New Mexico picks first early childhood education secretary

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SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico tapped an official with the District of Columbia on Wednesday to lead the state's new Early Childhood Education Department in an effort to improve wellbeing among infants and toddlers and their preparedness for school.

Elizabeth Groginsky is leaving her job in Washington, D.C., as an assistant superintendent of early learning to become New Mexico's first early education Cabinet secretary.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced the appointment Wednesday. Lujan Grisham indicated that she'll press the Legislature in 2020 to spend more on support for early education initiatives through a dedicated investment fund.

The new department brings services currently provided by four different departments under one roof with oversight of home-visiting programs that can start with prenatal counseling, child-care assistance and prekindergarten.

Lawmakers who created the agency worry that children are falling behind in their development before even reaching elementary school, with lifelong consequences. Stakes are high for a state with the highest childhood poverty rate in the American West and the highest level of food insecurity in the nation by federal measures.

"The return on our investment is enormous," Lujan Grisham said. "It quite literally can shift the state's institutional poverty."

The governor's office says that Groginsky administered a $160 million annual budget for early learning programs while in Washington, where the majority of 3- and 4-year-old participate in preschool. Among other job qualifications, Groginsky directed Colorado's Head Start Collaboration Office and has worked on early childhood data-collection projects.

New Mexico's newest agency is expected to be up and running by July 2020.

Describing her approach to the Cabinet position, Groginsky stressed the need for access to higher quality services by working families.

"The first five years are the most critical years of any human being's development," she said. "We have to make sure that there are services available for families who are working and that those early childhood experiences are of the highest quality."

The new agency also will oversee the Families, Infant and Toddler program geared toward lowering risks of developmental delays, including care for babies born to drug-addicted mothers.

Lujan Grisham says she wants the state to do a better job of tracking data from early childhood support programs to help identify effective and ineffective programing.

The state commissioned an "early childhood integrated data system" in 2015 with a $2 million federal grant award that was scheduled for completion this year.

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