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Primeros Pasos: In Step with Big Moves For Infants and Toddlers

  ·  Jacob Vigil

Babies and toddlers are on a roll! 

Our children have been scoring some exciting victories in federal policy, not to mention in Illinois and other states. 

While the recent attention and resources directed toward infants and toddlers may be unprecedented, the Latino Policy Forum and its early childhood partners have long known that supporting the learning and development of our youngest children is one of the best bets when it comes to strengthening educational outcomes.

In a report released last fall, Primeros Pasos: Strengthening Programs that Support Illinois Infants and Toddlers, the Forum made a clear case for the importance of the early years, specifically from birth-to-three.

It turns out our timing was excellent.

Congress passed an omnibus budget bill in January that included exceptional investments in programs targeted toward infants and toddlers.  Out of a total $1.4 billion increase in early childhood funding, $500 million was earmarked for a competitive grant program designed to expand access to high quality services through partnerships between Early Head Start (EHS) and child care providers. 

These partnerships are intended to connect low-income children under age three who are in licensed child care settings with EHS quality standards.  EHS is a federally-funded, community based program that provides comprehensive child development services and family support to infants and toddlers in poverty.  Advocates and leaders in the field are hailing the EHS-Child Care partnerships as a game-changing investment.

State leaders estimate that Illinois’ share of the grant will be between $20 and $30 million.  Add this to the recent reauthorization of the Maternal and Infant Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) program – a federal initiative that supports a variety of evidence-based models that have a significant impact on Latino children – and the future is looking brighter for Illinois’ youngest residents.

Illinois has moved in step with these exciting developments. In his proposed state budget for FY2015, Governor Pat Quinn unveiled a five-year, $1.5 billion plan that includes restorations of recent cuts or boosts in funding for child care, early intervention, and home visiting – all of which are critical components of our state’s birth-to-three system.

Although these are all substantial improvements, to be truly effective, Illinois’ early care and learning systems must grow and take shape in response to today’s demographic realities.

Latinos, who make up one out of every four children under age three in Illinois and in the U.S., stand to benefit greatly from the expansion of Early Head Start and the continuation of high quality home visiting services. Primeros Pasos explores how these programs support the foundation for future learning though intervention at the time of most rapid brain growth.  The impact is even greater for families living in poverty and with low levels of parental education. Latinos are a quarter of all young children, but make up an even greater proportion of those in low income households.

As a recent brief published by the Forum shows, Early Head Start and other infant and toddler programs serve a fraction of eligible children. Primeros Pasos goes in-depth by outlining the unique strengths and challenges of Latino children and families and offering recommendations for improvement and expansion of culturally and linguistically responsive services. 

The report has been featured in a variety of media  outlets, affirming that there is widespread interest and demand in the Latino community for information on how parents can support their children’s academic success.   At a time when child poverty is at an all-time high and troubling racial disparities persist in child health, well-being, and education, the prioritizing of infants and toddlers by federal and state governments is a crucial and welcome development.

The forthcoming expansion of Early Head Start and other policy changes will shape Illinois’ early childhood infrastructure for years to come. However, will these changes be responsive to and shaped by the diversity of needs and strengths in Illinois’ infant and toddler population?

The Latino Policy Forum is working hard to make it so.  Primeros Pasos is our rallying cry to Illinois and the nation to not let the current attention on birth-to-three become a wasted opportunity.  The future of Latinos—and of all our children—is counting on it.


Photo: Olivier Hodac /Flickr /Creative Commons

Posted In: Access & Resources, Educators, Education