Preparing children for a productive life and career doesn't begin in high school or college. Experts say the path to success begins much earlier – before the child even enters school.
But almost half of Kentucky's kids lack quality childcare and learning opportunities to sufficiently prepare them for kindergarten. In fact, some of them may be as much as 18 months behind their peers in possessing vital developmental skills. That late start has a lasting impact on a child's ability to learn and succeed as they move through school and into adult life.
Across the commonwealth, educators and child care advocates are working to improve early learning opportunities for children from birth to five years of age. Those efforts were featured in the program Early Learning: A KET Forum.
Critical Years in the Development of Children
Daycare and preschool aren't just places to park children while their parents are at work. They are critical to helping children learn language, math, and social skills. In fact, a child's brain develops more from birth to age five than at any other time in life. About 90 percent of a child's brain development occurs in those years.
“Their brains are developing at a rate that is just astonishing,” says Jill Jacobi-Vessels, an assistant professor of early childhood education at the University of Louisville. "So we want to make certain that we are providing them with a variety of experiences to help their brains grow.”
Out-of-home care and early learning for the youngest children comes in three basic forms: privately operated daycare businesses, state-funded preschools associated with a school system, and federally funded Head Start programs that promote school readiness for children from low-income families.
But how do you know if a child care option is good for your son or daughter? The state has a five-star rating system to guide parents towards quality options for their children. One-star child-care providers meet basic licensing requirements. The more training and credentials the staff and management have, the more stars the child-care operation can earn.
"Levels three, four, or five, that's where you're starting to get in to teachers who have their degrees," says Linda Hampton, the executive director of the Governor's Office of Early Childhood. "That's where you're starting to get in to directors who have business models in place, who have high levels of professional development."
Early Childhood Options
Here is a sampling of highly-rated child-care programs around the state that were featured on the KET forum:
Early Learning Campus at the University of Louisville
Children should enjoy learning and see it as desirable, says Jacobi-Vessels, who is the director of this five-star facility in Louisville. She says the most important aspect of any program is not how beautiful the building looks, but how the teachers and children interact. She says her staff assesses each child and then develops a lesson plan that's tailored to their interests and skills. When talking with the children, staff will get down on their level and ask them open-ended questions that encourage interaction, communication, and problem-solving.
Creative Minds Academy
“We view each child as strong and capable and, most importantly, deserving of having a voice for their education,” Kaitlyn Shewmaker, co-owner of this five-star program in Lawrenceburg.
Before opening their facility, Shewmaker and fellow co-owner Emily Hatfield say they took time to rethink their approach to early childhood education and how they could better meet the needs of children. At the academy, learning is project-based and led by the kids. If a child is interested in volcanoes, then the teacher encourages that interest and helps the child build their knowledge by encouraging them to think critically. They avoid a cookie-cutter approach, says Shewmaker, because every child has different strengths.
Easterseals West Kentucky Child Development Center
This four-star facility in Paducah serves about 180 kids who may have special development needs or are medically fragile, says Danny Carroll, CEO of Easterseals of West Kentucky. He says his staff has gone from seeing themselves as babysitters to being educators, thanks to a training partnership with the McCracken County Public Schools.
“It has really brought our center up to an entirely different level,” says Carroll. “The quality is so much better, our kids are getting so much more out of their experience, and our teachers are really starting to look at themselves as professionals.”
With locations that span the Ohio River, Children, Inc. serves 1,600 infants, toddlers and young children at multiple early child care centers and preschool programs in northern Kentucky and Cincinnati.
“I love taking folks through our centers so that they can look at a classroom and see how much fun kids are having, and then have a teacher describe what they’re learning and what impact that’s going to have, especially later in life,” says Mike Hammons, senior director of advocacy for the organization.
As a United Way Agency Partner, Children, Inc. also advocates for children and child care issues in Frankfort, offers professional training and development, and publishes music that promotes social and emotional development in kids.
Dayton Independent School District
This Campbell County school system offers five-star preschool and Head Start programs for children from three to five years old. Superintendent Jay Brewer says they focus on helping kids learn to play and make friends, which teaches them a range of useful skills, from taking turns to listening to developing empathy.
“When you lack those skills, and you enter kindergarten without the ability to play and without the ability to make friends, life can get pretty challenging for you on a lot of levels,” says Brewer.
Each week during the school year, teachers select a new book for the children to explore and enjoy during the day. Brewer says that at the end of the week, the children receive a free copy of that book to take home as a way to encourage their families to spend time reading with their kids.
When Brenda Hagan couldn't find good care for her own young children, she started dreaming of what the ideal facility would look like.
“I thought I would have... lower child-to-staff ratios, educated staff with experience and degrees, and then pay them commensurate with their experience and their education,” Hagan says.
Now Hagan operates a five-star facility in Bardstown and a four-star center in Elizabethtown. She says her staff members either have early education credentials or are in training to complete them. Her centers have a 6-to-1 child-to-teacher ratio for 3-year-olds, and an 8-to-1 ratio for 4-year-olds. Crocus Academy has also launched an apprenticeship program for high school students to learn to become early childhood educators. Hagan says the apprenticeship is the first of its kind in the United States.
