Babies don't come with instructions, but there is help. Jennifer McHugh and her staff at Baby Connections, a branch of Winona Area Public Schools Community Education, visit families and field questions about everything from how much sleep babies need to dealing with jealous older siblings.
Baby Connections is one example of early childhood education, that is, education for children and parents from prenatal to kindergarten age. For years, there's been a growing body of research suggesting that what happens to people in their first few years of life has a tremendous impact on their ability to succeed in school and beyond.
This winter, the Winona Early Childhood Initiative (WECI) began a fundraising campaign called "Pay It Forward" to help every child in the area receive quality early childhood education. The WECI is an independent organization, not associated with the public schools, that runs a number of programs aimed at promoting early childhood developmental health.
The "Pay It Forward" campaign's aim is to raise one million dollars for an endowment which will provide funding in three areas: helping families gain access to quality childcare and early childhood education; providing training and education opportunities for childcare providers and educators; and offering education for families on the importance of early childhood education.
An economist's argument for Early Childhood Ed.
Much of the impetus for the campaign comes from research by Art Rolnick, economist and Minneapolis Federal Reserve Chair. Rolnick spoke about the value of early childhood education at a lunch hosted by the WECI in Winona this summer.
"The best investment you can make is in high-quality early education, especially for our most vulnerable children," Rolnick said.
Rolnick's research at the Minneapolis Federal Reserve focuses on a group of studies that show that children who get high-quality early education are less likely to be held back in school, require special education, or commit a crime, and more likely to be literate, find a job, pay taxes, and own a home.
Led by Rolnick, the Minneapolis Federal Reserve investigated the return on investment that came from these early education programs in the study. That is, how much did society save (by not having to keep the children who were part of the study in school an extra year, provide them with special education, or incarcerate them as adults) and how much did society benefit (from the children growing up to perform jobs and pay taxes) compared to the cost of the early education program? Rolnick discovered that the return was up to 18 percent.
"The return on investment form early childhood education is extraordinary, resulting in better working public schools, more educated workers, and less crime," Rolnick wrote in a 2003 paper. "Any proposed economic development list should have early childhood development at the top."
Investing in the future of our community
McHugh co-coordinates the WECI with Lezlea Dahlke, youth services librarian at the Winona Public Library. Together they researched the early childhood education needs of the local community. They interviewed parents and care providers and conducted surv on-dollar goal.
Like Rolnick, the "Pay It Forward" campaign sees contributing to early childhood education as an investment.
"Money spent on this stage of early development has huge, huge dividends not just for the child but for society," Iglesias said.
Hanzel called the program "possibly the most valuable kind of community development in Winona."
Iglesias hopes business leaders will support the investment in the future of their communities. For him, the importance of early childhood development is not an abstract idea or monetary figure. Iglesias adopted his son Brennan from an orphanage in Romania when Brennan was two.
"When he got here, there were developmental issues from him being in an institution," Iglesias said. "For my wife and me it became very important to provide all that we could for him."
The quality preschool that was available for Brennan allowed him to overcome many of his problems, Iglesias said. "I saw first-hand a child that was slower in certain areas because he wasn't exposed to certain things early on. It has a significant impact."
"For young children, the basis of learning is strong relationships," McHugh said. "So our aim is to help all children in Winona have those strong relationships from birth."
Funds raised by the "Pay It Forward" campaign will be available for parents and care providers regardless of whether they are affiliated with any school systems. The WECI is still developing the application process for receiving "Pay it Forward" funds. At-risk children are especially important to their mission, McHugh said, but the program will be open to anyone.