Hello Worcester and the world. We are back with new episodes of Public Hearing, our podcast and radio show about cities, engaging community, and materializing equitable just, and joy-filled futures. I'm still your host Joshua Croke and this is the Public Hearing podcast. Public Hearing is available wherever you listen to podcasts and on WICN 90.5 FM on Wednesdays at 6:00 PM, Worcester’s only NPR affiliate station. As part of our ever-growing mission to elevate voices in our communities in support of equity, justice, and equality, we're embarking on a few new exciting initiatives as a show to take a deeper dive into the topics and issues we discuss with our guests. Serial style seasons are going to explore topics around a broader theme, and we're actually kicking off our first mini-season today on the topic of early childhood education. To help us get started, we're talking with Kim Davenport from Edward Street, an organization that supports young children by supporting the early educators and caregivers that serve them and by advocating for policies that benefit children and families. Kim is a fellow Leadership Worcester alum, an incredible advocate for equity and education, and is also part of the Worcester Education Equity Round Table, where I serve as the facilitator. Welcome, Kim so great to have you here. I always like to have our guests introduce themselves so they can highlight any experiences or affiliations they want to bring into this space today. So what else can you share about you and your work?
Hi, Josh, thank you so much. I'm thrilled to be here. My work has always centered on supporting young children. I mean, even I was 10 years old, I was working in childcare and figuring out how I can best support their growth and development because I really do believe that the future lies in each child, and reaching their full potential is my mission. How do that? My background is in early education and care and the work that has happened on behalf of children and families is something that I hold quite dear to me, both in Worcester at the state level and I've also worked at a national level as well.
Great. Well, thank you so much for being here, and let's start with a quick definition. So when we're talking early childhood, what are we talking about? What ages, what is early childhood really look like? Kim Davenport (02:23):
Early childhood really begins prenatally. We often talk about it being zero to eight years old, so prenatal all the way through roundabout third grade or eight years of age is really the sweet spot. That's where research focuses most on early childhood. And that's because young children grow and develop very differently in that timeframe. And so it's kind of carved out at that special space.
Yeah. And, you know, as we're introducing folx to this topic of exploring early childhood, I think, you know, I've been more exposed to the critical importance of focusing on supports education resources for those zero to eight years where oftentimes I feel, and maybe this is just me, but when you hear education, you're thinking like elementary school, middle school, high school. And so it's after a lot of those really important formative years. So as we're introducing this to other folx who might also be less aware of kind of the early childhood space, what do you think is some important information that should be shared with folx?
I really appreciate the question because we often do go right to the construct that we created, that K-12 and beyond like that's childhood or education, and it really starts earlier. So the year zero to five are magnificent development years. By the time a child is three years old, 85% of their brain is developed. And by the time they're five, 90% of their brain has developed. So synapses are just developing at rapid rates like 1 million synapses a minute in a young child. So that's where brain architecture happens. That's where the beginning is. That's where the strongest foundation needs to be placed so that children can grow, develop and thrive in their environments, you know, once they hit the quote “schoolhouse door.”
And so what do those supports look like? Like what are some of the primary ways in which young youth, children have their needs met in our communities? And what are some of the challenges that we're facing that are barriers to having those needs met?
Sure, young children need a really holistic approach to their nurturing and support key among them are relationships. Learning happens in the context of relationships. And so having close connections and attachments with caregivers family members are really important. And part of the growth, there's a lot of dialogue and interaction that happens one-on-one and in small groups with adults and caregivers. And then also as children get a little bit older, with peers and having opportunities to build friendships and negotiate the environments that they're in. For young children development happens all the time in every setting. And so wherever young children are, it's a learning opportunity and it's an opportunity to support them, cognitively, social emotionally, with their physical development, and making sure that the adults in their lives have what they need to support young children's development.
And we can't talk about education in 2021 without acknowledging that we are moving through still a global pandemic and the significant impact that that has had on learning on, access to resources. But I think one of the strong ones that we talk about in the round table space, as well as, you know, other spaces is the socialization piece. What are we seeing or is there research or discussions happening around the impact on young kids and their ability or inability to socialize and build those foundational relationships in these early years?