Click here to see ratings for child-care providers across the commonwealth.
What To Do When Quality Care Isn't Available
Kentucky recently received a $10.6 million federal grant to improve the quality of early childhood education in the state. But access remains an issue in many parts of the commonwealth. Half of Kentuckians live in a child-care desert where there are no providers or there are far more children than available child-care options.
Staff pay is also an issue. Kentucky ranks 36th in the nation in terms of pay for child-care workers. Their median salary is $28,310.
“Yes, we need money in child care – we should be paying our staff and teachers more," says Alice Nelson, a family/community early childhood coordinator for Fayette County Public Schools. “But every single adult can spend time interacting with their child, learning on the go.”
“Parents should know that talk is so important... and having opportunities for interactions between parent and child are critical to brain development,” says Bill Buchanan, an early learning liaison at the Kentucky Department of Education. “It’s all part of ensuring that kids have the skills that they need to be ready for kindergarten.”
Here are some programs available across the state designed to help parents and others provide quality care and learning opportunities for children.
First 5 Lex
An outreach program of the Fayette County Schools, First 5 Lex provides families and caregivers with tips on easy ways to foster learning in young children, especially those from low-income families.
Alice Nelson, who works with the program, says learning opportunities don't have to cost money. She says children can develop math and literacy skills and develop socially and emotionally through even the most mundane activities. Learning opportunities come from playing indoors and out, hands-on experiences with common household objects, riding in a car or bus, reading together, or doing everyday chores.
“All of us can have those interactions that support learning with our young children,” says Nelson.
Louisville Metro Public Health Department
Community Health Manager Mary Jolly says the city offers Healthy Start, a home visitation program for families in West Louisville geared to expectant mothers and those with children up to 18 months. Moms and dads in the program learn about prenatal care and parenting skills for babies.
For new fathers, the health department offers a Daddy Boot Camp.
“They come and they learn about the well child, the sick child, the injured child, the safe child, those things that dad might not know and sometimes mom doesn’t let dad know,” says Jolly. “We want to make sure that they feel empowered when their babies are arriving.”
Located in eastern Kentucky's Floyd County, these academies bring parents and children together to strengthen the bonds between them while enabling kids to experience the fun of learning.
Greta Gilbert attends a Tiny Academy with her 4-year-old son who has special needs.
“The most magical thing is seeing things through new eyes because you see it through his eyes,” says Gilbert of her son’s experiences. “Things that you take for granted, he's seeing for the first time... It helps you bond and understand each other better.”
Available in every county of the commonwealth, Health Access Nurturing Development Services, known as HANDS, provides new and expectant parents with one-on-one training on how to care for a newborn and respond to their needs as they grow. A trained home visitor assesses the child's progress and instructs parents on how to keep their baby safe. They also offer advice on simple activities that parents can do to stimulate their child's brain development.
Payton Marnye says she knew nothing about raising babies when she became pregnant. Thanks to the HANDS program, she says she's learned to be a good parent to her new son.
“I think that’s how it's benefitted him a lot is by showing me how to be a better mom,” says Marnye.
Like Brenda Hagan of the Crocus Academy, some parents decide to take matters in their own hands and launch their own child-care business.
The state once had 1,200 certified homes that provided daycare. June Widman of the Eastern Kentucky Child Care Coalition says that number has dropped to fewer than 250. She says that's contributing to child-care deserts, especially in the Appalachian counties.
“[We’re] looking for ways at how we can bring that profession back into being, and especially in our mountain areas where it used to be a revered status to be that caregiver in the community,” says Widman.
Widman says in-home child care is a great job for a young parent or a grandparent who is newly caring for grandchildren. Her coalition provides information and networking for entrepreneurs considering a child care business.
Early Childhood and Broader Education Policies
Being ready to learn when a child enters school isn't just a factor of what that young student knows and can do. It also involves the school itself.
The Kentucky Department of Education’s Bill Buchanan says teachers and administrators must have the training, knowledge, and resources necessary to support every child who arrives in their classrooms.
Whitney Stevenson, associate director of early childhood education at the Fayette County school district, agrees. She says it's a school's responsibility to be ready for all their students.
“They don't have control over the experiences they have,” says Stevenson. “They come to us as who they are, and we need to take that and then embrace that... and then take them to the next level.”
Early childhood care and education is becoming a bigger focus among state legislators in Frankfort, according to Danny Carroll, who is also a Republican state senator from Paducah. As with the rest of public education, he says funding remains a challenge.
“Education is absolutely one of the very best investments we can make, and I think as a legislature we are acutely aware now that early childhood education is a key component to that,” says Carroll. “I see a bright future, but we definitely have some obstacles in the fiscal needs.”
Dayton Independent Schools Superintendent Jay Brewer says the seeds of greatness exist in every child. He contends that helping young children be the best they can be will also benefit the state as a whole.
“We need to become number one in the nation in early childhood education,” says Brewer. “If we do that, 40 years from now we’ll look back and say we’re number one in a lot of other things because of what we did 40 years ago to become number one in early childhood education.”