Five Questions with Casey: Gail Hayes on Early Childhood Education

Posted April 15, 2013, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

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Gail Hayes direct­ed the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Atlanta Civic Site from 2004 through 2013. The civic site focus­es on five high-pover­ty neigh­bor­hoods in south­west Atlanta. Hayes man­aged a broad Casey port­fo­lio aimed at help­ing par­ents improve their eco­nom­ic prospects while putting their chil­dren on a path to aca­d­e­m­ic suc­cess. As part of this work, she was respon­si­ble for the Geor­gia Cam­paign for Grade-Lev­el Read­ing. Before join­ing Casey in 2003, she led nation­al and state efforts to sup­port more com­pre­hen­sive approach­es to health and human services.

Gail Hayes

Q1. Ear­ly child­hood devel­op­ment has been a crit­i­cal part of your work in the Atlanta Civic Site. Why?

Study after study has con­firmed that ear­ly learn­ing is crit­i­cal, espe­cial­ly for kids liv­ing in pover­ty. The younger the child, the more dev­as­tat­ing pover­ty is to future suc­cess as a stu­dent and an adult. With so many kids liv­ing in pover­ty in our neigh­bor­hoods, we must help these kids get off to a good and healthy start. The area we serve is 83% African Amer­i­can, with 49% of chil­dren liv­ing in pover­ty. So when we real­ized that, nation­al­ly, so many of the kids who were not read­ing by third grade were chil­dren of col­or and liv­ing in pover­ty, it became a clear imper­a­tive for our work locally.

Q2. The civic site’s invest­ment in an inno­v­a­tive ear­ly learn­ing school, now called Edu­care Atlanta, has yield­ed impres­sive gains for chil­dren in terms of school readi­ness. What have been the key ingredients?

First, you have to have great teach­ers; the instruc­tion­al qual­i­ty has to be the very best. Sec­ond, you have to have great learn­ing spaces with high-qual­i­ty mate­ri­als. Third, you have to engage par­ents from the get-go, and not just in tra­di­tion­al ways. You have to help them strength­en their capac­i­ty, con­fi­dence and com­pe­tence as par­ents. Fourth, we have strong com­po­nents to address children’s health and social and emo­tion­al bar­ri­ers to learn­ing so that we take a com­pre­hen­sive, fam­i­ly-cen­tered approach. The last piece is lin­ing up the financ­ing to put all of this in place.

Q3. What dis­tin­guish­es the ear­ly learn­ing work in Atlanta from oth­er places?

What’s ground­break­ing is our two-gen­er­a­tion approach to serv­ing both the par­ents and chil­dren simul­ta­ne­ous­ly with a bun­dle of resources and sup­ports. More than 80 per­cent of the chil­dren enrolled in Edu­care Atlanta have a par­ent who is also enrolled in the Cen­ter for Work­ing Fam­i­lies. This approach strives to ensure that chil­dren are suc­ceed­ing in get­ting ready for school and par­ents are suc­ceed­ing with their careers.

Anoth­er inno­va­tion is the use of a nurse, whose job is to ensure that all chil­dren and their fam­i­lies are enrolled in health insur­ance and have a sta­ble, high-qual­i­ty med­ical home —mean­ing a reg­u­lar pri­ma­ry care doc­tor. Too often, fam­i­lies in high-pover­ty neigh­bor­hoods rely on emer­gency rooms for health care. Through our exten­sive screen­ing, we have iden­ti­fied a lot of untreat­ed con­di­tions, from vision and hear­ing issues to asth­ma and severe res­pi­ra­to­ry prob­lems. We make sure that all of these con­di­tions are treated.

Q4. What do you think the Casey Foundation’s most sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion has been in pro­mot­ing the impor­tance of invest­ments in ear­ly child­hood education?

By cre­at­ing this com­plex in Atlanta where we start at birth and work with chil­dren until fifth grade, we’ve put prac­tices to work on the ground. We are doc­u­ment­ing the impact of this work and track­ing these kids through high school grad­u­a­tion. Final­ly, we are draw­ing sup­port nation­wide for this work through the Cam­paign for Grade-Lev­el Read­ing. We’re find­ing that every­body, regard­less of polit­i­cal per­sua­sion, can get behind ensur­ing that kids are read­ing by third grade.

Q5. At the nation­al and fed­er­al lev­el, what do you think the out­look is for expand­ing the avail­abil­i­ty of preschool for all children?

I’m opti­mistic. On the fed­er­al lev­el, there is an empha­sis on grow­ing the invest­ment and qual­i­ty of ear­ly learn­ing pro­grams. It’s a com­pli­cat­ed time to be doing it when there is such a big push to reduce the fed­er­al debt, but I’m hop­ing that this will be an area that will be non­par­ti­san and uni­fy­ing to advance bet­ter out­comes for all kids.

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