So the importance of nurturing relationships extends across all environments. What we have seen in the course of the pandemic was that the children's worlds shrunk in many ways, or they were severely altered. So that when you were in group settings, you were asked to be more separate, right? And how do you do that? When children are naturally drawn to being together and to being connecting with people, it becomes really hard. One of the challenges that we're seeing now coming out of the pandemic in terms of child development is just a lot of delays, so needs went unmet, or I should say unrecognized. So it was hard to meet needs that were not recognized. So being kind of more isolated, not getting the number of adults and supports that normally happen in a child's day kind of severely limited the opportunities for engagement, interaction, and getting kind of referrals and supports for things when delays were noticed.
So we're finding in some of our early care and education programs in preschool rooms where children typically come in at the age of three years old, sometimes four they're presenting developmentally a lot younger. They just haven't had the opportunities to do as many self-help skills. They haven't had the opportunities to socialize and their self-regulation skills are a little bit underdeveloped. And in some cases, their speech is underdeveloped. So providers across our community and across the state are really grappling with how to support the learners that are returning to their programs and their classrooms who are much younger developmentally than expected because they just haven't had the rich stimulation and environments and supports during this pandemic.
Do you think our education systems, which are often standardized in many ways are ready to, and able to adapt to the changing needs that we're seeing post-pandemic, but also the things that we're finding things that we're seeing, that the pandemic expose that were already challenges and, you know, a lot of our communities, as you know, we've talked about it at length in our Education Equity Round Table spaces, and, you know, subsequent forums and things is that, you know, just for listeners, the pandemic exposed a lot of existing challenges that more people began to experience, so there was a stronger commitment to fix those issues, but these are not new issues. They were exacerbated by the pandemic, but they were always present and not always being addressed. So going back to my question to you, Kim is our education system ready to adapt to the needs of the individual child in a world that looks much different than it did a few years ago?
Excellent question and so on point with exactly what's happening now. In the early education and care sector, the challenges existed long before the pandemic. And it is a problem, that sector needs support. It needs investment, and it needs the infrastructure and the funding to be the robust educational support system it can be and needs to be for young children and their families. Let me give you a little example. So pre-pandemic, we had early learning programs closing at our almost 25% of early education and care programs in the state closed in the 10 years leading up to the pandemic. Another 10% closed during the pandemic and a lot of programs haven't reopened. Why is this? The business model is crumbling. So we have a number of issues that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. We have a chronically underpaid workforce, 71% of families in the United States have all parents working.
So those children need some type of care. 92% of the workforce is female. The pay is poverty-level wages in many cases. So we have more than 30% of the workforce is earning and needing to rely on state assistance to make their lives whole. That's unconscionable and it speaks to an equity issue. It speaks to a justice issue, and it speaks to a value issue in our communities and our societies. So the workforce is chronically underpaid. And what we're finding is they're leaving, they can't sustain themselves, they can't raise a family and they need to find other work. So either they're moving to another part of the education ecosystem, or they're leaving it altogether. And some of the saddest stories are the most talented individuals who want to be here, who have the passion.
Who've tried to work two or three jobs to make it happen, and they can't. And now they're working in, you know, in a retail sector because that's where they can make the money and have the supports they need to raise a family. That’s not okay. The other issue that this pandemic has exposed is the financial burden that early care and education childcare has financially on families. The system is largely a private market, which leaves the burden of payment on families. And that payment is extraordinary. So the percentage of an income for a family that's trying to pay for childcare is outpacing the cost for going to college. It's outpacing the cost of rent and other components such that, in Massachusetts, the cost for infant care is about $21,000 a year. So now think about all of the families who need that support, who want those rich environments for those children.
So it becomes unaffordable. So what we need is we need a reboot of the system. It really needs to be structurally and financially supported, re-imagined and needs to create opportunities for families to have access to affordable high-quality early education and care throughout the years so that they can work. And why is that important? Because without that part of our economy, we don't work. Like, #MassRunsOnChildcare, right? It does. We saw that squarely during the pandemic. Emergency childcare programs were set up with the support of the state and communities just here in Worcester, to support the workforce that needed to keep going. They didn't have the opportunity to stay home. They couldn't. But that's just a fragment of the kind of workings of a community that really do depend on families being able to fully participate in the workforce and have their children cared for that. They need to be able to make livable wages to work in this space and to afford the care in the space. And that really becomes kind of the backbone of community development.
