Regional Roundup: 2013 Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge

RTT-ELC grantees announced

Yesterday, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius announced that six states—Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Vermont—will receive a total of $280 million in grant awards from the 2013 Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC) fund.

The grants aim to help build comprehensive systems that improve the quality of early learning and development programs throughout the winning states – a down payment on constructing high quality early learning systems that reaches all families. RTT-ELC supports states in their systemic efforts to align, coordinate, and improve the quality of existing early learning and development programs across multiple funding streams that support children from birth through age five.

Under the Obama administration, RTT-ELC has awarded over $1 billion to provide a strong start for our nation’s youngest children and to put them on the path to a bright future. The program is a key part of the administration’s comprehensive early learning agenda in combination with President Obama’s Preschool for All proposal. To learn more about yesterday’s announcement and the administration’s ongoing efforts to improve access to high-quality early learning, read this blog postfrom officials at the U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Here is a small sample of the coverage that the 2013 Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge announcement has generated in winning states:

PA — The Philadelphia Inquirer: Pa., N.J. among states sharing ‘Race’ funds

State education officials said major initiatives that will be funded by the grant include establishing 50 early childhood education “innovation zones” to develop strategies to support and engage families in the lowest performing-elementary schools, and launching four “Governor’s Institutes” that will bring together nearly 3,000 prekindergarten to third-grade educators to share experiences and strategies. “Quality matters,” said Barbara Minzenberg, Pennsylvania’s deputy secretary for the Office of Child Development and Early Learning. “It makes a difference in outcomes for children.”

PA – Allentown Morning  Call: Pennsylvania secures $51.7 million for early childhood education

The money will be used to improve access for children with high needs to quality early learning and development programs, Dumaresq said. It will also increase access and delivery of high-quality professional development for early learning educators, according to the state. The state will use its new School Performance Profile, which gives every public school a number grade out of 100, to identify the lowest performing elementary schools.

MI – Detroit Free Press: $52M federal grant will benefit education of 182,000 low-income Michigan children

The state aims to increase access to high-quality early childhood programs, increase opportunities for home care providers to improve the quality of their programs and expand training, especially for home care providers. Working with families, the state plans to ensure that more parents understand and are engaged in their child’s early learning. That includes involving more families and providers in efforts to identify and promote children’s physical, social and emotional health.

MI – The Detroit News: Michigan gets first federal Race to Top school grant

The Obama administration said Thursday that Michigan will receive $51.7 million in federal dollars aimed at improving access for early childhood education throughout the state. After several unsuccessful tries, Thursday’s award marks the first time Michigan earned federal Race to the Top dollars under President Barack Obama’s signature competitive educational grant program. “We had the No. 1 application, so that’s pretty cool,” Gov. Rick Snyder told The Detroit News editorial board Thursday afternoon in praising the grant award.

GA – The Augusta Chronicle: Georgia one of six states awarded millions for early childhood learning programs

Cagle said child care facilities participating in the voluntary program will receive higher reimbursements for expanding access to low-income children. Money will also go toward incentives for joining the evaluation system, which rates facilities on criteria such as learning environment, staff qualifications, physical activity and food nutrition. “We think investing early will increase educational outcomes,” Cagle said. “It will prevent much of the retaining of students in grades, which costs us about twice what it cost normally to educate students. We want to get it out there early and prevent having to invest on the back end.”

GA — Savannah Morning News Georgia receives Race to the Top funds for early learning programs

Georgia’s plan for its $51.7 million share of the Race to the Top-Early Learning funds is to use $25 million to increase the number of preschool and child care centers that earn quality ratings through Georgia’s voluntary Quality Rated System. Currently 1,300 of the 6,000 programs in the state have applied, according to Cagle. But he plans to increase that number by using the grant money to provide bonus payments to centers that earn high quality ratings. Centers can earn those ratings by implementing age-appropriate instructional programs outlined by Georgia Bright from the Start.

