Partnership Forum — Tampa

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The text of a speech given by David Lawrence Jr., the president of The Early Childhood Initiative Foundation, “Creating a Movement for Change in Early Childhood Education” for the Partnership Forum in Tampa on Feb. 4, 2002.

Thank you, Katherine. All of us should feel fortunate to have someone at our side so knowledgeable, caring and effective as Katherine Kamiya. The children of Florida are superbly served by her.

This morning I do not want to spend a great hunk of time convincing you of the imperative for “school readiness” embracing the highest quality early childhood care, development and education. You are the already “converted,” and I respect your contributions so very deeply. Many of you know more than I do. Indeed, I can learn much from so many of you.

Katherine gave me this topic for today: “Creating a movement for change in early childhood education.” That leads me to three questions, and subsequently some answers:

  1. 1. How I got involved in all this and why I believe so strongly in this?
  2. 2. What does Katherine Kamiya mean when she talks about a “movement”?
  3. 3. Why are some coalitions more successful than others, and what are the lessons for all of us?

Some of you know that I became involved in this topic back in 1996 when then Gov. Lawton Chiles asked me to be a member of the Governor’s Commission on Education, a two-year mandate to look at a half-dozen key facets of education speaking to the future of Florida. Somehow, I was hustled into chairing a committee called “Readiness.” Quite honestly, I knew almost nothing about the subject. (I, the father of five, have come to find out that our children were raised according to the “principles” of “readiness” — that is, the right blend of health and education and nurturing – but back then, I could have articulated none of this. Today I am less ignorant but still learning.)

I came to learn much about what was genuinely crucial for the future of children and for the future of Florida, so much so that I ultimately decided to retire after 35 years of newspapering and work fulltime on matters of “readiness.”

Out of the Readiness Committee and the Governor’s Commission on Education came recommendations that eventually led to the passage in 1999 of the School Readiness Act. The other day I looked back at the text of a speech I gave to the Governor’s Children Summit four years ago this month. In that speech I said this, and I quote:

“Many of you already know what the Readiness Committee has proposed, and the Governor’s Commission on Education passed — without a single dissent. We call our initiative Children First — a specific set of recommendations to advance the well-being of children under age 5. We proposed real attention at the highest levels of state, beginning with a Children First Governing Board, which would include the governor, the commissioner of education, legislative leaders and top leaders in the private sector. We also proposed a Children First Coordinating Council — agency heads who would meet as often as monthly to carry out the policies in a coordinated, holistic way, and not the way we frequently do things now. And — knowing that this will only work in public and private partnership — we proposed legislation that would provide incentive dollars for each of Florida’s 67 counties to do strategic planning leading toward full Children First partnerships in each county involving nonprofits, the school system, houses of worship, parents, indeed all the caring sectors of the community.”

That’s what I said then. What eventually was passed turned out to be not so straightforward — or, for that matter, as potentially and powerfully valuable — as what was enacted. That should surprise no one who knows anything about the world of lawmaking. (You might remember the old saying about the two things you never want to see made — sausage and legislation.) What, in fact, we ended up with in the State of Florida vis-à-vis “school readiness” turned out to be a mix of things somewhat less potent than some of us would have would have liked. But it is what we have, and something we can work with — and, yes, something we should and must make work. It does provide the framework for public and private partnership, and ours is a mission that can only be achieved if we embrace both.

That legislation has led to what we now know as the “Florida Partnership for School Readiness” and 57 “School Readiness Coalitions.” To this point we have had fewer dollars than many of us anticipated, and less attention than this matter of “readiness” deserves. But I want to acknowledge at this point that I am encouraged by the Governor’s increasing interest in “school readiness” as a vital driver of public school progress. Further tangible evidence of that commitment from Jeb Bush and Frank Brogan will come later this week, I am told by “reliable sources,” with an announcement of a commitment to serve even more children. Especially in these challenging times, I appreciate that commitment, and we can all applaud that. It’s another important step in building a foundation for a stronger future for the children of our state.

