Rallying Local Energy in the Name of N.C. Children
In Halifax County, it is hard to distinguish between the rotting, abandoned shacks on the side of the road and the places some people call home. Down a dirt road lined with crumbling cottages, the only sign of habitation is a rocking horse guarding a front porch and a toy truck parked on a lonely patch of grass.
It is the poorest county in North Carolina, with more than a third of its 16,000 children living in poverty and an infant-mortality rate double the state average. It is rural, and predominantly African-American.
But Alton Anderson, a physician and 14-year resident of Halifax County, talks about the progress here like a proud parent.
Over the past two years, the county has created more than 700 new day-care slots. It has hired a neonatal coordinator to track every birth in the county's only hospital, help set up pediatric appointments for immunizations, and enlist mothers and fathers in parenting classes.
In recent months, Halifax has eliminated the waiting list for low-income 4-year-olds in need of subsidized day care, and set up a comprehensive public-transportation system so that families in remote regions can have access to child care, health care, and other family services.
"This is the greatest amount of change in the interest of families and children in the past six to eight months that I've seen in 14 years," Dr. Anderson said.
The jolt has come from Smart Start, a state initiative that rallies local energy around the cause of children. It ultimately aims to provide high-quality child care, health care, and other critical services to every child in the state under the age of 6.
The brain child of Gov. James B. Hunt Jr., Smart Start is guided by a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization established by the legislature, called the North Carolina Partnership for Children. It allocates money to selected counties that have achieved a mandatory first step: bringing together a broad range of individuals in the interest of children.
The local partnerships then have the freedom to create plans that will serve the specific needs of their community.
A G.O.P.-Style Plan?
In 1993, Halifax became one of 18 counties selected as a Smart Start pioneer. Since then, the state has invested nearly $68 million in the effort and expanded its reach to 32 counties.
Twelve more counties have been targeted for funds starting in the fall, pending legislative approval. In the next several years, state officials hope to give Smart Start grants to all 100 counties, at a yearly cost of $320 million.
Persuading the Republican legislature to continue to increase appropriations for Smart Start has become a matter of some concern, supporters of the initiative say, since the effort is clearly associated with Governor Hunt, a Democrat.
But Smart Start, founded on the concepts of local control, maximum flexibility, and public-private partnerships, has "G.O.P." written all over it, they argue.
Smart Start is not a "program," Governor Hunt said in a recent interview. "'Program' sounds like 'government.'...Smart Start is the best example of communities working together for their children that I know of anywhere in America."
David T. Flaherty Sr., a former Republican official and a current member of the Caldwell County Smart Start Partnership board, backed the Governor at a public hearing late last month.
"Concern for children isn't a Democratic or Republican issue. It's not about politics," he said. "It's about children, and it's about the future of this state."
'Most Exciting State'
Perhaps even more than the rest of the nation, North Carolina has been made well aware of its shortcomings in tending to the needs of young children.
A recent report deploring the quality of the nation's child care found that North Carolina--before Smart Start--had the lowest standards of any of the four states studied. (See Education Week, 2/8/95.)
And according to the March issue of Working Mother magazine, which publishes annually a state-by-state evaluation of child-care quality, a number of states lead North Carolina in developing exemplary programs.
But the magazine's panel of experts also named North Carolina the "most exciting state." As social-service providers and other state officials learn about Smart Start, experts say, it is quickly winning acclaim as a model solution to the national crisis in child care.
Stretching the Dollar
At the White Oak Parent/Child Center in Halifax County, animated preschoolers pile up behind a water fountain, parents walk in and out, and workmen brush the classroom doorways with scarlet paint. What used to be White Oak Elementary School and then an abandoned building is now a busy place in transition.
Smart Start money has been critical to the startup of this community hub that will soon provide services to nearly 150 children under age 5 and their families. The money subsidizes day care for many of the children, pays teacher salaries, and has purchased equipment and supplies.
Smart Start brings with it more than dollars, however.
At this facility, Willie Gilchrist, the superintendent of the Halifax County schools, has put to work some of the school system's maintenance crews. He has also arranged transportation of lunches from a nearby school until the White Oak center builds a kitchen.
Dr. Anderson, who chairs the Halifax Smart Start Partnership, is donating equipment from his medical practice to establish an on-site health center. Several volunteers from the federally financed AmeriCorps program help teachers in the classrooms, as will students from the local community college.
"When the collaboration works, it really stretches the dollar," said John Dornan, the director of public relations for the North Carolina Department of Human Resources.
And collaboration is key: The bylaws of the North Carolina Partnership for Children designate 19 community members who must serve on local boards, including the superintendent of schools, two business leaders, two members of low-income families with preschool children, the president of a local community college, one representative of the religious community, a Head Start representative, the director of the local health department, and so on.
Local partnerships typically launch their efforts with a survey to assess their needs.
In Cumberland County, a less rural area about 100 miles south of here, the vision that emerged from the local partnership's planning was "let's serve children and families where they are," said Rosemarie G. Bullard, the executive director of the Cumberland County group. The vision became, she said: "Let's look at Cumberland County preschool programs. Let's look at Head Start programs. Let's take the resources we have and make them work."
The county, which is home to Fort Bragg and Pope Air Force Base, was selected as a Smart Start pioneer. Since then, it has vastly expanded the capacity of its family-resource and day-care centers, upgraded its standards for facilities, and brought health and training services directly to child-care sites.
And programs that succeeded on a limited scale are finding a place in nearly every child-care or family-resource outpost.
At the Trinity Church day-care center in Fayetteville, for example, a local librarian volunteers her services, reading aloud to a roomful of children as part of the "Read to Me" program. Later, she will model her techniques to the center's staff.
Professional training is often a problem for child-care providers, who sometimes keep children from 6 A.M. until 6 P.M. "So we give it on-site," Ms. Bullard said.
At another location, a nonprofit, Raleigh-based organization called Prevent Blindness is offering vision screenings to toddlers using state-of-the-art NASA equipment.
For $11.65 a child, Smart Start has screened more than 3,000 children in Cumberland County over the past year.
Children with potential problems are referred to local doctors who have volunteered to treat them, regardless of their family's ability to pay.
Across town, Linda Rivers is preparing the United Cerebral Palsy center she directs in Spring Lake for an additional 16 children.
Expansion funds from Smart Start and United Cerebral Palsy will enable her to admit a small number of nondisabled children into her special-needs program, an addition that will benefit all children, Ms. Rivers said.
Encouraging anecdotes about Smart Start are readily found. Concrete results of the efforts, however, will not be available for some time, when teenage-pregnancy and juvenile-crime rates decrease, more families decide to stay together, and students enter the workforce better prepared.
In the meantime, North Carolina communities are working on building momentum and are hoping the legislature will give them the money to keep it going.
"The idea is to get the local people involved," said Billy Waller, who was a manager for a shirt-manufacturing company for 27 years, and now directs a partnership in the counties of Lenoir and Greene.
"You need to let them catch the spirit."