KY – Lexington Herald Leader: Kentucky among 6 states to receive $280 million in early-learning grants

Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday said quality early childhood education can mean the difference between success and failure for kids — especially those from low-income families. Better preparing young children for school has positive long-term effects on school achievement, whether a student is retained or placed in special education and ultimately whether he or she graduates from high school ready for college and career, Holliday said.

KY – Louisville Courier-Journal: 

The money, part of the 2013 Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge, will be awarded to the Kentucky Department of Education, which can use the money to establish quality early childhood education programs from birth to kindergarten, ensure that quality program standards are applied to all early learning programs in the state, promoting health and family engagement strategies and improve efforts to inform parents of early childhood program opportunities.

VT – The Times-Argus: Vt to get $37 million for early education

Calling it the “largest single investment in early childhood education in Vermont’s history,” Gov. Peter Shumlin celebrated news of the grant award Thursday. “This grant award will move our early childhood system forward by improving quality and access of education and services, supporting and expanding our early childhood workforce, supporting families in need so that they can provide a better start for their children and more,” Shumlin said. “It will mean more families will have access to high-quality early learning and development programs.”

VT – The Burlington Free-Press: Vermont wins education grant

“This major federal grant will significantly improve early-childhood education in our state and better prepare our kids for school and the challenges and opportunities in life,” Sanders said in a statement. Winning states created proposals to expand and improve services, particularly for children with high needs. That includes children from low-income families, those with disabilities and those learning English. The program, jointly administered by the U.S. Education Department and the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, is designed to supplement state investments for children from birth to age 5.

NJ – The Associated Press: N.J. among 6 states to get ‘Race to the Top’ money for early childhood education programs

This is the third time these early learning grants have been issued. Fourteen other states were previous winners. In total, nearly $1 billion in grants has been distributed. The winning states must show a willingness to carry out comprehensive improvements to programs focused on children from birth to age 5. Details were expected to be released later today about what the winning states proposed to do with the money. “This investment is a down payment to support and implement high-quality early learning programs across the country,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement. “There is still a lot more work for us to do.”

NJ – The Asbury Park Press: N.J. to receive $44.3 million in Race to the Top funds

The grant will fund an initiative that sets standards to guide the quality of programming, broadens training for program staff, and provides parents with a Consumer Reports-like rating system of early learning providers, according to the state. The plan’s cornerstone is the statewide rating improvement system, called Grow NJ Kids, to expand from a pilot of 56 programs to 1,790 over four years. Participants will follow a set of standards aimed at improving programming quality, according to the state.

Stephen Spector is the deputy press secretary at the U.S. Department of Education

Minnesota: Providing Students A Strong Start

Secretary Duncan and students

Secretary Duncan, right, joined Jody Bohrer’s Kindersprouts circle time during his Minnesota visit along with students Brody Mallunger, left, and Rubi Torres, at Pond Early Childhood Center, .July 16, 2013 in Minneapolis. Photo Credit: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

This originally appeared in the July 20th edition of the Minnesota Star Tribune. 

The best ideas to put children on a path to school success rarely come from Washington, D.C.

President Obama has put forward a plan to make high-quality preschool affordable for all children — a vital step in putting young people on a path to a thriving middle class. As I saw firsthand in a pair of visits in the Minneapolis area on Tuesday, that effort builds on the work of states like Minnesota.

The day began at Pond Early Childhood Family Center in Bloomington, where I sat with students who sang a song, recited the alphabet and discussed some of their favorite words. The visit was an inspiring example of great educators helping kids get ready for kindergarten in a setting of joy and support.

Later Tuesday, Gov. Mark Dayton, Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius, and other leaders from business, the military, government and the clergy, joined a town-hall discussion at Kennedy Senior High School. At that town hall, parents, teachers, education leaders and others from throughout the state made clear that they have seen the power of early learning — and that they know we must reach many more children.

That understanding did not emerge from Washington. Forward-looking states have led the way — including Minnesota, where Dayton this year signed a bill that invests nearly $200 million in early learning, helping tens of thousands more children attend high-quality child care, preschool and all-day kindergarten.

