What we can learn from Fairfax County

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending the 4th annual Fairfax Future’s School Readiness Leadership Forum. This year’s focus was on STEM (Science, Engineering, Technology, Math) and the impact on early education (birth to five). The list of panelist and keynote speaker were quite impressive and I was ready to take notes. 

Joan Lombardi, deputy assistant secretary for early childhood development at the U.S. Department of Education, set the foundation for a lively and interesting morning. Her message was quite simple: Early education is so MUCH more than what happens in the classroom. We also need to be mindful of their experiences at the whole school, at home and in the community to ensure that children are not only growing and learning, but are happy and joyful. Even as we focus on the very important goals of improving literacy, language, social skills and behavior, we cannot leave out the aspect of childhood in early childhood education. 

What does it mean to be a happy, healthy and growing child? It means to be ever curious, to play, have fun and explore and learn about the world around you. To ensure that children are not only given high-quality learning opportunities, but are also happy, is quite a profound responsibility, but one that we all must strive for. When I think about this burden that all early childhood educators must bear, it is truly overwhelming, particularly in the District, where three out of 10 children struggle in poverty. 

I had the pleasure of working with Fairfax Futures as a funder. I was intrigued with the innovation in Fairfax County. They were already thinking of how to integrate the birth to eight movement and focused on transition work for children and their families from preschool to elementary schools. They created neighborhood groups to work on transitions for children and better communication with parents. The groups included principals of local high schools, teachers from the elementary schools, administrators and staff from preschool and child care centers and parents. Their charge was simply to convene and discuss the children in their schools. The goal was to improve communication that would encourage better transitions for children and their families.  

The lesson was to think beyond the classroom and consider ways to ensure children and their families were supported more comprehensively. In Fairfax County, where there are over 100 languages spoken, many parents were entering kindergarten interacting with educators for the very first time. The hope was to reach them earlier. 

So, if we institute quality programs and effective policies for early care and education, can we ensure children are happy? I think we can, BUT it has to be a collective effort as it is in Fairfax County. It truly must be a more holistic approach to early care and early education where both the academics and the social and the social-emotional aspects are equally valued. Transition work is simply one example of a more integrated approach for a community to touch the lives of their children and families. 

The major takeaway for me: We need more than policies and standards. We need to work together as a community to ensure that all children have what they need to succeed, thrive and, yes, be happy.

I’ll blog more about STEM and what the panelists shared in terms of the importance of STEM for young children. I gained so much from the panelist and eager to share, but for now I’m still dwelling on Dr. Lombardi’s charge for us. How can we bring joy to our children?