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Early Childhood Matters in Fort Worth
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Innovation SummaryRecognizing that too many children fail to get a good education, the Fort Worth Library absorbed the city’s Early Childhood Matters program slated for elimination due to budget deficits. The consolidation strengthened the Library’s existing early literacy program by engaging more community partners to take services into the community.
Early Childhood Matters was invented in response to acute needs and the vision of our city. Fort Worth’s public schools report that 40% of children in many neighborhoods enter kindergarten without the skills to succeed. Last year the district spent over $4 million to re-educate kindergarten and 1st grade children who had been retained. Over a quarter of students are in ESL/bilingual programs and 76% are low-income. Fort Worth’s population is 34% Hispanic, 19% African American, and 42% white. Without basic social, emotional, early literacy and critical thinking skills, too many kindergarten children quickly fall behind and never catch up. Over time, they may become discouraged, require additional resources, and drop out of school altogether. These children are robbed of future stability and success, and the city loses out on the competitive labor force its businesses need. Any community needs a literate, educated workforce to thrive. Adults with limited literacy skills are hampered in the workplace and cannot help the children in their care learn to read and prepare for school. In a 2011 nationwide study, Fort Worth ranked 54 out of 75 large cities on an index of literacy indicators, down from 45 in 2005. United Way of Tarrant County recently found that nearly half of all adults read at a “basic” or “below basic” level. Texas ranks 47 out of 50 states in English literacy levels. The City of Fort Worth’s vision states that “Fort Worth’s public schools will produce well-rounded citizens and a skilled workforce.” Among 13 values in the City’s comprehensive plan are “education and economic opportunity; neighborhood vitality; and children and youth.” Children must enter school with the skills they need so the schools can fulfill their role. That’s where Fort Worth Library’s Early Childhood Matters program comes in.
Early childhood is a critical time of life. Eighty-five percent of children’s brains are developed before they are three years old. Children’s chances of success in school and in life are greatly improved when their adult caregivers’ knowledge, skills, and behaviors are based in an understanding of how children grow and learn in the early years. Parents want to raise successful children; they will adopt helpful behaviors when they know what to do and when they have encouragements from their peers, family, neighbors and mentors. Early Childhood Matters (ECM) created a network of early childhood resource centers to support parents and other primary caregivers of children under five years old. ECM is designed and led by a public/private collaboration consisting of high-level staff from business, early education, higher education, charitable organizations, and other health and human services. The collaboration has chosen the six locations for the ECM centers because a high percentage of children entering school in those neighborhoods are unable to pass a kindergarten assessment, and no other programs in those areas were able to meet the need. Each of the neighborhood resource centers also is guided by a neighborhood leadership council. The Early Childhood Matters (ECM) program is grounded in research-based practices developed by Harvard’s Brazelton Touchpoints Center, the American Library Association’s Every Child Ready to Read, PBS’s Ready for Life, and Parents Action for Children’s I Am Your Child program. Activities at the ECM centers include interactive parent education, family literacy, and educational activities for children; programs are offered in participants’ native languages. Other components include: • lending library of materials that support early literacy, • supportive interactions among participants, • consultation with early childhood specialists, • public awareness, • education about health, wellness, and nutrition, and • community engagement of program participants in civic activities.
The program has grown: Early Childhood Matters opened two early childhood resource centers early in 2006 and has grown to the current nine locations offering 18 sessions each week. Over 5,000 families with 8,750 children have attended an average of 15 hours. Each family has taken home a high quality children’s book at the end of each ECM session so there is no excuse for children not being read to daily. Parents and caregivers are learning: Two external evaluation studies conducted in 2007 and 2009 confirmed there have been significant gains among parents in three key areas: Increased practice of behaviors that promote learning Respect for children’s independence Improved practice for discipline of children “The data showed people changing in ways that should provide both short-term and long-term benefits to children in this community.” In addition, 92% of parents say they have learned ways to help their children get ready for school, and that they are more confident in their parenting and better able to guide their children’s behavior in positive ways. The community is supportive: Sixty-five neighborhood leaders meet regularly to support the work of each ECM center. An additional 25 city leaders meet quarterly to guide the project. ECM families are enthusiastic: Testimonials from parents like Jaime and Monica Castro tell the most important part of the story. “We are glad this program exists and that we are taking advantage of it. We are learning a whole lot about our child’s development. Our son Jaime Jr. is only 3 months old. It has become a support system for Jaime Jr. and us. We waited a long time to have a baby and now that we are parents we want to be the best parents we can be and this program can help us reach that goal.”