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Early Childhood Development: From Building Blocks to Action



Welcome. A deep thanks to all the folks from CGI America who have worked tirelessly to pull this event together, while attending to the mind-numbing complexity of all of the other component pieces of the conference.

Special thanks are due to President Clinton and Donna Shalala for making this stage and space so compelling, serving as a magnet for ideas, activities and networks that strengthen immeasurably the fabric of American life.

And finally, thank you to our hosts, the High Museum of Art. Let me just say that as a son of an architect, being in the presence of architectural genius – embodied by the forms and spaces created by Richard Meier and Renzo Piano – is inspiring.

Looking around the room, I had two very different reactions. First, it’s pretty clear that we could have chosen a panel at random from this audience and had a deeply informed and highly provocative discussion about early childhood development. But second, because of your collective expertise, experience and insight, we have an opportunity to frame a conversation that has a sharp edge – and that may take us beyond conventional ways of approaching the topic.

We’re going to be focusing on early childhood development as a matter of municipal policy and practice. A word about why we believe that this is a city’s problem to solve in the first place.

There’s no doubt that the federal and state governments have a monumental role to play in supporting early childhood systems. Witness the Obama administration’s elevation of early childhood as a priority or the actions of states like Michigan, Pennsylvania or Minnesota to introduce quality standards and increase resource flows.

But as we’ve seen in Cleveland and Minneapolis and New York City and Philadelphia and San Antonio and so many other places, the rubber hits the road at the local level. It is where parents can be mobilized; where informal care providers can be knit together into a more concerted system; where early learning centers can be developed that combine child care and maternal health and family supports and Head Start; where pre-school programming can be feathered into the larger K-12 system; where alternative forms of financing can be tested.

So we’ve assembled a panel of individuals uniquely suited to speak to the urban ecology of early childhood development and welfare. I hope we’ll focus on two issues in particular:

  • First, what is the playbook that can make a material and enduring difference in enhancing the early stages of a child’s life?
  • Second, what are the activation strategies for that playbook: What do you lead with; who needs to step forward; how do you manage the politics?


I. A Playbook for Early Childhood

So first, the question of our playbook.

We now have the benefit of decades of mind-bending advances in the science of early brain development; of growing bodies of research about effective models; of ever-higher levels of public clarity about the payoffs, the 7-to-1 returns on investment; of  the educational and social benefits that attend quality early learning and development opportunities.

It would stand to reason, therefore, that we must have a crystal-clear view of our path forward.

Well, yes, but with a slight torque.

Because we do indeed understand the essential components of an effective early childhood system:

  • Somewhere in the mix you need comprehensive, all-day, year-round child care, both in home-based centers and through federal and state-run programs.
  • You need environments that are safe, clean, and engaging.
  • You need coordinated, wrap-around services from the health and human service sectors.
  • You need early maternal health services, ranging from prenatal care to home visits; from early and periodic screenings to primary care.
  • You need well-qualified and well-supported providers.
  • You need a comprehensive and coordinated data infrastructure.
  • And much more.

The torque comes from the practical reality that from one community to another, what we see is bricolage – bits and pieces of what is required wired together with whatever materials happen to be available. Idiosyncratic responses based on the resources, the leadership structures, the preexisting infrastructure present in a place.

On one hand, this isn’t all bad – a suite of responses particular to the history, values and strengths of a place. On the other hand, however, the result can be far less desirable: hit and miss results, with too many holes in the membrane, too many kids underserved.

So that leads to the second question: How do we construct complete systems?


II. Creating a System

I’m hoping the panel will help us answer that question. We’ll hear about the emergence of remarkably thoughtful approaches in Atlanta and Philadelphia. We’ll be reminded of the screaming need for comprehensiveness in Flint. But to prime that conversation, I wanted to offer a couple of observations about how we’re proposing to build out an early childhood system in Detroit.

In response to a call to action from the White House in 2014, The Kresge Foundation made a commitment to not only invest $20 million in early childhood programs in Detroit, but also to help birth an integrated and comprehensive system for kids to arrive at the schoolhouse door ready to learn – emotionally, academically, developmentally.

Like the cities I just described, Detroit possesses bits and pieces of the playbook:

  • Head Start, although it was chronically underinvested and mismanaged.
  • Informal care offered by family, friends, and relatives, although it was of wildly differing quality.
  • Institutional care, although it reached only a small percentage of Detroit’s youngest residents.