I pause to note that I am a registered “independent” and have been so for years. My comments are not partisan in any political way. But I do fully acknowledge my partisanship in behalf of children. It is in that spirit, then, that I ask the Governor and the Legislature to make sure that we do not lose what we are in danger of losing – that is, incentives for high-quality child care. We know from significant national research that high quality makes the essential difference in the early childhood years. While I do see a clear emphasis on education in Tallahassee, I continue to see too sparse legislative appreciation of how powerful “school readiness,” built from the highest quality basics, could be as a catalyst of genuine “education reform.” Money is not the answer to everything, but we are going to need to invest more public dollars – and, yes, private dollars – in the youngest , most crucial years of Florida’s children. For those who would remind me of the financial consequences of September 11, I want them to know that this “day of infamy” underscores my fully American sense that we need to give everyone a full chance to be successful in our country, and that begins with every child and every family. We must be tough enough and wise enough to afford quality for all. Who among us doubts that the most powerful educational “reform” that we could achieve — the biggest service we could possibly do for public education in America — would be getting children, prenatal to age 5, in far better shape than so many are? Abolish those images of tiny children — 3 year olds — in tiny desks with a towering teacher at the blackboard. Imagine instead our youngest children learning in a fuller, different context. Let us focus our energies on “teachable moments” in a child’s earliest and most crucial years. And let us remember, first and foremost, that the first and most vital teachers must be parents, and we have every obligation to support them in this, their most important mission.

Meantime, I see many in power — many politicians and even some educational administrators — giving a warm, patronizing “pat on the head” to early childhood education and development. I see public school systems in some counties, faced with tough financial challenges, opting out of high-quality pre-K commitments, and I see that as wrongheaded and shortsighted. I see a great divide and disconnect between K-12 and the years before then, and too many public school administrators — not in my county, I hope and believe – failing to insist on what their own first grade teachers know would be good for the future of their students. The state’s sensible thought is to focus schools on their core mission, but that has only been defined as K-12, which runs counter to the recommendations of the Education Commission of the States as well as common sense. No one here needs to be reminded — but I will anyway! – that the extensive brain research of the past decade tells of the crucial educational moments of the first several years of a child’s life and the critical necessity for full linkage to the later school years. (And while I believe that “school readiness” is inextricably tied to the full span of education, I want to note my full respect for the leadership and staff of the Agency for Workforce Innovation. Though I would have recommended a Department of Education home and responsibility beginning with pre-school, I do believe we can make this work with AWI, too.)

First-grade teachers know who’s ready, and who is not, for first grade. They know the difference it makes when a child is ready — emotionally, physically, socially and intellectually. They yearn, as do I, for a significant investment in the years before kindergarten. They are well aware, beginning with their own personal classroom experience, of last year’s national study of kindergarten, showing that a quarter of “beginning kindergartners…(are) eager to learn no more than sometimes or never, and (a third) paying attention in class (with) similar frequency.”

These teachers know so well the frequent tragedy of the first grader who already feels like a failure. At this very moment — just think of it — there are tens of thousands of those children in Florida’s first grade classrooms. Their teachers are well aware of the American Reading Association study that told us that if a hundred children leave first grade unable really to read, then 88 of them will still be lousy readers after the fourth grade. Wonderful teachers will try to save these children; inevitably, many will not be saved. These failures must be unacceptable in a country of our greatness and goodness. We must ensure the investment that will bring these children in far better shape to first grade.

Yes, these teachers would love smaller class sizes. So would I. But the best teachers know that class size, while important, is not the everything that many think it is. Rather it is the “readiness” of the children in the classroom. (Let’s assume for a moment that you are a first grade teacher. You have 25 children in your classroom. Using our state’s “average” of perhaps 30 percent of the children not really ready for first grade, then eight of those 25 children are in significant deficit. What you have here is not only a teaching problem, but a management challenge. What percentage of time do you as a teacher spend with 17 children? What percentage with those eight? Who gets shortchanged? Everyone, I’d say. Personally, as a teacher, I’d rather have 30 children, of whom, say, just two are in significant deficit.)

And, of course, the figures I gave you are simply the “average.” Just recently, I spoke with the first-rate principal of Riverside Elementary School, just south of downtown Miami. “What percentage of your students enter first grade not really ready?” I asked her. “Eighty percent was her answer.” Riverside Elementary is, ladies and gentlemen, not a rare exception in our state.

We would burn out far fewer teachers if we delivered to first grade far more children eager and ready to learn. That we do not is not the fault of these children, but rather our fault and, more important, our responsibility. I note here that whatever we do in “readiness” ought to be measurable and accountable. That means that we need to pay for performance that delivers the desired outcomes.

