C-J: Why is this important? Why should people who don't have small children care about this?
Mountjoy: It's not just the right thing to do, it's the smart thing to do. Kids who participate in high-quality, early-childhood experiences require less remediation, they graduate at higher numbers, they are less likely to be involved in the judicial system, they go to college. All of those things which help us build a well-qualified workforce, start at the preschool level. Ninety percent of a child's brain development takes place before that child ever sets foot in kindergarten. Early experiences are incredibly important – being read to and challenged, developmentally appropriate activities. This is not just wishful thinking, this is not just a group of Moms thinking this would be a great thing for kids, it's all scientifically based, the whole idea that you really can help chart a child's future by the quality of experiences he or she has as a very young child.
C-J: You could also chart a state's future by the investment or focus on that. We spoke about some financial obstacles to that, but are there also cultural obstacles to this in Kentucky that are just as tough to deal with?
Mountjoy: I remember when the KERA legislation was passed, early childhood piece of that was included, the responses we heard from a lot of people: the state's trying to take my children out of their home, this is going to put all the private providers out of business, don't you understand that small business is the backbone of the economy of Kentucky. We've been dealing with those issues for a long time.
The bigger issue, really, is access and being able to know about and then enroll in quality programs, and that's not something that everybody's going to want. How can you set up a program that's going to meet the needs of somebody who works third shift? How are you going to set up a system that meets the needs of somebody that doesn't have adequate transportation? How are you going to set up a system that works well for Aunt Fannie who lives down the street and keeps six kids in her home, safe, nurturing, environment? How can we make sure that we get assistance to those people so they know what readiness for kindergarten looks like?
C-J: Those are really hard issues.
Mountjoy: They are hard issues. It's really interesting. I was unaware, until I came to this position that the Save the Children Foundation actually began in Kentucky and they focused on child care.
C-J: Did they consider Kentucky or Appalachia like a Third World area?
Mountjoy: They started there because the challenges were so great. I've met a couple of times with Mark Shriver – of the Kennedy-Shriver family – who works for that foundation and we talked about what they're doing there. Their model is really interesting. They get names of people who might be deemed at-risk, in line for services that can be offered, and then they try to provide training and opportunities for whoever keeps that child. So they may go in and offer some training in a child-care facility, they may make information available to parents or to people that keep small family-style places, and they've built up over the years a real credibility in the area in which they work. Those are models we need to look at. How can we ensure that every single child, wherever their families choose them to be, can take advantage of what we know about important early childhood education and development issues?
C-J: When you look at the numbers for Kentucky, what are the ones that just break your heart, and which ones show that we've made progress?
Mountjoy: The KidsCount stuff just came out in the last week and Kentucky is 41st in environment for children, and it certainly points out a lot of things we need to work on.
I guess the thing that scares you the most are the increasing numbers of children who live in poverty. It's not that their home environments are inherently worse than anybody else's. It's just that quite frequently the parents have so many obligations in trying to put food on the table that they don't have time for other things. Fully a fifth of our children – and in many of our public schools, a fourth or more – have children whose families fall into that category. That means many times those children start out behind and trying to make sure they have an opportunity not just to catch up but stay caught up is really critical. Just things like number of words in a child's vocabulary, the facility of handling books, the kinds of things that many of us take for granted are not a part of these children's experience. Trying to figure out ways to make them more a part of every child's experience is a real challenge...
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
The Courier-Journal recently had Lunch with Helen Mountjoy, part of a continuing series the paper does. Mountjoy is the Education Cabinet Secretary who is co-chairing the Early Childhood Task Force. Here's a snippet from the interview: