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Kids’ First Years, a Crucial Voice in Early Childhood Education

All photos: Elyse Cosgrove, Torch Pictures)

Alexandria, VA – Young children growing up in poverty are more likely to enter kindergarten already behind, which puts them at risk of falling further behind in school, and in life….In Alexandria, only 37.85% of economically disadvantaged children meet the benchmarks for entering kindergarten. Investments to ensure access to high-quality early childhood education make sense, are the right thing to do and are the sole focus of Kids’ First Years. Excerpted from “Our Common Agenda,” kidsfirstyears.org

Kids’ First Years is the collective voice for the organizations in Alexandria who work together to ensure our city provides support, care, and education for all young children and their families,” says Michelle Smith Howard, KFY Executive Director. “If families in Alexandria are trying to navigate the early education system, we can connect them to the partners in the city that do this work.”

Learning starts at birth. Early care and education is available in those earliest years, but if families wait until kindergarten to reach out, the situation often becomes remedial. KFY’s goal is to make families aware of Alexandria’s systems and make those systems easy to navigate.

Where are children falling short of the benchmarks? “There’s no one piece of it,” says Smith Howard. “Some of it is phonological awareness.” [Phonological awareness is how people recognize and work with the sounds of spoken language. It is the foundational skill for learning to read and write.]

Another piece, more prevalent during the pandemic, is mental health and social-emotional development, the effect on small children of what families may have endured through quarantine, job loss, or having to work under the threat of COVID-19. Teaching staff need the skills to support both child and family because the family is a big part of the education sector, especially early childhood. There is little interaction with a child without a parent being there.

“Before COVID, a big part of our work focused on access barriers,” says Smith Howard, “making sure the system makes sense and that families weren’t running into a bunch of hoops and brick walls.” This included where programs are located, e.g., are they near elementary schools that older siblings may attend? Are they in parts of the city where families may need more access to publicly funded programs? Or near their jobs? All these factors were studied.

Shifting with Covid

“When schools closed and we had to shift to virtual education—screen time and virtual learning pretty much go against everything we learn in early care and education,” says Smith Howard, “because we’re all about in-person interactions and building relationships. To say we’re going to put three- or four-year-olds in front of a screen and teach them was a big shift for us.”

Early on, ACPS, the Campagna Center, Child and Family Network Center, Creative Play School, and Hopkins House, among others, came together to adapt to teaching children at home, forming a cross-community collaboration team.

“ACPS, by virtue of being ACPS, had more resources for materials and things that could go home,” says Smith Howard, “but we have what’s called a mixed delivery model in Alexandria, meaning that children are educated in both public school settings and by community-based partners.”

Under the Virginia Preschool Initiative, Alexandria has the ACPS VPI and the community-based Campagna Center VPI. KFY also has partners in the early care and education space (see sidebar). As a result, children may be Head Start students or VPI students through a community partner while their classroom is located in an ACPS school building.

The team created uniform activity kits to ensure that three- and four-year-old kids who were not ACPS students could have the same quality materials. The activity kits comprised hands-on materials such as Play-Doh, crayons, scissors, construction paper, and other art materials, plus written packets with ideas for art activities, outdoor fun, science and discovery books, and songs.

Kids’ First Years partners, including ACPS, The Campagna Center, and Child and Family Network Centers, paid for the activity kits. In coordination with ACPS, all 700+ early care and education students in the city received a tablet to do virtual learning.

Now and into the future

Knowing that some families may not want their children in daycare or a school setting younger than five, KFY developed The Basic Activity Kit with varied materials and suggested activities for parents to use at home.

KFY’s first community-wide campaign, The Basics, addresses the need to be more intentional when engaging children from birth to three. “We’re working with local partners, businesses, and pediatricians,” says Smith Howard. “It’s just ‘hey, can you talk to families about the basics? There are simple principles around it. If you’re walking down the street to the corner, count the steps aloud as you’re walking. When you’re at the grocery store with your child, talk about what you see—the different types of apples, the colors of apples. These are things that people already do with their children, but we’re just the reminder behind it.”

The Basics may seem too basic, but input of this kind is vital for very young children. Basic Insights is the text messaging program associated with it. KFY’s goal is complete community saturation, “to make certain that everyone in Alexandria will be familiar with the basics one day.”

What does KFY need?

A public-private partnership, KFY looks for partners who want to have an impact in the early education space. “If people are interested, let’s have a conversation about what may interest you,” says Smith Howard. “I’m a strong believer that things must be mutually beneficial. People have to feel like it’s a good fit for them.”

Many KFY partners have volunteer opportunities within their respective organizations. Funding, of course, is always important. KFY’s fiscal agent is ACT for Alexandria. It has a plan through ACT to accept welcome donations.

“The biggest thing I want your readers to know is that Kids’ First Years is the collective voice of Alexandria’s early care and education community,” says Smith Howard. “We know what our city needs, what we want our city to have. My role as backbone support is to ensure that the work keeps moving.

“The next biggest thing is for the families. Trying to navigate websites or find pamphlets to read can be overwhelming, particularly for someone who may be in crisis or need help. Contact Kids’ First Years and let us help you connect.

“Finally, we want people to understand how important early education is. When we think about young children, we usually say the K-12 system. But kids aren’t just born and already in kindergarten. There’s this whole life they’re living before they get there. Early childhood goes across race, socio-economic status, levels of finance. You have young children, and you need things to do with them. Kids’ First Years wants to engage them. We all want the best for our young kids. As a community, we can rally and support and ensure that we’re setting all of Alexandria’s children up for success.”

Alexandria’s Collective Voice for Early Care and Education

Kids’ First Years Executive Director Michelle Smith Howard was born and raised in D.C. She followed her mother, now a retired D.C. public school teacher, into the education field. Michelle says that she followed her heartstrings.

The partners working with KFY on behalf of Alexandria’s youngest residents are:

ACT for Alexandria

Alexandria City Public Schools

Alexandria Health Department


Bruhn-Morris Family Foundation

The Campagna Center

The Center for Alexandria’s Children

Child and Family Network Centers

Alexandria Dept. of Community & Human Services

City of Alexandria

Creative Play School

Frank and Betty Wright Foundation

George Mason University

Hopkins House

Neighborhood Health

New America

Northern Virginia Community College Alexandria

Northern Virginia Family Services

Voices for Virginia’s Children

Learn more about KFY’s plans, progress, and success online at kidsfirstyears.org or by email at [email protected].

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