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Forum Seeks Strategies To Revitalize Early-Childhood Programs

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WASHINGTON--About 300 people in diverse child-serving professions met here last week to hash out a concern they share: how to fix existing aid systems to give young children the best possible shot at success.

Questions raised at the National Forum on State and Community Planning in Early Education and Care ranged from who should be "at the table'' in the planning process to how to muster the "political will'' and funding needed to revitalize systems and not just individual programs.

"This is the first time people working either in communities or states to craft an early-childhood system have ever come together to share strategies,'' said Ellen Galinsky, a co-president of the Families and Work Institute, a New York City-based nonprofit research group. "It's happening state by state and community by community, but now people can see that what they are doing is part of a larger movement.''

The forum was co-sponsored by the institute and the National Association for the Education of Young Children with aid from the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Ford Foundation, and the A.L. Mailman Family Foundation.

The forum, which drew personnel from Head Start and child-care programs, schools, local governments, governors' offices, child-welfare agencies, advocacy and nonprofit groups, and foundations, was also backed by 10 national organizations and the United Way of America.

A resource guide based on participants' descriptions of children's-planning initiatives nationwide was released at the meeting.

Defining 'Quality System'

Joan Lombardi, an early-childhood-policy consultant, noted that the adoption in 1990 of the federal child-care block grant and the national education goal of insuring that all children enter school ready to learn have spurred collaboration among early-years programs.

Sharon Lynn Kagan, a senior associate at the Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy at Yale University, also said experts have made major strides in defining widely accepted criteria for high-caliber early-childhood programs.

The challenge now, she said, is to define "what constitutes a quality system'' to coordinate and finance those efforts.

Forum speakers and participants said such systems should include:

  • A network of part- and full-day child-development services;
  • Comprehensive support to families;
  • A cross-disciplinary focus;
  • Persistent efforts to reach the most needy and at-risk groups;
  • Workers who gain family trust;
  • Manageable worker caseloads;
  • Programs to ease the transition from preschool to school;
  • Meaningful family involvement;
  • Strategies to win public support;
  • Regulation and enforcement;
  • Staff and leadership training;
  • Mechanisms for monitoring, accreditation, and evaluation; and
  • Better data-collection systems.

Barriers the group cited include turf battles, resistance to change, differing professional cultures, and conflicting funding requirements.

Conferees also exchanged ideas on pooling funds from federal, state, and local sources for a more unified and "seamless'' system of help.

But Jule Sugarman, the chairman of the Center on Effective Services for Children, noted that "all the efforts we are making to try to use money to best advantage and work cooperatively still won't solve the problem'' of finding more generous, stable, long-term funding.

Dana Friedman, the other co-president of the Families and Work Institute, warned against relying heavily on business for such help.

Participants noted the critical role child advocates can play in winning legislative support for children's initiatives, regardless of their states' political leadership.

But Louise Stoney, a child-care-policy specialist from Albany, N.Y., warned that too little money and too many turf battles have jeopardized the "united consensus'' that helped get the federal child-care bill passed and spurred "squabbling and fighting for little pieces of the pie.''

Copies of "National Forum on State and Community Planning in Early Education and Care: Community Planning Initiatives,'' are available for $15 from the Families and Work Institute, 330 Seventh Ave., New York, N.Y. 10001.

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