Our failure to invest in children and families inevitably leads to children who become the catalysts for crime, children who cannot get along, young people who never really learn to read. We fail even though extensive research tell us that a dollar spent wisely up front saves an estimated seven dollars later. Think of the prisons we wouldn’t need to erect, the prosecutors and police we wouldn’t need to employ, the neighborhood walls we wouldn’t need to build. When I say “wisely,” know that I am talking about comprehensive, intensive, highest quality services and not the “warehousing” called child care that too many children now get.

If Florida’s communities are to be places of ultimate wisdom as well as decency, we will be obliged to make the basics available to every child. Surely all children — rich and poor, and in-between — deserve the same start in life. Surely it is in each community’s advantage for all children to get off to a good start in school and life. And that brings me to my second point — that is, building a “movement.”

When you think of the lessons of history, when you think of “movements,” what comes quickly to mind? Maybe the Civil Rights Movement. Or the Feminist Movement. Both of those movements, in their earliest moments, were marginalized by others. And frequently ridiculed. And oppressed every chance some people got. Eventually, when most people came to understand that these were movements that spoke to every person and an American sense of “fairness,” they came to be part of the accepted foundation of this country. I well recall that back in the Sixties, those in the Feminist Movement were mocked as “bra burners” and “silly.” Those who spoke up for women’s rights were seen as “radical,” just as women a half-century earlier were mocked for their support of a woman’s right to vote. Today, it cannot be coincidental that half the seats, or more, in most law and medical school classrooms are occupied by women. This progress is a direct consequence of the struggle for women’s rights and the Feminist Movement. That movement is, in fact, about standing up for everyone’s rights in our country. Likewise, the Civil Rights Movement was not just about African Americans, but about everyone.

Let me use kindergarten as an example of a “movement”:

I frequently ask audiences to guess when kindergarten began, and usually I hear back that it was 40 or 50 years ago. In fact, kindergarten was “invented” in 1837, and came in this country a century and a half ago. Taking more than a century to be genuinely widespread, kindergarten was frequently fought as unnecessary and, even, “anti-family.” For decades, kindergarten was seen as mostly for society’s worst off and society’s best off. Only when it became a “movement” in behalf of everyone’s child did it become a full reality. Today, a high-quality kindergarten experience for all children has become an expectation on the part of every parent of every 5 year old. Kindergarten is still not “mandatory” in our state, but is there a parent of a 5-year-old today who wants anything less than a high-quality kindergarten-like experience for that child?

We can never build a real movement for “school readiness” unless we do so for everyone’s child — poor, rich and in-between.

The letter I quote now is telling on this topic. The letter that came to me was from a woman named Monica Serra, a resident of Miami Beach. “I am a single mother with two children,” she wrote. “My older son is 7 years old and in the second grade. My younger son will turn 4 on Jan. 5. I wanted my youngest son to start pre-kindergarten. At Biscayne Elementary I got the application to a program called Head Start. This program is for children 3 to 5 years old. I went to the interview, and I was denied. They told me I made too much money. I’m really upset…. My annual income is $23,500.”

Mrs. Serra might not fit the federal definition of poverty, might not fit Head Start poverty guidelines, but $23,500 and two children leaves her a great distance from middle-class existence. Here, then, is a working parent — like so many others — who wants to do right by her children, and the so-called “system” has no room for her children. They lose. So do we all.

I am no “radical.” If your family, or my own, can afford to pay for basic and quality services, then we should. But if your family cannot, or your neighbor cannot, then it is in the community’s interest, our interest, to make available those basic and quality services.

Mrs. Serra’s children need all the quality early care and education that your children and my own need: Love and nurturing. All their shots. Real relationships with medical caregivers, not the emergency room as basic medical care. Excellent nutrition. The fullest opportunity to be safe. Stimulating early care and education experiences. Child care that engages the mind, not the “warehousing” that most children receive.

How can we Floridians afford to do anything less than commit to every child and every parent that we are prepared to devote the resources, in public and private partnership, that will give every child the chance to be truly ready for school and for life?

In behalf of everyone’s child and the future of Florida, we cannot afford to wait decades for the early childhood movement to flower. It is yours and my obligation to see what progress we can make this year, and next, and the year after. Too many of Florida’s families are in crisis. They need us, and their children need us, and they need us now.

