Education

Contest shows light is shining on early learning

Photo by Michael Spooneybarger

Nearly 500 ideas later, we’re down to the finalists for the Be the Bulb early learning challenge.

When Quint and Rishy Studer offered a total of $50,000 for the best ideas to improve early learning in Escambia County, no one quite knew what to expect when the ideas began to flow.

We knew that the research through the Pensacola Metro Dashboard, created in partnership with the University of West Florida, that boosting our area’s economic prospects would mean boosting on educational success rates.

That research also told us that the key to improving things like high school graduation rates and third grade reading levels was kindergarten readiness.

The most recently available data from the Florida Department of Education indicates that only 66 percent of our children are ready for kindergarten. That’s about 1,000 children every year who aren’t ready for school.

We followed where the data led and landed at early learning as the key to improving our community’s prospects for the future. 

Whatever any of us at the Studer Community Institute thought would come in over the transom, we got all that and more.

You had your thinking caps on, that’s for sure.

Some ideas seemed right on the money; others came from out of left field. Some focused on improving the existing education system; others focused on the time before a child enters formal public education.

We got ideas large and small.

One submission extolled the lessons that could be taught with a simple standard deck of 52 cards — shapes, colors, patterns, sorting, number identification, counting, even some basic subtraction and addition facts.

One wished each new mother could be given a rocking chair so that she would have a quiet place to be with her baby, remembering the pleasure it gave her to sit in such a spot with her own now-grown children.

We got several suggestions to use existing or to-be-developed smartphone and tablet device apps to help parents start reinforcing early language and math skills.

We got ideas that suggested using the power of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to create a place for parents to network with each other, and to push out educational content, links to community resources already in place, and family-friendly events and locations in the community where parents could build learning opportunities for their children.

We got suggestions to look into bringing established national literacy programs such as Dolly Parton Imagination Library and the Parent Child Home Program to Pensacola.

Some touted interventions that took the captive audience of new parents in the hospital and hoped to offer them tips, videos, supplies or training on the importance of talking with and reading to their babies.

Many suggested recruiting pediatricians, obstetrician/gynecologists, nurses, physician assistants, and other medical practitioners to the Church of Early Talk. Others suggested giving or creating books, handouts, videos and other materials to be used during routine well-baby visits, especially in the first three years, to give parents the tools they need to be good first teachers.

Several touched on the need to engage children’s bodies as a gateway to engaging their minds, with suggestions from specific games to redesigning playgrounds and playground equipment with features meant to strengthen the developing brain and build fine and gross motor skills.

From home-visiting programs to weekly, monthly or quarterly parenting skills meetings, to books that use Pensacola landmarks, history and culture to teach the ABCs, Be the Bulb submitters pretty much covered the landscape.

You went from videos, public service messages and media campaigns to educate the public on the importance of our earliest years in building our brains to workplace-based initiatives that would see businesses offer training, skills and resources to the parents in their employ.

You went from mobile early learning buses and neighborhood — and community-based early learning fairs, to making prekindergarten mandatory for all 4-year-olds and based in every elementary school in the county.

You put in a good word for keeping play-based, creative learning in classrooms from children through age 5.

You suggested setting up classrooms for children who aren’t “kindergarten ready” with a smaller student-teacher ratio and more focused intervention to help them get ready.

You spoke up for more staff development and advocated for a better way for preschool teachers who have taught our children and the teachers who will inherit them to share information.

In the end, only two ideas will win. But we thank you so much for sharing all of them with us.

And we hope you won’t let the light go out on your ideas. All of Escambia County’s children are counting on us to Be the Bulb.