Minnesota has made a priority of preschool through an Office of Early Learning, a Children’s Cabinet and an Early Learning Council, which together ensure that the cradle-to-career continuum begins with a strong start. In addition, as a winner of a Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge grant, Minnesota is creating systems and infrastructure that offer new ideas to other states.

Minnesota’s work represents real progress for families and children in the face of great need. The state’s new investments will reach about 8,000 children over two years, but that leaves many 3- and 4-year-olds — some 35,000 of them — without access to high-quality early learning opportunities. And that’s why we need to work hard, in Minnesota and across the country, to reach so many more students.

Why? Because of the pivotal role that quality preschool education can play in a child’s life. Studies confirm what every teacher knows: Young children who experience secure, stimulating environments with rich learning opportunities from an early age are better prepared to thrive in school. They reap benefits in high school graduation rates and employment, and are less likely to commit crimes.

Experts — including Art Rolnick, a former senior vice president at the Federal Reserve office here, who joined the town-hall discussion — have made a strong case that public investments in preschool return many times more in savings and benefits. As Rolnick — a tireless advocate for early learning — has said: “The best economic development strategy is investment in early childhood.” Acting on that knowledge will help to position young people to do well in an increasingly competitive and globalized workforce.

Yet today, millions of young children in this country lack that opportunity. Among 4-year-olds in the United States, fewer than three in 10 attend a high-quality preschool program. The availability of high-quality learning and development programs for infants and toddlers likewise presents challenges for families. And the gap is especially pronounced in low-income communities.

That’s why the president has put forward a plan to make high-quality, full-day preschool available to all 4-year-olds from families whose incomes are at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line — a major help to families working to balance work and family responsibilities and the costs of child care. All federal costs of this proposed state-federal partnership would be covered by a new tobacco tax — meaning it won’t add a dime to the deficit. States would receive incentives to provide voluntary high-quality preschool with low class sizes, qualified teachers and stimulating learning experiences.

The plan also would launch a new Early Head Start-Child Care partnership to expand high-quality early learning opportunities for infants and toddlers, along with voluntary home-visiting programs in which nurses, family educators and social workers connect low-income families to health, social and educational supports.

President Obama has spoken about America’s basic bargain: that people who work hard and shoulder their responsibilities should be able to climb into a thriving middle class. Restoring that bargain, he said, is the unfinished work of our generation.

Minnesota is doing that work in earnest. Your children are better for it.

Arne Duncan is the U.S. Secretary of Education.

Working Toward Pre-K for All

This blog was cross posted from the White House blog.

Yesterday, I joined Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in a meeting with early education stakeholders who are working to advance a call that the President made in his State of the Union address.  These organizations shared with the Administration all they have been doing to raise their voice and their support all over the country to advance the President’s proposals for early education.

In the State of the Union address the President said:

Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road. But today, fewer than 3 in 10 four year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program. Most middle-class parents can’t afford a few hundred bucks a week for a private preschool. And for poor kids who need help the most, this lack of access to preschool education can shadow them for the rest of their lives. So tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America. That’s something we should be able to do.

The President has called for three proposals to support our youngest Americans: Preschool for All, Early Head Start-Child Care Parnterships, and an expansion of the Home Visiting program. These are proposals we should implement because the beginning years of a child’s life are critical for building the early foundation needed for success later in school and in career.  Leading economists agree that high-quality early education programs can help level the playing field for children from lower-income families on vocabulary, social and emotional development, while helping students to stay on track and stay engaged in the early elementary grades.

Children who participate in high-quality early education programs are more likely to do well in school, find good jobs, and succeed in their careers than those who don’t.  And research has shown that taxpayers receive a high average return on investments such programs, with savings in areas like improved educational outcomes, increased labor productivity, and a reduction in crime.

