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Assessments aim to improve education, care for children

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Area residents encouraged to attend meeting

Some educational experts say that New Mexico is at a crucial point regarding its young children, and they are seeking public input on how best to develop educational and care programs to serve them.

“We are at a really special moment for early childhood in New Mexico. We have an opportunity to really have what amounts to close to a fresh start for early childhood programs,” said Kate Noble. “We have come a long way, but (we want) to take it to a whole new level.”

Noble is the vice president for policy and stakeholder engagement for the New Mexico Early Childhood Development Partnership, which will hold at least 11 community meetings throughout the state during the next six weeks to assess the needs for childhood development and education from birth to age 5, as well as determine the needs for professional development for people working in fields serving that age group. The group also will develop a three-year strategic plan to guide future efforts.

The needs assessment and strategic plan is part of what is entailed in developing a new cabinet-level department, the Early Childhood Education and Care Department, mandated by Senate Bill 22 that passed the New Mexico Legislature this year. The department is expected to be operating by July 2020.

Noble’s group, a division of the United Way of Santa Fe, won a $498,000 service contract from Early Learning New Mexico to conduct two of five research and planning activities concerning birth to 5 programs.

Early Learning New Mexico is a collaborative effort of the state Department of Health, the Department of Education and the Children, Youth and Families Department. It received a $5.4 million grant in 2019 from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The grant money is being used to hire contractors, providers and consultants to build an early learning system for young children and their families.

A meeting in Roswell has been scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 10, noon to 2:30 p.m., Room 110, Campus Union Building, Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell, 48 University Blvd.

“We have an opportunity to set things up under a new cabinet department through a deeper strategic plan than we have ever done before,” said Noble. “We need everybody to show up for this process.”

Everyone interested is welcome at the Roswell meeting, said Noble and Communications Specialist Lynn Paulson, but they especially encourage attendance by parents, guardians, educators, social workers, day care staff, health care professionals and law enforcement personnel.

Paulson said significant education and care gaps now exist, depending on a child’s family and social situation at birth, which the state plans to alleviate or eliminate in coming years.

“The idea is, if we can get early childhood education and development in place and functioning efficiently and effectively on that front end, it helps young people get a leg up in education,” Paulson said. “Ultimately the goal is that we’ll improve the conditions in New Mexico, period, in the future.”

Two statewide surveys also will be distributed, one for the early childhood workforce and a more general survey for families, community members and other stakeholders. The workforce survey will be emailed to people or institutions working in early childhood fields, while the general survey will be available online via social media and websites and could be distributed in a print version.

The needs assessment is expected to be completed by October, with the strategic plan to be finished by December.

The Kids Count data book, produced annually by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, ranks New Mexico 50th in the nation for overall child well-being and 50th in the nation for education. Some of the factors that go into those rankings include low birth weights, youth death rates, proficiency scores in math and English language skills, graduation rates, poverty rates, parental unemployment and educational attainment rates, school enrollment numbers and high school graduation rates.

The 2019 measurements show improvement in 12 out of 16 categories compared to a decade ago. Among those that did not show improvement, math proficiency rates among eighth graders stayed the same, while rates for low-birth weights, children living in poverty and children living in single-parent homes increased.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 311, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.