Building Strong Foundations for the Westside’s Next Generation
Intro by John Ahmann: Thanks to Justin Carr, Director of Partnerships, Westside Future Fund (WFF), for this week’s column. In the spirt of “the more we, the more I can get done,” “We” have no more urgent call to action than ensuring access to highly quality, affordable early learning (birth to age 5) for families living and working in the historic westside neighborhoods. With the financial support of the Cox Foundation, we recently completed a Westside Early Childhood Education Needs Assessment.
Appreciating the criticality of expanding access and affordability, a significant “we,” including the YMCA, GEEARS, and the United Way has already been hard at work. This issue was also an early focus of the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation and it brought together the critical players via the Westside Education Collaborative’s Early-Childhood Education Working Group. Please read the column below for the summary of what we need to do and how of getting this done is a big “We” from providers, to funders, to advocacy organizations, and others. On behalf of the Westside Future Fund, we are committed.
By Justin Carr, Director of Partnerships, Westside Future Fund
As the Westside Future Fund continues to support and accelerate the revitalization of the historic Westside, we remain focused on our long-term vision of “a community that Dr. King would be proud to call home.” We’re convinced that realizing that vision begins with resident retention (i.e., preventing the displacement of residents) and, beyond that, must involve ensuring that everyone in this community has access to opportunity. For adults, this includes training and access to stable, career jobs. For school-aged children, it means the development of critical academic and social-emotional skills, preparing them to graduate high school and pursue positive post-secondary paths. And for the youngest members of the community, children aged 0-5, it means building a strong foundation for learning from the very beginning.
According to the Rollins Center at the Atlanta Speech School:
“The undisputed most powerful predictor in all of child development science…is children’s ability to read proficiently by the end of third grade. High school graduation rates, college graduation rates, employment rates and incarceration rates are all directly tied to this one crucial metric.”
We also know the path to reading proficiency begins with the development of language and literacy skills…from birth. It’s clear that strong early learning is an absolute necessity, and that birth to five is a critical window for shaping a child’s future.
One of the Westside Future Fund’s four key impact areas is Cradle to Career Education. At the “cradle” end of this continuum, an important outcome we seek is: Increased access to high-quality early learning for all families in our target neighborhoods (English Avenue, Vine City, Ashview Heights, and the Atlanta University Center). In working toward this outcome, one of the roles we play is Accelerator, adding resources and momentum to the work being done by others. Earlier this year, the Westside Future Fund helped bring fresh data and insight to inform strategies for improving early learning on the Westside by commissioning a Westside Early Childhood Education Needs Assessment in partnership with the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation. The study was made possible through the generosity of the James M. Cox Foundation, and conducted in collaboration with School Readiness Consulting, leading experts in early childhood education policy, strategy, and evaluation.
Our deep dive into early learning on the Westside consisted of four components:
- A Supply and Demand study involving analysis of data made available through Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students (GEEARS) and the Atlanta Public Schools Office of Early Learning
- A review of the Cultural Context, that is, the characteristics, prevailing wisdom, and shared experiences of historic Westside families
- A “Cost of Care” analysis to develop a realistic and complete picture of the costs associated with early learning and how those costs impact family choice and program capacity, and
- An examination of Workforce Capacity and Program Quality to better understand barriers and opportunities related to professional development and program quality improvement.
We invite you to review the full research report here. A quick sample of the study’s findings include:
- The supply of regulated early learning slots is unevenly distributed between our four target neighborhoods, creating “child care deserts” (places where there are more than three children for every licensed child care slot). This is true in at least two of our target neighborhoods. Overall, the biggest need is for additional slots serving children aged 0-3.
- Child care is not affordable on the Westside. With the median incomes at about $31,000, families would spend 24% of their annual salary on care for their infant, and 45% of their income on care for two children. For context, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services deems child care “affordable” at or below 7% of household income.
- We know that for programs to be high quality and for learning outcomes for young children to be positive and long-lasting, programs must be staffed by professionals who are well-prepared, well-compensated, and well-supported. Opportunities for early learning providers to pursue early childhood degrees, credentials and ongoing professional learning are available. However, a lack of financial support and difficulty navigating the current system are among the factors preventing individuals from accessing these resources.
Overall, this research confirmed that increasing access to high-quality early learning means two things: 1) Increasing the supply and distribution of affordable, accessible slots in early childhood programs throughout the community, and 2) Ensuring that new and existing early learning programs are high-quality, that is, informed by the latest and best research, delivered in a way that is culturally appropriate, and aligned to Georgia’s early learning certification standards.
Now that the study is complete, the question is, “What’s happening next?” The Westside Future Fund team is looking forward to pursuing several of the study’s recommendations in collaboration with leaders from organizations already hard at work on the issue: GEEARS, who is currently leading a city-wide Early Learning Alliance; the YMCA of Metro Atlanta, who is building their new Leadership and Learning Center on the Westside; United Way of Greater Atlanta, who continues to engage caregivers and influence program quality through the Learning Spaces initiative it funds, and other members of the Westside Education Collaborative convened by the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation.
With updated data, Westside-specific insight, and a set of strategies to pursue, we’re excited to play our part in moving things forward. For the children of the historic Westside and across our city, there’s no time to waste.