But the President’s proposal also extends beyond ensuring all 4-year-olds have access to a high-quality, public pre-kindergarten class, it also includes home visiting programs for low-income families, to ensure new parents have access to the help and support they need from local nurses or other care-givers, and it includes funding for additional high-quality learning programs for children from birth to age three.  By making these critical investments, the President will put resources where we know the return on our dollar is high: in our youngest children.

Yesterday, the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services also teamed up release a new web video that provides an easy to understand explanation of the plan.  Anyone looking for even more information can visit www.whitehouse.gov/earlylearning.

Check out the video and send it to a friend – as the President also said during the State of the Union, “let’s do what works and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind.  Let’s give our kids that chance.”


Click here for an alternate version of the video with an accessible player.

Roberto Rodriguez is Special Assistant to the President for Education Policy

Educator Voice on Early Learning Day of Action

The consensus is in: High-quality preschool provides our country’s children with the social, emotional and academic skills needed for school and for life. This is also the message that individuals and organizations across the country are highlighting today as part of the national Early Learning Day of Action. Bringing attention to high-quality early learning in important because not only do these programs help close the school readiness gap, but they place our children in the best position possible to succeed.

In this new video below, educators provide personal testimony on how high-quality early learning positively affected their students. The teachers speak passionately about how students who had access to pre-K were ahead of their peers socially and academically. (You’ll also hear some early learners talk about why they like preschool.) Watch and listen for yourself:


Click here for an alternate version of the video with an accessible player.

Read about President Obama’s proposal to dramatically increase access to high-quality preschool and expand early learning and support services for infants, toddlers and families. You can also see how the proposal would affect your state by checking out these state-by-state fact sheets.

Cameron Brenchley is director of digital strategy at the U.S. Department of Education

Advancing Family and Community Engagement in San Antonio

san antonio mayor

“Families want the chance to achieve the American Dream and to pass the baton of opportunity to their children” – Mayor Julián Castro, who spoke about his Pre-K 4 SA early childhood initiative.

During our recent visit to San Antonio, we had the opportunity to learn how community organizations and schools are working together to engage families in education.

We heard from San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro how the community has rallied to support the expansion of pre-kindergarten education.  In November, San Antonio residents approved funding for Pre-K for San Antonio that will provide over 22,000 four year olds with high-quality pre-K.  President Obama has put forth a “Preschool for All” proposal in his Fiscal Year 2014 budget, which calls for a partnership with states in making access to high-quality early learning a reality for every four-year-old in America. Studies prove that children who have rich early learning experiences are better prepared to thrive in school.

We joined a family engagement convening hosted by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and we were able to see first-hand the work of two-generation approaches to education development at AVANCE and the Intercultural Development Research Association.

During our visit to the Eastside Promise Neighborhood we learned how family and community engagement efforts being led by the United Way of San Antonio and Bexar County are moving forward the three goals of Together for Tomorrow:

  • They are laying the groundwork by dedicating staff and volunteers to cultivate and sustain partnerships;
  • They are focusing on the ABCs, Attendance, Behavior, Course Performance, and College Access through things like parent volunteers doing visits to homes when students are repeatedly absent; and
  • They are celebrating and inspiring families and community members to get involved through events that are organized and executed by parents.

We also organized a community discussion to share about Together for Tomorrow, to learn more about local promising practices and examples of school-family partnerships, and to gather feedback to shape the Department’s family engagement efforts.  Hedy Chang from Attendance Works joined us to announce a new toolkit, Bringing Attendance Home: Engaging Parents in Preventing Chronic Absence

The event was live streamed and the video is available here. We were joined by our partners, the National Center for Family Literacy, and will be working with them over the coming months to deepen our family and community engagement efforts with Together for Tomorrow.

Brenda Girton-Mitchell is director of the Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the U.S. Department of Education

Meeting with Mothers and Advocates for Our Children

WHmothers day

Cross-posted from the White House Blog.

