By Commissioner Frank Edelblut

Last January, New Hampshire won a $3.8 million federal Preschool Development Planning Grant to craft a preschool strategy for our children. After months of hard work across several state agencies, the University of New Hampshire, and many community organizations, I can report that every preschool child in New Hampshire is learning.

Of course, not all children are enrolled in formal preschool programs. Some are in childcare. Some are home with their parents or other caregivers.

But they are all learning, because the developing human brain is an unparalleled learning machine. We must take advantage of this short window when children are capable of unmatched levels of learning. This child-centered focus is the key to New Hampshire’s early childhood education strategy.

A unique aspect of New Hampshire's approach, which is formed at least partially by the work of our planning grant, is the perspective that families serve a dual role in early childhood care and education as both recipients of services and providers of services.

Where need exists, New Hampshire is firmly committed to a system of supports to meet needs of children. In addition, New Hampshire is committed to building the capacity of all of our families such that they also become part of that system of supports.

Our family surveys indicate that 70 percent of families turn to a family member, neighbor or friend for advice when questions arise regarding their children. We want to make sure that those family members, neighbors, and friends are equipped to provide quality, timely and effective help.

The Abecedarian Project, a frequently-cited, long-term study on early childhood care and education, supports the idea that what is most important for early childhood development — including brain development — is not tied to where children are engaged, but how they are engaged.

These engagements include things like serve-and-return.

Have you ever seen an adult having a conversation with an infant? That’s serve and return. They include narrating your day. This occurs when a parent, caregiver or educator simply talks through their activities they are doing with a child, “… and now we are going to put you in your car seat and go to the store.”

And then there is the eternal favorite, reading to your children. You simply cannot read too much to your children.

What is encouraging is that everyone, every parent, grandparent, neighbor, friend, caregiver and educator, has the capacity — or can build the capacity — to engage these and other child-building activities. Rather than focusing on putting all children in the same pre-school environment, New Hampshire’s approach is to build supports for homes, childcare and preschools.

The preschool development grant we won last year has been helpful in identifying barriers to building these capacities. Family focus groups indicate there was no significant difference in barriers faced by participants in urban and rural areas trying to access early childhood care and education.

Among families who chose a home-based environment for early childhood care and education, the barriers are economic and social. Economically, these families make significant sacrifices to forgo earnings to invest in their families. Socially, these families would benefit from supports in the form of developing their own capacity to be effective in early childhood care and education.

Among those choosing childcare or school options, the most common barriers to accessing services were the lack of non-home based early childhood care and education providers, high program costs, the lack of family-friendly hours, and lack of transportation.

Over the past month, a team of incredibly talented professionals from the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Education, the University of New Hampshire and many community partners have worked tirelessly on a follow-on grant to implement what we’ve learned from the Preschool Development Planning Grant.

This new grant lays out a plan to help strengthen our families in New Hampshire by putting them at the center of our work. It embraces the idea of engaging parents not only as recipients of services, but also as a vital resource to help support and stand up strong families across the state. There is a multiplier effect that can occur as we strengthen the capacity of our families to support one another in communities across New Hampshire.

This grant, which seeks $30 million of federal funding, was submitted this week. We won’t find out if we will be awarded the grant until sometime in December, and we are hopeful that federal officials will see the success we’ve had, and help us build on it.

But from my perspective, we have already won, as constituencies from across New Hampshire collaborated to put families at the center of our communities and work. Thank you to all of you who worked so hard on this effort.

Frank Edelblut is Commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Education.

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