Program focuses on early childhood

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Representatives from area schools, state agencies, HeadStart, the state Legislature and more gathered March 21 to kick off the First 2,000 Days campaign during a luncheon at the Bodega.

Tara Jaramillo, CEO of Positive Outcomes and its adjunct company Alberta House, began by thanking everyone for attending their “it pays to invest in children” luncheon. Alberta House, she explained, is an early intervention program that provides parent support, training and evaluation for children who may have needs in speech, occupational and physical therapy. The services are free to everyone in the county for children birth to 3 years old, she said.

Jaramillo said Positive Outcomes has signed up as a corporate sponsor of the First 2,000 Days campaign, and she invited other local companies to do likewise.

Jaramillo explained the First 2,000 Days is a campaign focused on the first 2,000 days of life, which is about the length of time from birth to the first day of kindergarten. The campaign’s goal is threefold: to educate the community about early childhood services available, to identify gaps in the services and to advocate for funding to fill those gaps.

Jaramillo said only about 47 percent of local children who qualify for early childhood services in Socorro County actually access the services. She said children who have early childhood education with a strong parenting program are 72 percent more likely to graduate college and enter the workforce.

“Investing in children undeniably makes moral sense, but it makes good economic sense,” Jaramillo said.

Jaramillo said Kathleen Ocampo, co-director of the early intervention program at Alberta House, proposed an idea based on an Illinois project called An Ounce of Prevention; the idea evolved into the First 2,000 Days campaign.

Ocampo said during the critical first 2,000 days of life, babies should be playing, exploring and having books read to them. This time, when the brain is growing and developing faster than any other time of life, should be filled with meaningful activities so babies can develop to a greater potential. Ocampo said economists, business leaders and researchers agree that high-quality early childhood services are among the smartest investments the public can make.

Ocampo thanked everyone for coming, including staff from area schools; HeadStart; and the state Children, Youth and Families Department, as well as District 28 Sen. Howie Morales, who also spoke to the luncheon crowd.

Morales said he appreciates the importance of early childhood education as he is an educator by trade. He said programs like the First 2,000 Days excite him, and he would like to see the program move forward.

Morales said the media often discusses things like social promotion, or promoting a child to the next grade level even though the child is not performing to that level. But discussions focused on standardized test results miss important factors contributing to a child’s lack of success, he said, like poverty levels, the child’s home environment and medical issues.

“We’re missing the boat, and so these are discussions we’ve got to have … being able to change the culture, or turn the curve, is really what we need to do,” Morales said.

Morales noted 46 percent of the state’s budget goes to K-12 public education, but early childhood education accounts for only 1 percent of the budget. However, during the 2013 legislative session, he said the state committed $22 million specifically for early childhood education.

“That’s a huge change — nowhere near where we need to be,” Morales said. “But $22 million that (wasn’t) there in the past, and I believe that we’re going to continue to move in that way.”

He expressed hopes that every community will be able to develop a program like Socorro’s First 2,000 Days. He added he would like Ocampo and Jaramillo to come to Santa Fe and talk about the campaign to the Legislature’s interim committees.

“I would be happy to be your champion at the legislative level to ensure that we are meeting the needs of the students,” Morales said.

Morales said New Mexico ranks 49th in poverty in the U.S., but it’s right around the median — about 30th — in education.

“Statistically, we should be right at 49 because poverty and education are linked so closely together,” Morales said. “But that shows me that our educational professionals throughout the state are doing the impossible, they’re defying the odds.”

Morales invited the group to imagine how far the state could move forward in educational achievement if the poverty level could be brought down.

Morales’ parting thought touched on something he hears often from teachers: Parents don’t care. He argued that if a tragedy happens and a child dies — whether the child is an honor student or an underachiever — the parents will cry the same tears of grief.

“Parents care,” Morales said. “The key is to be able to … educate them on how to move things forward for their own children.”

Nancy Jaramillo, director of the Alberta House preschool, said the next step will be to organize a group and set up committees. She explained the program will serve as a clearinghouse where everyone can find out what all the agencies in the county have available.

“And when somebody goes into your office and says, ‘I need diapers,’ you will know who to call to access that need for your clients,” Jaramillo said. “If somebody goes into your office and needs anything, hopefully we will have brainstormed and decided where that service can be, and so that’s what we’re envisioning.

“I myself want to get a book into the hand of every baby born in Socorro County, and teach those parents how to read to their children. That’s my goal. I’m sure each and every one of you are coming up with your own ideas of what you want to see happen.”

Jaramillo said by joining the First 2,000 Days, stakeholders can brainstorm their ideas and use all the information of what every group in the county has to offer.

“And we can get all these kiddos off the ground running,” Jaramillo said.

For more information on participating in the First 2,000 Days campaign, call Alberta House Early Intervention at 838-0800.