During his State of the Union address in February, President Obama called on Congress to expand access to high-quality preschool to every four-year old in America. As the President put it that day:

In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, like Georgia or Oklahoma, studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, form more stable families of their own. We know this works. So let’s do what works and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind. Let’s give our kids that chance.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure to meet with mothers, leaders, and tireless advocates that understand that the best investment we can make as a country is in our children’s future.

The coalition came to the White House to deliver 30,000 letters and art work thanking the President for his proposal to make high-quality preschool available for all children – and I used the opportunity to thank them for all their hard work, and to hear from them about the work they continue to do advocating for children.

They understand that for every dollar spent on high-quality early education, we save more than seven dollars in the long run by boosting kindergarten readiness, graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, and even reducing violent crime. They also understand that providing our children with the best start possible in life is not only a moral imperative, but an economic imperative that will benefit our communities and our nation far into the future.

Investing in education from the earliest ages is the best way to ensure a strong foundation for learning throughout a child’s life; and despite the fact that these benefits are well-documented, our nation has lagged behind the rest of the world in providing high-quality public preschool. The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) estimates that the United States ranks 28th out of 38 countries for the share of four-year olds enrolled in early childhood education.

That’s why the President’s most recent budget detailed the proposal laid out in his State of the Union address, calling for an investment of $75 billion over 10 years, to create a partnership with the States to provide four-year-olds from low and moderate income families with high-quality preschool, while also encouraging states to serve additional four-year-olds from middle-income families. He envisions a new partnership between the federal government and the states that builds upon existing state investments to expand access to high-quality early learning for every child.

This is an issue that comes with strong bipartisan support. As the President noted in his State of the Union address, states such as Georgia and Oklahoma, both of which are led by Republicans, are leading the country in providing access to high-quality public preschool to families in their states. They do this because this is an investment worth making, and the President hopes to build on the success of their efforts by working with leaders on both sides of the aisle.

But, even with strong bipartisan support, policy change is never easy. As I discussed with advocates and mothers this afternoon, the more members of the public lift up their voices and make themselves heard in this debate, the sooner every four-year old will have access to high-quality pre-school.

In February, the White House launched a new tool to enable Americans to find passages in the State of the Union address that they felt were most important to them and provided an opportunity for them to tell us why.

One entry we highlighted, but which I think bears repeating, came from Gail who submitted her thoughts to our website:

Early childhood education matters and should be available to every child in America. We know the investment in quality early care and education pays for itself and we have the resources to do what is right for our children – we need leaders to make this a priority.

I certainly agree, as did the wonderful mothers, children, and advocates I met with yesterday – and we certainly won’t stop working until we can make high-quality early education a reality for all of our children.

Cecilia Muñoz is the Director of the Domestic Policy Council at the White House. 

Universal Preschool is a Sure Path to the Middle Class

This op-ed appeared in the Apr. 19, edition of the Washington Post.

President Obama put forward a plan last week to make access to high-quality early learning a reality for every 4-year-old in America by making full-day preschool available to families with incomes at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line.

Parents, teachers and principals nationwide agree that we need to do more to ensure that children from disadvantaged families begin kindergarten at the same educational starting line as do children from better-off families. The president’s plan includes a cost-sharing arrangement with states, with the entire federal investment of $75 billion covered by a new cigarette tax, and with incentives for states to make programs available for even more middle-class families.

Members of Congress have asked me: How do we know early learning works? What about its lasting impact?

Let’s examine the record.

At an elementary school I recently visited in Bladensburg, teachers told me how much better-prepared students are for the classroom if they’ve been to preschool. “It makes a huge difference,” said one 21-year teacher.

Research backs her up. Studies consistently demonstrate that high-quality early education gives children the foundation they need to succeed. No study is perfect, but the cumulative evidence that high-quality preschool works is overwhelming. Consider a study of 4-year-olds in Tulsa who attended Oklahoma’s high-quality universal preschool program, with small class sizes and well-trained teachers — features that are components of the president’s proposal. They started kindergarten seven months ahead in literacy skills and four months ahead in math skills. Likewise, children who attended Boston’s high-quality preschool program gained seven months in literacy and math. Studies of preschoolers in New Jersey showed substantial gains in literacy and math. These consistent gains are critical steps toward long-term success in school.