And one of the things that I heard recently that resonated with me as well, related to this, it's like, even if people have the ability to work from home, working from home and parenting are two full-time jobs, right. And there's a complete disregard of like, oh yeah, you know, fortunately mom or dad was able to stay home through the pandemic. So they were able to do their job and take care of their kids at the same time, but we know that the emotional toll that that can take and just the unrealistic expectations that someone should be able to manage their full-time role and also be the full-time caregiver to their kids. And then, you know, add layers of inequity and enact and accessibility to that as well of families living in single bedroom apartments with two kids going to school, mom or dad working, everyone in that same space, internet access might be an issue, right? So all these different layers of challenge that we see presenting themselves throughout the pandemic, but again, things that people have been facing and dealing with for a long time.
Yes, a very long time. I think, you know, the roots of some of the challenges in this space, when you think about children zero to five, you know, before the commitment that made to education as a public good, which starts artificially at kindergarten, we just decided that it's not developmentally any particular reason. That's just where we had to start. But the roots of it are that the earliest years have long been kind of the purview of that's the family's job to figure it out the family's responsibility. And it hasn't been seen as a community responsibility or a community need as an investment in the future. And that's something that has to shift in order for everyone to have their needs met for everyone to kind of equally rise and develop within their community and to contribute as citizens as you know kind of contributing members to the community in whatever ways and special talents that they have.
The pandemic brought out the hero in all of us, and it also exposed the great challenges that were already there that were causing small fissures in our kind of life puzzle and figuring it out. And so, it is really a false myth that you could work and take care of children all at the same time and be fulfilled in maintain kind of social-emotional health in a balance. So heroic, yes, because everyone had to do what we needed to do to get through, but the real value in the earliest years and supporting families is making that investment early enough, so that families have what they need, young children have what they need, and we can front-load that investment for a greater return later on. I can talk to you about financials because James Heckman, who's a Nobel Prize-winning economist has done the work.
It's clear. You can, every dollar invested early leads to $7 to $15 return, like who gets that return? That just is an, you know, phenomenal return. We should all be putting our dollars there. But it takes a while. So we need to make sure that we're influencing the I guess the understanding and the commitment that we have to make as adults to the young children who can't tell us everything that they need, they don't vote. They don't have the opportunity, to tell you to snap out of it. And let's do this now, right? So we really have to think strategically about how we're supporting those young children and families and ensuring their voices are supported.
And when you mentioned like heroic acts, right, that also, I think is connected to the reality that we're experiencing collective trauma surviving through the pandemic in the way that we are. And I know that in so much of the education work that I'm involved in and that you're involved in as well, is looking at an integrating and incorporating like trauma-informed practices into how we are supporting our young people, our kids you know, how behaviors in the classroom are manifestations of trauma, how early childhood trauma impacts outcomes in the future in large part, because of how we have not set up systems to support people in getting access, to addressing and managing their trauma. So could you talk a little bit about the role of trauma and how that's being looked at and developed in the early education space?
Sure. I think that the early education space is really well suited to deliver supports in kind of the natural ways that we engage with young children to, create a trauma-sensitive environment that heals young children. So the relationships that are developed between caregivers, teachers, educators, and young children are central to the healing and the recovery for students. And so going back to the stability of a workforce, right, and having those longstanding relationships built is really important. When you have a revolving door, children have the revolving door of educators. That's not really good and stable. We also have done a tremendous amount of work in our professional development space to look at the research and to integrate trauma-sensitive practices into the classroom. Everything from, you know, how we set up our play environments with young children and the books that we read and the songs we sing in, the stories that we tell. And it's also about having opportunities to be with people, to be in an environment where you feel safe and comforted and that your needs are responded to those are the types of basic building blocks for early learning. And then also the basic building blocks of healing and supporting children who may come from a traumatic and challenging backgrounds.
One of the projects that I've been working on with Action! By Design is an initiative to eliminate the school-to-prison pipeline in Massachusetts. And we're doing that with Mass DYS through an initiative called the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative. We recently held our first summit on eliminating the school-to-prison pipeline. And one of our speakers, Hilderbrand Pelzer III was an incredible voice to not only the realities of how the school-to-prison pipeline manifests and for listeners who might be unfamiliar with the school-to-prison pipeline. It's in reality, multiple pathways that lead students out of the classroom and into the juvenile justice system. And unfortunately, when we look at the data across racial and ethnic lines, we see a disproportionate effect on black and brown youth in our schools. And you can literally look at a graph of the students who are being disciplined and expelled and suspended, and what the demographics of those students look like.