But that was about it. No rating systems for quality. Only one or two examples of integrated services at a single site.  No overarching oversight to ensure full access.

Our question, therefore, was how to get started. We could either begin working from the outside in, or from the inside out. Let me explain.

The outside-in approach pivots on strengthening the building blocks of neighborhood health and opportunity, creating the surround in which parents and children can thrive:

  • Ensuring that parents have the supports they need to navigate paths of success for their children.
  • Improving access to community-based and preventive health care.
  • Layering in smart municipal housing, transit and educational policies.

The challenge is the broader community development challenge of weaving all these important pieces together into a cohesive whole.

The inside-out approach concentrates on those places in which children are spending their days, and in turn tying them to broader community support systems, whether that’s through building new childcare centers or boosting home-based care or creating new pre-K programs.

The challenge in Detroit is that we’ve fallen short on both counts.

On one hand, our community development systems are weak – the multifaceted strategies necessary to attack Detroit’s intolerably high levels of childhood poverty are grossly underdeveloped and inadequate.

On the other hand, we have too few high-quality places for the youngest children to learn and develop – a recent study from the Illinois Finance Fund showed that more than more than 27,000 Detroit kids lack adequate care, or more than 65 percent of Detroit kids.

Our response at Kresge is accordingly two-fold:

  • We’re pushing from the outside in by pursuing a full-range of community development strategies: from investing in community organizing capacity to underwriting housing stabilization; from promoting neighborhood small business development to promoting greater access to fresh food.
  • We’re building from the inside out through an initiative called Kresge Early Years for Success (KEYS). It is rooted in a commitment to improve centers of development. We’ll provide financing for the rehabilitation and upgrades of existing centers. We’ll invest in a handful of new centers that model multi-dimensional supports for parents and their children. We’ll contribute to the expansion of Head Start slots. We’ll make resources available for informal providers of care to work together and learn from one another. We’ll draw national expertise to the city to share effective ways to improve early childhood development practices.

Tying all of this together will be an effort led by Kresge and the Kellogg Foundation to build a new city-wide coalition – comprising leaders from the public, private, nonprofit, and philanthropic systems – to design and help give birth to a shared vision – and activation plan – for a comprehensive, accountable and effective early childhood development system in the city of Detroit.

Just before our panel, I hope you’ll indulge us to share a two-minute video about what we hope KEYS: Detroit will undertake in the next five years.

III. The Roles of the Different Sectors

Detroit’s experience suggests the potential for the philanthropic sector to help shape a more complete system: by helping set the table for complex, difficult civic conversations; by taking the risk necessary to test promising approaches; by investing in the countless individuals and organizations who dedicate their lives to improving outcomes for children; by advocating for smart public policies that will support and uplift young children and their families.

But clearly, philanthropy is only one piece of the puzzle. The panel with us this evening suggests just how varied and powerful a role all sectors of our community can play.

So I want to ask them – and you, as we move into the audience for comments and questions – about how to activate the political will, how to assemble the necessary resources, how to build the civic capacity necessary to put in place what we all know is required for our children to get a full and fair start in life.

You have the biographies of our speakers, so I won’t repeat them. But let me say just a word about these three remarkable people:

  • The Honorable Kasim Reed, the mayor of the city of Atlanta, has delivered on his campaign commitments to make Atlanta a model of fiscal responsibility, to augment public safety efforts and to reopen public parks.
  • Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, whose research and advocacy helped bring the Flint drinking water crisis to the nation’s attention. There is nobody who has been more principled, more passionate and more tenacious in her fight for justice and equity for Flint’s children and families than Dr. Hanna-Attisha.
  • Laura Sparks, the executive director of the William Penn Foundation in Philadelphia. Under Laura’s leadership, the Penn Foundation has helped elevate early childhood development – particularly universal pre-K – to a position of primacy in municipal policy. As she’ll describe, just last week the city adopted a first-of-its-kind tax on sugar beverages to pay for investments in early childhood and in the city’s public spaces – parks, libraries, community centers.

We will turn to them shortly to explore the roles each sector can play. Tired of the cliché of introducing someone who needs no introduction? Well, I’m honored to introduce the person for whom that phrase was invented. A person of unparalleled genius and passion for improving the life circumstances of vulnerable people throughout the world. Please join me in welcoming the 42nd President of the United States, Bill Clinton.