Skeptics of early learning say these programs “don’t work” because some studies have failed to find major effects in later grades — the so-called “fade out.” But that’s not quite right.

The most rigorous research that can be compared with what we are proposing — high-quality, full-day preschool — shows crucial benefits in high school graduation rates, employment and avoidance of criminal behavior. Although the best scientific evidence for the long-term effects of early education comes from studies of multiyear programs dating to the 1960s and 1970s, a recent study of New Jersey students who received one year of high-quality public preschool found that by fifth grade, they were less likely to be held back or placed in special education. The few more recent long-term assessments of public preschool consistently indicate similar benefits, including increased graduation rates and reduced arrest rates.

High-quality preschool appears to propel better outcomes by enhancing non-cognitive skills such as persistence, self-control and emotion regulation — skills that depend on early brain development and social experiences and contribute to long-term academic outcomes and career success.

The study often cited by skeptics — the Head Start Impact Study — isn’t a great comparison to the president’s proposal. It examined the effect of offering access to Head Start, not the effect of participation (nearly 20 percent of the 4-year-olds in the Head Start group never attended). The president’s proposal would require higher qualifications for staff than was the case in this study, and this administration has begun putting in place needed quality-control improvements to Head Start.

Preschool works. But is it worth the cost?

Studies of the savings from high-quality early learning demonstrate that the answer is yes. Graduates of such programs are less likely to commit crimes or rely on food stamps and cash assistance; they have greater lifetime earnings, creating increased tax revenue. Although the range of savings varies across studies, the studies consistently find robust returns to taxpayers.

Can we replicate what works? We can, and we must. If the United States is to remain a global economic leader, high-quality preschool must become the norm. The moral case is compelling, too. As President Obama has said, every child should have the opportunity, through hard work, to join the middle class. Children shouldn’t be denied equal educational opportunity at the starting line.

The countries we compete with economically are well ahead of us in preschool opportunity. We rank 28th in the proportion of 4-year-olds enrolled in early learning in surveys by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and 25th in public funding for early learning. Fortunately, we have great examples to learn from: Oklahoma, Georgia, New Jersey and Boston all have excellent preschool programs.

Making quality early-learning opportunities a norm for every 4-year-old will take more than money. It will take a new commitment to recruiting and keeping excellent staff, and tackling many of the other challenges in our K-12 system. That’s why we propose to invest an additional $750 million to support innovation and preschool capacity-building in states. To make a critical difference for all children, high-quality early learning must be followed by rich educational opportunities and robust learning experiences at every stage of the journey to college and careers.

The evidence is clear. We need to stop asking whether early learning works — and start asking whether we have the national will to make it a reality for the children who need it most.

Source information about studies mentioned in this column has been posted at www.ed.gov/early-learning/research.

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education.

Testing, Early Learning, and the Pace of Reform: Talking with Teachers

Our work at the US Department of Education aims to make sure that students throughout this country have the education that they deserve – an education that will give every student a genuine opportunity to join a thriving middle class. A crucial part of that work is supporting, elevating and strengthening the teaching profession.

As often as I can, I spend time talking with teachers about their experience of their work, and of change efforts to improve student outcomes. (We have an important effort, called the RESPECT Project, dedicated to make sure that teacher voices consistently informed policy and program efforts here at the Department of Education.)  Lately, we have begun bringing a video camera to the conversation, and teachers have been generous in letting us capture these conversations so others can see them.

Recently, I visited Rogers Heights Elementary School in Bladensburg, Maryland, near Washington, DC. Rogers Heights’ students bring the diversity typical of so many urban communities; its student body is 97% minority, and 89% qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch. Half the students have limited proficiency in English.

