As part of the Secretary’s Strong Start, Bright Future back-to-school bus tour, I had the opportunity to meet with early learning providers, parents, and children in Las Cruces, N.M. Las Cruces, situated near the Mexico border, has a large Hispanic community and is surrounded by small rural farming villages. It was chile harvest time and the smell of roasting green chile was in the air.
Las Cruces and Doña Ana County are served by three early intervention agencies under contract with the New Mexico Department of Health, Family Infant Toddler (FIT) Program. The FIT Program is the lead agency for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (Part C) and ensures that families of children birth to age three with, or at risk of, developmental delays and disabilities have access to quality early intervention services, no matter where they live. In New Mexico, that can mean serving families in large urban areas, rural towns and small villages, tribal communities, and those families living on ranches separated by long dirt roads. I was thrilled to personally witness the passion, commitment, and dedication of the individuals and organizations involved in making sure that families get the supports and services they need, in the language and culture appropriate to the family.
Of course, children receiving Part C services are children first, and have the same need for high-quality early care and learning opportunities as their nondisabled peers. Fortunately, for the children and families in Doña Ana County, providers of Part C services, Head Start, Early Head Start, home visitation, child care, and the public preschools all work together to ensure that some of our most vulnerable babies have access to high-quality early learning.
For New Mexico, it starts with rigorous outreach, public awareness, and home visitation to identify infants and toddlers who are eligible for early intervention services. According to Andy Gomm, the State FIT Director, “we make sure families know that early intervention can make a lifetime of difference.” Part C early intervention services provide critical supports and services to our youngest children with disabilities or delays so they too can enter kindergarten ready to succeed.
But Part C services are not an educational placement. Young children with disabilities need these services as part of their early learning experience. To be most effective, these services should be delivered in inclusive early care and education settings.
With scarce resources, the providers in Doña Ana County work collaboratively and share those resources, tools, professional development, and training to make sure that families get the early care and education their children need. Parents expressed how important it is for these providers to work together so their children can experience seamless, high-quality early learning.
During the trip, I also had the opportunity to visit with the amazing folks at “Jardin de los Niños,” who provide early care and education, as well as parent support services, to homeless families. One of the highlights was playing in the sand box with a little girl who offered to “bake me a chocolate cake” out of sand. These educators and other providers are truly creating new possibilities for homeless and near homeless children and families.
The dedicated and passionate early care and education providers of Doña Ana County are working together to meet the diverse needs of young children and families in their community. They’re building a high-quality early learning system, giving our children the best opportunity for a strong start and a bright future.
Michael Yudin is acting assistant secretary for ED’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services