How business leaders can get involved in early education — and why it’s important

By Aakash Patel

I spent a Friday morning, this spring, on the car line in Gorrie Elementary School in Tampa. Instead of sitting in an office or a breakfast meeting, I greeted parents as they dropped off their kids. I waved to students as they walked into their classrooms. And I witnessed what a school day is like for thousands of teachers, and students, in Hillsborough County schools.

Through the annual program, CEOs in Schools, I had the opportunity to connect with students, watch teachers meet the many challenges in a year made even more difficult by the COVID-19 pandemic and, along with other business leaders, offered a chance for students to think about career opportunities down the road.

For me, the school-day experience also reinforced the importance of early childhood development, to build that solid foundation for children to be successful in the classroom – which will lead to success later in life. Think of it as building blocks, with the blocks at the bottom supporting the blocks at the top. If those foundation blocks aren’t there, or aren’t solid, it’s far more challenging to build anything bigger that will last.

That’s why it’s important for the business community to support early childhood development. As chair of the board of directors of the Early Learning Coalition of Hillsborough County, since 2014, I’ve seen first-hand the importance of investing in efforts to ensure all children in our county have those first building blocks in place so they can succeed in school and build successful lives.

In the last couple of years, the coalition has added several complementary programs to help meet those big goals. For example, we are one of the Florida counties that have implemented a program called Incentive$, which rewards early-childhood educators with financial incentives based on their education and continuity of employment. By helping to retain the early childhood workforce, this program provides children with more stable relationships and better-educated teachers.

The coalition also created the Hillsborough Infant & Toddler Initiative, which is aimed at creating more child-care slots to serve children under age 3 while enhancing the quality of care within these programs. Child-care providers that participate in the program to expand their enrollments receive grants to buy materials and equipment, and their staffs receive more training to care for infants and toddlers.

We have also joined other early-learning coalitions in the state to implement the three Ts—“tune in, talk more and take turns.” It is a program aimed at helping parents make the most of daily interactions with their young children. By empowering parents with the knowledge, and skills, they need to engage their infants and toddlers, parents then can help improve the early cognitive and emotional development of their children. Our best chance of success is when we all—families, child-care providers, nonprofits, business leaders—are engaged and working together toward our common goal.

This has been a particularly challenging year for families coping with the pandemic and trying to juggle keeping everyone healthy, working and ensuring their children are cared for and learning. The coalition provided extra support to both child-care providers and families, distributed about $9 million in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funding and provided subsidized daycare for health care providers and first responders. Our successes in helping our community meet the challenges of this pandemic have also come from working together.

It will take that same sort of coordination, and dedication, to ensure all of our youngest children in Hillsborough are prepared to succeed when they reach school. Our successes at the Early Learning Coalition can only continue with an investment in both human and financial capital from the business community. Visit elchc.org to learn how you can get involved. Those modest investments in early childhood will pay off big for our children, our families and our communities in the long run.

Aakash Patel is the founder of Elevate, a Florida-based strategic business consulting firm providing public relations, community relations, targeted networking and social media. He is chair of the board of directors of the Early Learning Coalition of Hillsborough County.

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