I was really struck by how smart, committed and passionate the teachers were. We had an intense, honest, sometimes difficult conversation, and I left inspired. The kids at Rogers are in great hands.

I invited teachers to take on any topic they wanted to, and they took on some important and even difficult ones: the pace of reform, the need for arts education, the impact of early learning, and testing. These conversations with teachers help us get smarter about change in education in this country. I hope you’ll take a look; we’ve posted an 8 minute excerpt along with the full video of the hour-long conversation.


Click here for an alternate version of the video with an accessible player.

Arne Duncan is the U.S. Secretary of Education 

Collaboration and Hope Curb Violence in Aurora, Illinois

Sixth Graders

Inspired by a presentation they heard from Aurora-based Cabot Microelectronics, a “Pathways to Prosperity” partner, a group of sixth-graders designed the “Best Illinois Middle School App” in the Verizon Innovative App Challenge. Photo courtesy of West Aurora School District 129.

As we strive nationally to make communities safer, Aurora, Ill. has made some headway, and education is a key component. Over the past decade, the population of the nearly-200,000-strong city surged almost 40 percent while its violent crime rate significantly fell, with no murders in 2012. Mayor Tom Weisner credited his city’s safety progress to strong collaboration among law enforcement agencies, education, public works, and other public and private entities at the recent launch of Aurora’s Pathways to Prosperity initiative.

“We’ve been implementing, enhancing and growing programs that give our young people productive alternatives to gang activity,” said Weisner, who noted that Aurora’s anti-violence efforts were sparked by a brutal trend that reached its height in 2002, with 26 primarily gang-related murders in the city.

The mayor said it’s crucial for “kids to be able to see themselves as being successful” to give them hope. Recognizing that “the goal of getting a 4-year degree isn’t for everyone,” Aurora participates in Harvard University’s “Pathways to Prosperity” initiative, which develops career pathways for students to jobs in high-growth fields through collaborations between businesses and education. Pathways to Prosperity’s Illinois initiative will utilize resources of Illinois Pathways, a closely-aligned program that received ED Race to the Top funding awarded to the state in December 2011.

Columbia College Student Alex Perez

Columbia College student Alex Perez teaches elementary students how to tie neckties during a monthly Boys II Men “Juniorversity” session. Photo courtesy of Boys II Men.

Pathways to Prosperity aims to increase and enhance programs like Aurora West High School’s Health Sciences Career Academy, created 15 years ago to prepare students for careers in the high-growth healthcare industry. Aurora health occupations teacher April Sonnefeldt said the program has helped prepare many students to get certification for jobs like entry-level nursing positions, and has given “others the confidence to go all the way through med school.”

The mayor also praised non-profit Boys II Men for “teaching young men to respect themselves.”  Inspired by grief and frustration from the 2002 murders, the Aurora-based mentoring organization has been replicated internationally. While Jared Marchiando — a founding Boys II Men member and its first president — is now a college graduate working in finance, he’d previously been “going down that road towards gangs.”

“I needed positive male role models, and some discipline, and I got that through Boys II Men,” said Marchiando, who remains actively involved with the organization. He encourages students and parents to celebrate positive academic outcomes, like “most improved student” as much as sports achievements. He also emphasizes the importance of reaching out to students before their teens, noting that, “if you don’t reach kids by 3rd or 4th grade, it’s often too late.”

An early learning initiative, SPARK (Strong, Prepared And Ready for Kindergarten), was launched in 2012 and aims to build positive education environments for Aurora’s youngest children in both structured settings and in homes. Supported by four school districts, Fox Valley United Way, the city of Aurora and the Dunham Fund, SPARK also will benefit from Illinois’ Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge grant received in December.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done, and we need to remain vigilant,” said Weisner, sadly noting that a 14-month period of no murders in Aurora ended with the recent killing of a teen. “Most kids turn to crime and to gangs when they don’t have hope.”

–Julie Ewart is the Director of Communications and Outreach in ED’s Chicago Regional Office.