Some powerful people in Tallahassee say, “If we make high-quality pre-K available for all children, it will be an “entitlement.” Omigosh, how terrible! Oh, that ugly word, “entitlement”! But are not children, all children, “entitled” to high-quality basics? If the Lawrence family wanted to send its five children to a high-quality private Montessori program, as we did, I would never ask the state to pay for it. What I do ask is for a full range of high-quality, affordable programs available for every parent.

You say to me: It is so difficult. How could it possibly be done? You tell me about the political climate. You tell me about “turf protection.” You tell me about the lack of money. And I tell you about the lack of will. Your ferocious will to make high quality happen for every child is simply crucial.

I give you the recent words of this country’s best known political columnist, David Broder of The Washington Post: “There are problems we do not know how to solve,” he wrote, “but this is not one of them. The evidence that high-quality education beginning at age 3 or 4 will pay lifetime dividends is overwhelming. The only question,” Mr. Broder concluded, “is whether we will make the needed investment.”

We simply must.

So let us now turn to my third and final topic: Why are some coalitions more successful than others, and what are the lessons for all of us?

I am going to use the Miami-Dade School Readiness Coalition as example, while quickly telling you that we have a long way to go and much to learn from others. But it is the coalition that I know the best.

Those of us on the Miami-Dade coalition believe that we have succeeded to the extent we have because we have fulfilled some basics that would work anywhere. In small counties and big.

For those of you who might be tempted to remind me that we in Miami-Dade say grace over more money than anywhere else, I remind you that we also have more challenges than anywhere else. I live in a community of 2.2 million people, a community larger than 16 states in the Union and laced with all the challenges of great poverty and major cultural differences. In any event I share with you seven pieces of wisdom built from experience and “scar tissue” and, most of all, vision:

  1. 1. We have built a shared community vision for “school readiness,” a vision about everyone’s child – all the while recognizing that those most disadvantaged will need, and should get, more help. We seek high quality for all. We talk about everyone all the time. We never talk about “other people’s children,” or “those children.” Rather we talk about “all children.” That vision frames everything and embraces everyone. Our community effort for evangelical conversion to the imperative of “school readiness” goes on every single day. We are constantly seeking real leadership and real champions for this cause. We built a shared vision through three major community meetings, followed by 2 ½ days of strategic planning, followed by 21 neighborhood forums for parents, followed by a Mayor’s Children’s Summit attended by 4,500 people, and the announcement of four major task forces. And much more.
  2. 2. We have set strategic goals for high-quality child care, for health insurance for all children and for much more. We know that achieving such goals cannot depend solely on more public funding. We know that we must have significant private support. So we have gone out, shared our vision, and raised real money.
  3. 3. We have a fully professional staff. Any coalition with the leadership of Chuck Hood and Warren Eldridge has a strong running start. One of them brings strong business thinking; the other a real understanding of the state bureaucracy and how public dollars flow. Both bring a passion and compassion for helping children to be successful. Our coalition’s seven staff members keep watch over $120 million in public tax dollars and services reaching a community where 31,000 children are born every year, in a community where 26,000 children are served in subsidized child care and 4,500 in pre-K early intervention. I further believe that every coalition is entitled to have enough dollars to pay for the professional staff it needs for the money it manages and the children it serves.
  4. 4. We do not ask board members to operate as staff. They don’t have the time, and often they do not have the expertise. Instead, we have found ways for them to learn and contribute that builds upon their talents and what time they can share. Private sector leaders like Pat Johnson and Bob Kelly, both of whom are with us today, remain interested and involved because they truly think the children of this community will benefit from what we are building together. The four task forces now report to the coalition, and each is packed with people of different perspectives and expertise and a commitment to children.
  5. 5. We work hard to dovetail the work of the coalition with other initiatives. One size doesn’t fit all in my community, or yours. We are not a “threat” to other efforts; we are a partner. We have set a tone that keeps people playing and not opting to “take their marbles and go home.” People want to participate, because they anticipate something is happening that they want, and need, to be a part of.
  6. 6. There is no “children’s czar” in our community, nor will there be. Collaboration is central to everything we want to do.
  7. 7. We have built political support, led by Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas. Most significantly, he is leading the way toward a statewide vote next November on a constitutional amendment that would make high-quality pre-K available, but not mandatory, to all parents of 4 year olds in Florida. (Georgia does this; couldn’t we?) Beyond that, we also are headed to the ballot, in our own community, toward a dedicated funding source for children (something already achieved in seven other Florida counties). We are involving county commissioners as well as key legislators such as Ron Silver in the Senate and Gus Barreiro in the House.

