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During 1998 and the early part of 1999, the Governor's Commission on Early Learning held 4 parent meetings across the state hosted by co-chairs Mona Lee Locke and Melinda French Gates.   The goal of these meetings was to get input from parents on the issues surrounding early learning in youngest children.   Parent surveys were conducted at each meeting.  Click on a City to find out more about these meetings.

Public Forum

From the October 1999 report on the needs of parents in Washington...

A child’s first words, first steps, and first days in school are exciting and wondrous for parents and children alike. Amazingly, by the age of 3, a child’s brain is more than twice as active as the brain of an adult. Sights, sounds, touch — all are important elements in a child’s early education. Scientists now believe that these "wonder years" of early childhood are the most critical time in developing the brain’s capacity for later learning.
In 1998, Governor Gary Locke created the Governor’s Commission on Early Learning as part of his overall plan to develop a system of lifelong learning in Washington State. Recognizing that parents and caregivers play an essential role in every child’s education, the Governor directed the Commission to help ensure they have the information and support they need to be successful "first teachers." He also called on the Commission to help raise public awareness about early learning and its importance in a child’s success in school and in life.
The Commission’s Role
Washington is one of a growing number of states that have taken steps to promote the healthy, positive development of all young children. While all states offer services for children with special needs due to economic, medical or family conditions, the Governor’s Commission on Early Learning is dedicated to finding ways of helping all children get a good start in life.
Meeting monthly since June 1998, the 25-member commission has brought together leaders in health care, education, child care, business and government to consider a wide range of issues affecting early learning in Washington State. Chaired by First Lady Mona Lee Locke and Melinda French Gates, the commission has reviewed services available to children and families through state and local agencies, examined early learning programs in other states, and met with parents throughout the state to hear their perception of services available in their communities.
In March 2000, the commission will launch a public engagement campaign designed to increase awareness about the importance of brain development in very young children. The commission is also exploring the development of a private philanthropic foundation to help support early learning programs and provide additional training in childhood development for child care workers.
Meetings with Parents
Parental involvement is a critical element of the commission’s mission. From November 1998 through January 1999, the commission held parent meetings throughout the state to hear — from the parents’ perspective —about the opportunities and services available in various communities. Nearly a thousand parents attended meetings in Spokane, Yakima, the Tri-Cities and Bellingham to share their experiences. Separate meetings were held with service providers.
Turnout at the meetings was excellent. At the first meeting in Spokane, 112 parents arrived at the Spokane Falls Community College campus to share their experiences. In Yakima more than 350 parents and 112 children attended a meeting at the EPIC pre-school center. On a cold December evening in the Tri-Cities, 150 parents turned out at the vocational high school. In Bellingham, 175 parents turned out at the Community College campus.
The parent meetings had two main objectives. First, the commission sought to identify primary needs in early learning throughout the state. By listening to parents, the commission was able to learn about programs that are operating effectively and areas where more support would be helpful.
Second, the commission wanted to share with parents information about brain development including the long-lasting effects of early learning environments on the development of very young children. Discussions focused on the type of support parents and child care providers need to improve school readiness and begin a lifetime of learning.
What Parents Told the Commission
Small-group discussions at the four parent meetings produced a variety of comments on which types of early learning programs work, which do not work, and what new programs are needed. Each group listed its priorities and key concerns to the commission, which also asked each parent to complete a written survey to detail individual issues.
The commission encountered similar themes in every community visited. The comments, along with the parent surveys, focused on five central areas of need:
1. Parent Support & Education
2. Child Care
3. Health Services
4. Employer Assistance
5. Public Awareness
While the parent survey was not designed to measure attitudes statewide, it did give the commission important feedback about parents’ priorities in four very different communities.
1. Parents would like more support from their communities to prepare children for school.
In every community, parents told the commission they wished they had access to more information about child development and more support in figuring out how to help their kids. While parents in some cities — notably Yakima — said they had received more information on child development than others, this was still a high priority in every community visited by the commission.
Specific types of information and support requested by parents include:
  • Current research on brain development in young children.
  • Classes on child rearing, child development and nutrition.
  • Support groups for parents and child care providers.
  • Resource materials to help parents foster learning in their children.
Parents suggested that current services could be enhanced in the following ways:
  • Provide a resource/referral book on childhood develop to all parents or make this information available at easily accessible place.
  • Expand cooperative preschool programs, where support and education of both the parent and child takes place.
  • Encourage society at large to support family life.
  • Expand classes and support groups on parenting issues.
