AFT leader joins Capitol Hill discussion on pre-K investments

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A sense of urgency was unmistakable when New York State United Teachers Vice President Maria Neira, who is also an AFT vice president, joined lawmakers, government officials, and leaders of education and civic groups for a discussion on preparing Latino students for educational success by investing in strong pre-K programs.

The event, organized by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute and part of a Sept. 30 public policy conference in Washington, D.C., included Res. Comm. Pedro Pierluisi (D-P.R.) and Rep. Albio Sires (D-N.J.), as well as Yvette Sanchez Fuentes, director of the Office of Head Start. The speakers stressed that American leadership in a world economy demands a strong commitment to early education—one that must begin now.

"This is a defining moment in our country," Neira reminded the audience. "In order to make universal access to high-quality early childhood education a reality, lawmakers must engage parents, educators and the wider community to ensure that these programs meet the needs of working families and their children.

"We know that if we are to succeed as a nation, we must ensure that all children are given the tools and supports they need to succeed in school and in life from the time they are born."

The panel discussion also detailed the key elements of high-quality early learning programs, such as having teachers and staff who are highly skilled, well compensated and supported with adequate resources. Other factors that panelists pointed to as vital: A rich curriculum that meets the needs of all children, including dual language learners; small classes; wraparound services that address students' social, health and emotional needs; and systems to evaluate program quality.

Coordination also is a key to success, the panelists emphasized. Systems must link family care with child care centers, child care centers with Head Start, Head Start with pre-K, and pre-K with kindergarten and the early grades. Smooth transitions are essential for children and their families. Other countries do this well because they have designed funding and delivery methods that put meeting the needs of the child and family ahead of everything else. And universal access is critical—high-quality early education programs must be the norm for every child, regardless of their ZIP code.

The discussion also pointed to the research on early learning and Hispanic students. These students, and children who are learning English as a second language, experience the largest academic gains from early childhood education, yet studies show they have the least access to early childhood education programs and are often less prepared for the first day of school than their non-Hispanic peers.

[Cesar Moreno Perez, Mike Rose]

October 2, 2013