COLUMN: Every child in Hillsborough deserves a solid educational foundation

By Aakash Patel

The importance of early childhood development, in building a solid foundation for students to be successful in the classroom, is well-established. It’s also been clear that children living in poverty have a tougher time reaching their full potential — and that a coordinated effort is essential to ensuring every child has an equal opportunity to succeed in school, and in life.

That’s why the work of the Early Learning Coalition of Hillsborough County is so important. As the board chair since 2014, I’ve seen first-hand the importance of investing in programs to ensure all children in our county have the first building blocks in place to build that solid foundation, so they can succeed in school and go on to meaningful careers and productive lives.

Soon, I will be leaving the coalition’s board as Gov. Ron DeSantis has appointed me to the Hillsborough Community College Board of Trustees. From that new vantage point, I will gain a different perspective on how well prepared our students are for the next step in their education. And I am certain I will have an even greater appreciation for the work we have done at the coalition to help put those first building blocks in place.

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

The coalition, with the help of PNC Bank, also created the Hillsborough Infant and Toddler Initiative, which is aimed at creating more child-care slots to serve children under the age of three, 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.

We also have joined other early learning coalitions in the state to implement the 3Ts – “Tune In, Talk More and Take Turns.’’ This is a program designed to help parents make the most of their daily interactions with their young children. By empowering parents with the knowledge and skills they need to engage their infants and toddlers, parents can help improve the early cognitive and emotional development of their children.

Like the rest of the community, we adapted as the coronavirus pandemic unfolded and we focused our efforts on helping families cope with the greatest public health crisis in more than a century. The coalition provided extra support to both childcare providers and families. We distributed about $9 million in federal CARES funding and providing subsidized childcare for health care providers and first responders.

At the same time, the coalition supported efforts by business leaders and state lawmakers in Tallahassee to pass legislation this spring aimed at helping families rise out of poverty, students improve their reading skills and government provide quality services to foster upward mobility. The governor signed into law three bills that phase in a new voluntary pre-kindergarten accountability system to help inform parents about the quality of VPK providers; establish a student monitoring system that will help identify reading issues that could hold students back and require a review of government benefit programs, such as Medicaid, that will help lawmakers identify issues that serve as obstacles to social mobility.

The Early Learning Coalition of Hillsborough County has developed a strong strategic plan, improved its efforts to communicate with the community and enhanced its collaborative efforts with childcare providers, local business leaders and state lawmakers. I’m proud of how far we’ve come – working toward ensuring every child in Hillsborough County has that solid foundation to build upon as they enter school. In my new role as a Hillsborough Community College trustee, I look forward to seeing how that work in early childhood development pays off as students continue their education.

Aakash Patel has served as the board chairman of the Early Learning Coalition of Hillsborough County for the past seven years. He was recently appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis to the Hillsborough Community College Board of Trustees.


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