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Early childhood secretary visits Roswell

Elizabeth Groginsky, secretary of the New Mexico Early Childhood Education and Care Department, right, and Sandy Trujillo-Medina, the department’s director of early care education and nutrition, listen during a roundtable discussion with Roswell’s early childhood providers Tuesday at Chaves County Court Appointed Special Advocates, 500 N. Main St. (Juno Ogle Photo)

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Secretary hears from local providers during roundtable talk

The New Mexico Early Childhood Education and Care Department is still relatively new but has long-term goals that its secretary said during a visit to Roswell on Tuesday were already starting to be felt in the state.

The department was started in 2020, and although the pandemic slowed its start-up a bit, Secretary Elizabeth Groginsky said the department is creating the strategies to work toward its goal of making sure children up to age 5 and their families get the support they need to be ready for school.

Groginsky visited with administrators of Roswell Independent School District Tuesday morning and toured Parkview Early Literacy Center and El Capitan Elementary School.

Afterward, she participated in a roundtable discussion with several representatives of RISD as well as non-profit organizations and private providers in the field.

“What I’m really pleased to see here is that there’s real focus on early childhood and also strategies to support the workforce, because I haven’t heard that as much in other parts” of the state, Groginsky said after the roundtable at the offices of Chaves County Court Appointed Special Advocates, 500 N. Main St.

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Groginsky and her team have toured southeast New Mexico this week. The point of the tour, and future tours of other regions of the state, is to gather information that will help the new department as it continues to form its strategies, she said.

She and her team were in Hobbs on Monday, and the secretary told roundtable participants that early education professionals there said they are already seeing response to the new department’s initiatives.

“We heard that people are already feeling a difference. They’re feeling things are more connected and I’m hoping that in Roswell you’re feeling that as well,” she said.

Those changes are coming from the department’s five strategic priorities, which she outlined as growing the state’s investments in early childhood education; advancing a diverse, well-compensated and credentialed workforce in the field; increase access; increase quality; and achieve equity.

She said federal pandemic relief has helped the state accomplish the first of its priorities and touted the announcement from the beginning of the month of the state’s expansion of the Child Care Assistance Program. That action increased eligibility for families that can receive assistance from those at 200% of the federal poverty level up to 400% of the poverty level. That starts Aug. 1.

“Childcare is out of reach for most families,” Groginsky said, noting that for an infant it can cost around $1,500 a month.

“More families of higher income levels still need assistance paying for childcare,” she said. “Many of our educators, our nurses, hospital staff, firefighters, police, they’re wondering how are we going to care for our children.”

At the same time, the state also moved to a cost-estimation model, rather than a market-based rate, to set the subsidy rates it pays to providers, It is the first state in the nation to do so.

Both of those changes are funded by $320 million from the federal American Rescue Plan.

“We’re using the federal dollars very wisely, financially supporting and stabilizing our childcare industry so they can stabilize and expand hopefully,” Groginsky said.

Those working in the early childhood field could also see a share of those federal dollars in their bank accounts, the secretary said.

“Later in the fall, we’ll be doing a one-time payment for early childhood professionals, people working in licensed facilities, to get a one-time bonus of $1,500 just to recognize the work they have done through the pandemic and being able to keep the doors open. We know that it was not easy and we wish the dollars could be more,” she said.

Reaching the department’s goal of having children ready to be successful in school by the time they are 5 years old will take coordination among the state, providers and even business, Groginsky said, and not every program will look the same.

“We’re committed to not having a one-size-fits-all approach,” she said.

“It might look very different in Roswell and in Hobbs, and in Taos and Albuquerque because you have different strengths, your families have different needs, your educators have different experiences. We want to hear from the community and we want to foster community collaboration,” she said.

Hearing from the community was the purpose of the roundtable. Early childhood providers told her of the need for more training for staff and transportation options for families.

Michelle Pruitt, director of daily operations for Los Pasitos Early Intervention Services, said staff often have to travel to Albuquerque or Santa Fe for training and would benefit from local options.

“Some of them don’t necessarily have an interest in going to school but they would go to a specialized training. Maybe something just even specialized, like children with autism and communication, and behavior and specific types of training would be fantastic,” Pruitt said.

Alfred Velasquez, Roswell Head Start center manager, said transportation is needed for families when they are referred to doctors in other cities for their children’s needs.

“Because a lot of them are low-income, they have a difficult time getting places because they don’t have good transportation. Providing some kind of transportation for families so they can address whatever health issues or concerns they might have for their children, that would be great to have that in place as well,” he said.

Providers also discussed with the secretary needs to work with educators to make sure children with special needs are receiving continuity in their services. Pruitt said it would be helpful if staff of a child’s preschool or daycare provider could be included in meetings with the school district and parents on a child’s individual education plan.

They also questioned the secretary about how the state will be able to measure the success of the department’s programs.

Groginsky said the state does have its Kindergarten Observational Tool, which assesses what children know and can do at the time they are starting kindergarten.

“We hope that we’re seeing more New Mexico children are entering school with all their developmental skills on track and ready to learn,” she said.

“We know what it takes for a child to learn. Their family has to have support, families have to be supportive. Children have to have had access to quality early childhood experiences and they need to be exposed and supported with culturally and linguistically appropriate support,” she said.

Above all, though, she emphasized the need for collaboration and communication.

“When we have authentic collaboration like we see here today, and we keep building on that, anything’s possible. We’re not going to be 49th in child well-being. We’re going to be maybe 10th. We have to do this. Otherwise in three to five years, people are going to say it doesn’t work,” she said.

City/RISD reporter Juno Ogle can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or reporter04@rdrnews.com.

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