties in Washington, serving more than 11,300 children each year. In the 2014-15 school year, more than 59 percent of ECEAP four year olds were assessed as ready for kindergarten in the spring – by fall of their kindergarten year that number dropped to 37 percent. While that’s still better than their other low-income peers (we estimate 28 percent are ready) we still need to solve this drop-off problem.

There are two solutions that we believe will nearly eliminate that 18-point drop-off:
  • Provide summer ECEAP programming, and 
  • Address problems with the way dual-language learners are being assessed in kindergarten
Beyond that, we know that we are serving families for whom a 3.5 hour per day program doesn’t fit with their schedule. Many kids who are eligible are not participating, so to reach not only the spirit of preschool entitlement, but the intent as well, we need to provide programming that fits the needs of families by providing full-day and extended-day program options. Read more about DEL's tactics to improve school readiness here: Full Report.

I now have a more nuanced understanding of the strategies needed to leverage the Early Start Act to get kids to kindergarten readiness, and we’re beginning to more clearly see the effect sizes of different investments. 
One reality that has become overwhelmingly clear to me is that while the Early Start Act’s funded services are critical, they are not sufficient. Many of the children DEL serves have complicated needs and face severe challenges. We need more efficient and tighter sequencing of our birth-to-three services and coordination with other agencies that provide for the welfare of children. Only then will we be able to help every child reach their full potential.
In the next year, I look forward to growing our programs and the sophistication of our analysis of them. We are one year closer to achieving our 90% goal and implementing the intent of the Early Start Act, and I remain proud to helm this effort.

Ross Hunter,

Director, Department of Early Learning

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