Roadmap to an Early Learning City

The Studer Community Institute’s Be the Bulb early learning challenge shows that better preparing our children for school is on the minds of a lot of people.

The challenge was issued to boost awareness of the need to improve kindergarten readiness in Escambia County, something that is one of the 16 key metrics on the Institute’s Pensacola Metro Dashboard. The most recently available data analysis from the Florida Office of Early Learning shows that only 66 percent of Escambia kindergartners were ready for school.

That’s important because research suggests that children who are significantly behind in kindergarten are more likely to be behind in third-grade reading, and are more likely to struggle to keep up with their peers throughout school.

That puts them at risk of being more likely to not graduate high school on time, something that will limit their future job opportunities, diminish the overall workforce and ultimately impact the quality of life for everyone in the Pensacola metro area.

The lightbulb is turned on. Now the light needs to spread.

“How do we make our community America’s first early learning city?” said Institute founder Quint Studer at Thursday’s event. “That’s our goal. All we have is a start, the bulb’s been turned on, but it won’t work if we don’t execute them.

“One of the things is to make sure we have these pop up fairs, and to make sure we have this early learning bus,” Studer said, sending those interested to www.studeri.org.

Quint Studer at the Be the Bulb early learning challenge ceremony on June 30. Credit: Ron Stallcup.

Quint Studer at the Be the Bulb early learning challenge ceremony on June 30. Credit: Ron Stallcup.

Studer said efforts such as Achieve Escambia are encouraging because it means the entire community is beginning to embrace the understanding of the link between early education and its impact on the overall economy.

Achieve Escambia is a collaborative effort, lead by four major employers in the county — Navy Federal Credit Union, Gulf Power, Sacred Heart and Baptist health care system — to focus community resources, awareness and investment into improving education and the workforce.  

Its ultimate aim is improving the quality of the workforce by investing in a “cradle to career” path that links educational attainment to workforce development.

He also said the community needed to support the work of Community Action program and Head Start and the Escambia County Early Learning Coalition, and others who are working every day to improve early learning.

The Coalition is the financial gatekeeper for the Florida voluntary prekindergarten program and for School Readiness, a federal program that offers working parents subsidies for childcare.

“If you’re not aware of the star system for measuring quality the Coalition is putting in, it’s vital to make sure that we have child care accessible and that we have quality,” Studer said.

Learn more about that program here.

What’s next for the SCI staff, according to Studer?

—  Visiting the Thirty Million Words Initiative in Chicago: “We’re going up to chicago to spend two days with Dr. Dana Suskind (at the Thirty Million Words Initiative) to dig a little deeper,” he said. “Our goal is to tap into the University of Chicago and their research project to get Pensacola on their map so that we can realize what we can do.”

An Early Learning City: “We’ll issue a report on the pathway to become America’s first Early Learning City,” he said. “We’re so confident we’re going to become America’s first early learning city, we’ve already trademarked the name.”

What does an “early learning city” mean?

It means architecturally, Studer said, you’ll see an “Early Learning City” Plaza at new Bear Levin Studer Family YMCA so even children waiting to go into the Y can be learning.

“We’re working with Caldwell and Associates to come up with tips for architects,” to use in building design that can support early learning, he said. “We think everywhere that you go in this community, you can grab on to the idea of using visuals to teach children.”

Bringing businesses into the fold: “We want to encourage all businesses to become early learning friendly,” Studer said. “That means if I bring my child in there, even though I might not be there to buy children’s things, there will be things for my children to do while I buy my things.”

Tracking resources for existing programs. “Programs like Head Start and the Early Learning Coalition, they need resources,” Studer said. “We need to make sure we take the resources we have and use them.”

Media awareness: The Institute is working on a series of radio spots using tips from Suskind’s work talking to parents about the power they have. “We want to make sure parents and grandparents know the tremendous power they have,” he said. “In Chicago through video, they show parents, when you walk with your child, point out circles, point out triangles, point out numbers. That’s something I didn’t do. When I changed a diaper, I thought it was speed we were looking for. What videos can show parents is that changing a diaper is an educational process to teach the child. My idea of reading the book, I got disappointed when my children got old enough to realize I was skipping pages, because my idea was how fast can I get this done.

“But not Rishy’s. Rishy spent unbelievable amounts of time with the children, which is why I think they had a good shot when they got to school. I didn’t know those things. It’s not that I didn’t love my children. I didn’t know, just like parents in our community right now.”

Public schools: Though the Institute’s work is highlighting the importance of early learning before the age of 5, Studer said the public school system has a vital role in that process.

“If you’re a teacher and 10 out of your 30 children are behind, where are you going to spend your time? You go to those 10. But in Okaloosa County, you might have only 3 children who are behind. In Santa Rosa you might only have 3,” Studer said. “We’ve put tremendous weight on our teachers.”

One suggestion for teachers Studer had: “If you’re a teacher and you know a child in your class has a younger sibling, why can’t we teach these siblings the impact they can have on their younger brother or sister when they get home. That’s a huge impact.”

Starting at birth: Studer called upon the healthcare community to do their part in helping parents realize the power of language and talk on an infant’s brain. “If we’re really going to get at this, it will be because our healthcare providers step up and at birth and meet with that parent and start laying it out,” he said. “If we do this, we can truly be America’s first early learning city, I encourage the health care providers to get onboard with this.”