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Early Learning Focus of OSSE Conference

Dorothy Rowley | 4/30/2014, 3 p.m.
Students at the Southeast Children's Fund Development Center on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in Southeast receive an early introduction to learning that will take them into first grade and beyond. (Courtesy of the Southeast Children’s Fund Development Center)

When it comes to the education of its infants and toddlers, the District of Columbia boasts the most robust pre-kindergarten initiative in the nation, where at least 70 percent of 3-year-olds and 90 percent of 4-year-olds are already enrolled in Head Start classes.

However, opportunities to elevate preschool programs like Head Start remain an ongoing challenge.

“In the District of Columbia, we understand the sensitivity of [these kinds of issues] and we are committed to making infants and toddlers our priority,” Mayor Vincent C. Gray said in welcoming guests to the inaugural “Infant and Toddler Conference” held April 14-17 at the Kellogg Conference Center at Gallaudet University in Northeast. “Infants and toddlers need close, nurturing relationships that provide them with a secure base for exploration, learning and discovery,” said Gray, 71.

The Office of the Superintendent of Education (OSSE) sponsored three days of workshops and seminars that centered on the Common Core early learning standards, Head Start framework and developmental growth concerns identified from birth through age 3.

The gathering, which attracted 300 childcare providers, therapists, teachers and program directors each day, tied-in with President Barack Obama’s Early Learning Initiative which makes it a priority to educate our youngest children. The initiative focuses on ages from birth through age 5 which are the critical years for building the foundation needed for success later in school and in life.

One of the programs under that initiative provides a $5 million grant from which qualified early childhood programs can obtain funding to improve their efficiency as high-quality learning programs.

Rae Shawn Crosson-Settles, who manages OSSE’s childcare subsidy program, also monitors the District’s more than 500 licensed childcare providers.

She credited the city with already having “well-mastered” the bulk of its early childhood objectives.

“No state in the country has free public education for all 3- and 4-year-olds,” Crosson-Settles said. “Whether or not a parent choses to [enroll] their child [in preschool], we have free slots for those ages at facilities all over the District.”

Arnaya Bell, the mother of children ages 1 and 5, said the programs have been a godsend for single working women like herself who are looking for early learning programs committed to giving their children a boost as they enter school.

Bell, 27, said her oldest child began his education two years ago having attended a program at Kipp Public Charter School that was similar to Head Start. Her youngest son is currently enrolled at the Southeast Children’s Fund Development Center on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue.

While Bell who lives in Ward 8, acknowledged her oldest child’s progress in PreK-3, which is part of a national initiative to transform how children 3 to 8 learn, she also remembers the difficulty she had obtaining childcare vouchers so that her son could attend Kipp.

“There was only one place in the city to get them and they only took requests early in the week,” Bell said. “So, most times [women in need of the vouchers] would have to be in line by 6 a.m.”

Bell also admitted being concerned that last year’s federal budget cuts and subsequent government shutdown could have ended Head Start, altogether.

“I was relieved because many parents are dependent on these kinds of programs for decent childcare as well,” said Bell. “I think Mayor Gray has done a good job helping the city provide alternatives for [childcare and early learning], so although there may be room for improvement in certain areas, I wouldn’t want to see them end.”