“No one would contest the fact that society’s first and best way to foster literacy, humanism, and a successful future lies within the opportunities provided for our very youngest citizens.” Ann Goette, Giles Early Education Project
There is ample research on the importance of early education to children, families, and communities. Whether talking about economic development or public health, investing in the very first years of a child’s life provides significant returns to communities in the form of increased productivity, greater ability to attract a talented workforce, and cost savings for special education, incarceration, and other social services. Put simply, investing in early education is a smart strategy for building a thriving community.
In the New River Valley, 65% of children under age five have both parents working, yet we lack enough high-quality childcare options, particularly for infants and toddlers, to support our workforce.
With 1 in 5 NRV children living in poverty, access to affordable care is essential, as are after-school programs and social services that can support families in need.
In late 2015, to better understand how foundation grants could address these challenges, we launched First Steps, an initiative of the Fund for the NRV supporting early childhood education and development. We began by engaging Drs. Robin Lemaire and Donna Sedgwick of Virginia Tech to help us survey over 50 nonprofit agencies, libraries, and public schools, with the goal of understanding how they currently work together, their challenges, and opportunities for collaboration. From this survey, the First Steps Network was born, with dozens of agencies and individuals meeting regularly since May 2016 to develop and pursue three regional priorities:
- Increase knowledge about and access to available services through an early childhood education and development information hub.
- Identify shared values and messaging so agencies can speak with a common voice about the importance of early childhood.
- Support and strengthen the early childhood education and development workforce through professional development, recognition, and compensation.
There are already several organizations focused on these priorities, including Smart Beginnings NRV, New River Community Action, the Davenport Institute at New River Community College, Virginia Quality, and the Alliance for Better Childcare Strategies, among others.
With so much energy and commitment to young children and families, coordination is essential. That’s where the Community Foundation comes in. Gifts made to The Fund for the NRV allow us to convene the network, facilitate communication and cooperation among agencies, and reduce redundancy and competition for resources. Moreover, the Fund provides seed money for collaborative projects developed by the network that will benefit the entire region.
Kim Thomason, local coordinator for Virginia Quality, a statewide system working with childcare centers to improve quality, writes “Virginia Quality values the First Steps Network because it is bringing together community partners who are devoted to identifying and mapping a plan to provide families with an efficient way to access the needed resources to build strong children.”
The First Steps Network is just beginning its work, but already agencies are recognizing the value of cooperation and the Foundation’s commitment to supporting their programs. For more information on First Steps, visit cfnrv.org.