Investing Early: One of the Smartest Things We Can Do

Race to the Top-Early Learning Announcement

Official Department of Education Photo by Joshua Hoover

“This is an important moment in our effort to build a world-class education system in America,” Secretary Duncan said this morning at a White House event to announce the winners of the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC). Duncan joined HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and White House Domestic Policy Council Director Melody Barnes in announcing the nine states that had won.

“Everyone who works in education can agree that investing in early learning is one of the smartest things we can do,” Duncan said. “Whether it’s elementary school teachers or prize-winning economists, they recognize that high-quality early learning programs pay dividends down the road.”

Thirty-five states, D.C. and Puerto Rico submitted plans for the Challenge, and today’s event announced the nine winners: California, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island and Washington.

White House Event

Official Department of Education Photo by Joshua Hoover

“We believe progress like this won’t be limited to the nine states awarded funds today,” Secretary Sebelius said. “By pushing everyone to raise their game, we intend to foster innovation in early childhood programs around the country. And I look forward to following their progress in the months and years ahead.”

The RTT-ELC will support these states in developing new approaches to raising the bar across early learning centers and to close the school readiness gap. Awards will invest in grantees’ work to build statewide systems of high-quality early learning and development programs. These investments will impact all early learning programs, including Head Start, public pre-K, childcare, and private preschools.

Click here to read today’s press release, and visit ED’s Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge website.

Sign up to receive email updates from ED’s Early Learning Initiative.

A Major Investment in Helping Students Get Off on the Right Foot

“Investing in early learning is one of the smartest things we can do as a nation,” said Secretary Arne Duncan earlier this morning at a town hall meeting with US Human and Health Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to announce a new $500 million state-level Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge. Secretary Sebelius explained that “the only way America can out-compete the rest of the world is if we out-educate the rest of the world … And the only way we can do that is if every child gets a healthy start and a rich early learning experience.”

The Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge rewards states that create comprehensive plans to transform early learning systems with better coordination and assessment mechanisms, clearer learning standards, and meaningful workforce development and family engagement initiatives.

Providing a strong educational foundation for our nation’s children doesn’t start on the first day of kindergarten. Research makes it clear that excellent early learning programs result in short- and long-term positive outcomes, including better high school graduation rates, higher college enrollment, and improved completion rates. Yet only 40 percent of 4-year olds are enrolled in preschool programs.

The Obama administration has been committed to improving the quality of early learning programs since day one, and the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge continues that commitment by moving the field and supporting breakthrough work that will change the quality of early learning programs across America.

Vice President Biden also noted that these programs help not only kids but whole families. “Expanding access to such early education and child care programs will also make it easier for working parents to hold down a job – a key priority of the Middle Class Task Force – giving them peace of mind that their children are in a high quality learning environment while they are at work.”

As part of this Challenge, we are inviting you to provide ideas, comments and suggestion. Please visit our Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge page and join the conversation.

Watch the entire town hall, and listen to a conference call that ED staff held with stakeholders following the announcement.

Watch Live: Duncan and Sebelius Make Major Announcement About Race to the Top and Early Learning

Join Secretary Duncan and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius at 10 a.m. ET today for a town hall meeting where the secretaries will make a major announcement about Race to the Top and early learning.

Duncan and Sebelius will be joined by George Kaiser, Founder of The George Kaiser Family Foundation as well as Chairman of BOK Financial Corp. and GBK Corporation; Brigadier General (Ret.) Clara L. Adams-Ender; Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams; and Ralph Smith, Executive Vice President, Annie E Casey Foundation.

In addition to the major announcement, Duncan and Sebelius will discuss Race to the Top and early learning initiatives and the importance of their collaboration on early learning to improve the health, social, emotional and educational outcomes for young children from birth to age 5. The other guest speakers will discuss the importance of early childhood investment in building strong and safe communities, developing leaders who can strengthen our national security and developing an educated workforce we need to win the future.

Click here to watch the archived version of the town hall, and click here for more information on today’s announcement.