So what are we doing more specifically in Miami-Dade County, in full collaboration with our local School Readiness Coalition:

Last fall, we launched a major, years-long campaign for public awareness on this topic, a broadcast-print-and-website approach. That campaign’s first target is parents and caregivers who can call — in English, Spanish or Creole — any hour of the day or night for information that ranges from: “My child has been crying for hours; what should I do?” to “How do I find really good child care that I can afford?” (I encourage you to take a look at the Teach More/Love More website, accessible via It will give you a fuller sense of what’s going on.)

Being great believers in working with others, we have built partnerships with 14 birthing hospitals, 5 birthing centers, 38 neighborhood clinics, and 39 community libraries. Today every new parent in our community receives the preview issue of an 11-times-year parent skill-building newsletter…information about how to connect the child to health insurance…a high-quality baby book accompanied by a message about the importance of reading to the children from the earliest months…a temporary library card that can be turned in for a permanent card and a round-trip bus pass to the nearest library. Everything for free; everything in three languages: English, Spanish and Creole. Meanwhile, every expectant mother, in the second trimester of her pregnancy, receives the first of six videos — in three languages — in a partnership with the I Am Your Child Foundation. Those are only a few of the steps we are taking to reach all children, all families. I offer today to share anything and everything with you without a penny of “profit” for us.

We also have launched a major effort to strengthen a “family literacy coalition” in Miami-Dade because we believe that parents must be their child’s first and best teacher. Toward that goal eight of us tomorrow will travel to Louisville to meet with the folks at the National Center for Family Literacy. In building a strengthened coalition, we are involving a great number of significant community institutions, including the school system, pediatricians, the health department and, most of all, parents in behalf of their own children.

We have just received one of eight Kellogg Foundation planning grants nationwide to work in two of our community’s most vulnerable neighborhoods. We are keeping two things in mind: (1) How do we bring all the basics to those neighborhoods, and (2) How do we make sure that while we are bringing extra attention and resources to the most disadvantaged that we do not forget all the rest of the residents who are, perhaps, just a bit more fortunate but frequently not very much so.

We embrace a movement that begins with these five goals:

  1. 1. High quality, nationally accredited child care available for all.
  2. 2. A quality “medical home” for every child pre-natal to age 5. (I note that 50,000 children between birth and age 5 in my own community have no health insurance.) Every child in Florida should be entitled – yes, there’s that word again, “entitled” — to first-rate health care.
  3. 3. Progress toward availability of a quality pre-K experience — though not mandatory — for every 4 year old. This would incorporate public and private approaches, including Head Start and high quality child-care options for parents.
  4. 4. “Home visiting” availability — using trained professionals or paraprofessionals — for all children from pre-natal through the first two or three years of life. Important research going back two decades shows this approach leads to more successful children, more successful adults, and greater spacing between babies — three powerful and proven outcomes.
  5. 5. Parent skill-building that recognizes the necessity of parents and families being fully involved in “readiness.” A child’s first teacher — the parent — needs to be the child’s best teacher.

I know that “school readiness” for every child is a tough assignment. But I know it must be done. Like you, I get a bit dispirited at times. I know that some political currents are not with us, but I do believe that the tides of history are. I simply cannot get out of my head the memorable words of the great anthropologist Margaret Mead. “Never doubt,” she once said, “that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed,” she said, “it is the only thing that ever has.”

You are those “thoughtful, committed citizens.” You can lead this charge.

People kid me — at least I think they are “kidding me” — about being a bit “obsessed” in what I do. I acknowledge that I do think life is fleeting, and I do see so much that needs to be done. Like the rest of you, I struggle to find the right balance in my life and know that my love and responsibilities begin with my own family.

But I also remember the words of the great philosophy and playwright George Bernard Shaw: “Life is no brief candle to me. It is a sort of splendid torch (that) I have got ahold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”

Ladies and gentlemen, that “splendid torch” of “readiness” for all children is in your hands and in my own. Let us go forth to shine the light for every child in Florida.

Thank you and God bless you.