And look at the demographics of students, of young people ending up in the juvenile detention system. And there is a, it's almost like a mirror image of who is being pushed out of school and who is being placed into detention. But the thing that Hildebrand spoke to that I thought was particularly potent was the impact of literacy and reading on people who are showing up in the juvenile detention system, because of how a lack of like reading ability as a young person manifests in, you know, more outburst type behaviors in the classroom from frustration connected to learning. So I could go on, we have about five minutes left. So I want to pause and, you know, pass the softball back over to you related to the importance of literacy. And then also, what are the questions that we should be asking other experts in this space, right. We're going to be embarking on a few more episodes surrounding early childhood. What are the questions that we need to be asking? Like, what are you as a specialist in this space? What are the things that we need to further public awareness surrounding?
Okay. So thinking about literacy, it is a foundational block to learning. It is the kind of single easiest non-partisan opportunity we have to support young children to become readers. And it is simple for everyone to participate. So reading, singing, playing, telling stories, all of that contribute to kind of the early literacy activities that build the literacy skills necessary for reading later on. We have a pivotal opportunity in early childhood to support children in speaking in building a love for books in understanding how books work and early kind of literacy concepts that take that time period and it's the time when you're learning to read versus when you kind of move into that fourth-grade period where now you're reading to learn. And so all of the activities and investments that we do early on allow for the most children to participate in access kind of the learning later. And research demonstrates over and over again, that the investment early is preventative and it is less costly and more effective than intervening later. I'm not saying that interventions later aren't valuable. They are, and we need them, but there's so much more we can do in the zero to five, zero to eight timeframe for children that can set them up stronger and identify issues earlier. And I think science is catching up to that. We're doing a much better job of identifying the roots of dyslexia earlier. So you can intervene earlier and that creates a stronger trajectory for a child to read. And that leads to greater school and life success.
You mentioned values earlier when we were talking about the critical need for educators and early childcare workers to be making more than poverty-level wages, right. And just disclaimer, everyone should be making more than poverty-level wages, right. But when we're talking about the context and the importance of education, there is a value shift that needs to occur. You know, I'll say in this country, I'll make that statement of how we are supporting the people building the next generation of this countries you know, if we want to talk about it from an economic vantage point, wealth, right. And the, the value piece I think is so important. So how do we amplify the critical need to provide more support for our educators in our last minute?
Such an important point. And one of the challenges is we just have to have an infrastructure that is supportive so that we can demonstrate and continue to evolve kind of the quality that we have for young children. We need to diversify the workforce from a participation standpoint. Right now, people are turning away because it doesn't look like they can make a living and we're losing talent. And so we need to invite more people to the table and elevate it to the similar status to any of the other educators across our spectrum, because that's, the value is as equal. It's just you're delivering education a little bit differently. And then I think engaging businesses is a huge area. I think helping businesses support their employees in this timeframe will also elevate the value and the need for investment.
Thank you, Kim, so much. For listeners, we will link information to Kim and Edward Street in the show notes. There are so many more things that we can talk about. And we're looking forward to continuing the conversation around early childhood in our next episodes. Thank you for listening to Public Hearing our podcast and radio show that airs Wednesdays at 6:00 PM on WICN 90.5 FM Worcester's only NPR affiliate station and can be heard wherever you listen to podcasts. I'm your host, Joshua Croke. If you have ideas for the show or would like to become a supporter, reach out to our team at publichearing.co. Our audio producer is Giuliano D'Orazio, who also made our show music also, thanks to Molly Gammon and Shaun Chung, who also support this show. Public Hearing is created and produced by Action! By Design a social innovation and change agency, helping people imagine and materialize equitable, and just futures. Where ideas, people passionate about equity, justice, and joy innovators that use facilitation and design to address complex problems facing communities. We believe the strongest ideas to solve those problems come from within the communities that are most impacted by them, which is why we create this show. Learn more about our work at actionbydesign.co. Thanks for listening.