2. Parents expressed a need for quality child care.
Sixty percent of all children under age six in Washington live in homes where both parents, or the only-parent, are in the work force. With more parents looking for child care outside their own homes, commission members were not surprised to hear that many parents have concerns about the cost and quality of child care in their communities.
Families at each of the meetings talked about how children learn and develop better in a stable environment with a consistent caregiver. Parents said that they believe the low wages paid to child care workers and the lack of required educational standards contribute to low-quality care. Parents also consistently complained about the high cost of child care and felt they could not afford to pay higher rates, even though they recognize the need for quality.
  • Priorities mentioned by parents at all of the meetings include:
  • Greater access to quality child care for children of all income levels.
  • Higher subsidies paid by the state for child care to help providers to increase quality.
  • Help with preschool costs for middle-income families.
  • Mandatory training for all child care providers and preschool teachers.
  • Make the child care profession as attractive as other professions.
  • Provide more child care options for newborns and toddlers.
3. Parents are concerned about health services.
Prevention of childhood problems has moved beyond the traditional focus on physical growth and illness to problems of development and behavior. The parents who spoke to the commission see health and learning problems as being interrelated. They want comprehensive family health services that reflect this expanded definition of health care.
In Spokane the concerns focused on the need for newborn hearing screening; parents in Yakima appreciated home visits by nurses and advocated for extending home-visit programs to age three. In Bellingham there was a lot of discussion about developmental disabilities and gaps in services for children with special needs.
Specific ideas for improvements that were mentioned in every community include:
  • The need for a working relationship between school districts, public health officials, and the local medical community.
  • Involving pediatricians as front-line sources of information about community services available to parents.
  • Providing information on brain development in a nurturing environment to all new parents in the hospital. This information should include how children learn and the importance of exposing children to appropriate stimuli and experiences.
  • Universal newborn hearing screening before discharge from hospital.
  • Early intervention services to provide family support should be accessible for all parents.
  • Extending home nursing services until age 3, followed by a smooth transition into community services with follow-up and family contact.
4. Parents would appreciate additional support from their employers.
An increasing number of companies help their employees improve their family life by implementing "work and family supports." This may include help in finding quality child care and, in some cases, assistance in meeting the cost of that care.
According to the state Child Care Partnership, there are now 72 companies that provide some kind of child care at or near their businesses. For employers, this is an advantage not only in attracting workers but also in minimizing family distractions that might otherwise reduce worker productivity.
When the commissions asked parents what sort of support they would like employers to provide, they listed the following:
  • Flexible workplace hours to allow parents to engage in parent-child programs like community college cooperative preschool programs.
  • Family-friendly work policies, including parental leave, time to spend in child care, guarantees that parents can leave on time so they can pick up their kids.
  • On-site child care for employees, subsidies for care provided in other settings, and on-site parenting classes.
  • Increase availability of drop-in/sick child options.
5. Is the public aware of the importance of early learning?
In every community parents reported a lack of awareness of information, programs and resources available to them. They also felt the need for the community at large to be aware of the importance of the first few years of a child’s life. People felt that a public awareness campaign would increase community discussion of these important issues and generate additional support for parents.
Parents attending the meetings reported a desire to boost public awareness of the importance of early learning by increasing community education and support. Specific, ideas included:
Specific ideas included:
  • A phone line to call to get information.
  • More community education about early learning and links to crime prevention.
  • Places to go to get questions answered, learn about community support and share information.
  • More publicity about local organizations for parents.
A Starting Point for the Commission
In every community the commission visited, commissioners were impressed by the quality and variety of the services available to families with young children. A common problem, however, is that often these services were not available to all who want or need them. Another is that, in many cases, parents simply aren’t aware of the programs offered by public and private organizations in their own communities.
The commission also learned that every community is unique and has developed service delivery in different ways. It is clear that it will not be effective to impose one statewide approach on all communities; rather, efforts on behalf of young children need to be home grown and community based.
Listening to the needs of Parents
The commission heard from parents a desperate need for information and support. Everyone wants to do the right things for their child but not everyone knows exactly what those things are. The thousand parents who spoke to the commission were clear that if they knew what to do they would do it.
These and other voices will help commission in its efforts to promote a broader understanding of early learning and what parents, local communities, businesses and government organizations can do to maximize every child’s chance to succeed in school and in life.

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