Early learning summit

Cimtech President and CEO Jesika Young and Building Blocks’ community engagement specialist Ashley Hansen were part of the Community Summit on Early Learning at Clark Memorial Hospital on Friday.

CLARK COUNTY — A community summit at Clark Memorial Hospital on Friday discussed challenges facing early childhood education, or early learning, and what can be done to help remedy the problem in Clark County.

The discussion came as a result of a report published in August looking at Indiana’s early learning opportunities. The report found that the state’s early learning access index is at a moderate level, but just barely.

The index is determined through four factors: capacity, quality, affordability and choice. The index goes up to 100, and Indiana is at 60.6, with 60 being the requirement for moderate access.

Clark County is at 50.6, an inadequate level, with quality being the lowest category and affordability being the highest. The county, however, is not an outlier as 86% of the state’s counties were found to have inadequate access to early learning.

Clark County Health Officer Eric Yazel mentioned a report from the state from a few years ago that said that two of the five highest ZIP codes in the state for unexplained infant deaths and childhood mortality were in Clark County.

A community action team formed to do a child fatality review went through every case in the last five years.

“What we started realizing is so much just kept coming back to good quality child care, early learning and things like that, that was just a common theme as we went through every single one of these cases,” Yazel said.

Of the early learning programs in Clark County, 28.4% are considered to be of high-quality and 15.7% of children in the county are served by these high-quality programs.

Not only is there a shortage of high-quality programs, but Building Blocks’ community engagement specialist Ashley Hansen said that some families do not even realize the varying levels of quality.

“They just think that ‘anybody that I go to is probably going to be registered with the state,’ or that ‘they’re going to have quality standards that they’re following.’ It’s not always the case,” Hansen said.

Some of the speakers at the summit mentioned how the pandemic shed light on the impact of early learning.

President and CEO of Early Learning Indiana Maureen Weber said that the pandemic showed the importance of schools in terms of child care, noting that there really is no distinction between child care and early learning.

“I promise you, if you have a second-grader who is typically in school, that school serves a purpose of care at the same time, and we know this just based on what’s happened in the last 18 months,” Weber said.

Panelist Della Micco, director of the River Ridge Early Learning Academy, pointed out the challenge of the pandemic on children’s learning from not being able to socialize.

“If children are not receiving high-quality education in their earliest years, there’s no way that they’re going to be OK in kindergarten. They [children] can’t do math, they can’t read and they can’t do anything until their social needs are met,” Micco said.

“First, we have to take care of them emotionally and socially,” Micco continued.

Yazel told the audience Friday that the age range of 2 to 7 is a critical period of brain development.

“Honestly, it’s the most important for overall development. Not only does it set the tone for school but it also sets the tone even farther down the road, workforce, things like that,” Yazel said.

“Also for overall physical health. You see higher rates of hypertension and diabetes and things like that later in life in people who didn’t have adequate resources during this critical stage of development,” Yazel continued.

Weber started off the summit by describing a “two-generational impact,” meaning that not only does early learning benefit children but it also benefits employers and the workforce.

She shared in a slideshow the ways that improving early learning opportunities can benefit employers, including by strengthening recruitment and retention, increasing productivity and growing diversity in the workforce, among others.

According to Early Learning, 2.8% of working parents quit their jobs to address child care needs, though Weber did note that the number was taken from before the pandemic.

Cimtech President and CEO Jesika Young said that women are exiting the workforce in high numbers because they are having to make the tough decision about making sure their children are getting the highest quality of care.

“If we lack that infrastructure to be able to feel comfortable with the quality of care that our children are receiving, then it makes it a very tough choice,” Young said.

Looking at the workforce, Micco discussed how like everywhere else, adequate staffing is a problem when it comes to early education care. She said that there needs to be a shift in mindset when it comes to thinking about who the people are that are taking care of children in the classroom.

“The turnover rate is insane. There’s a different caregiver in the classroom every few weeks, well then the children can’t attach to the caregiver and then there’s behavior issues. It’s just this snowball,” Micco said.

Early educators not being paid a livable wage is another contributing factor to the staffing shortage, according to Micco. Which Weber pointed out plays a role in the structural problem: educators are not paid enough, but yet these programs frequently cost too much for parents to afford.

“It’s a structural problem that we have to face as a community and not something that one individual provider or even a group of providers can solve for us,” Weber said.

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