What does New Mexico want to achieve with its efforts in birth to age five programs, including standing up a brand new Early Childhood Education and Care Department? That’s the fundamental question Betsy Cahill, a professor of early childhood education, wants to answer.
“We’re not just getting them ready for kindergarten; we’re getting them ready for life,” Cahill said.
Cahill, who is also co-director of the teacher preparation program at New Mexico State University, was taking part in the first round of community conversations taking place across New Mexico to assess gaps in early childhood programs and to come up with a strategic plan for the new department.
She had ideas on how to graduate more early childhood educators and keep them in the field, such as changing when students take qualifying exams and giving them practical experience early on so they know what they’re getting into.
More than 80 people whose work touches young children attended the gathering Wednesday at Las Cruces City Hall. Among the crowd were brand-new Head Start teachers and experienced preschool directors, child care providers and foster parents, mental health specialists and educational nonprofits.
Participants were asked to identify what was working — and not — in areas such as funding, workforce development and training, New Mexico PreK and Head Start, and infant and toddler care.
It followed a meeting Aug. 29 in Deming that attracted 40 participants.
The New Mexico Early Childhood Development Partnership, which is spearheading the process, headed to Alamogordo Thursday for another community conversation as part of a 13-city swing throughout the state. In addition to community meetings, the partnership will host focus groups with harder to reach constituencies, such as parents and tribal communities, and will put out a statewide survey.
Kate Noble, vice president for policy and community engagement at the partnership, made a similar tour last year, and said many of the biggest issues slowing down progress have come up again. But the group is also uncovering different “pain points,” she said, such as the cost of building child care facilities, and adhering to state regulations, and the need for universal access to programs and child care for infants and toddlers — a desire that crossed the political spectrum.
“It was kind of mind-blowing,” Noble said.
Patricia Jimenez Latham, director of the Center for the Education and Study of Diverse Populations at New Mexico Highlands University, who is helping to conduct the sessions, saw a lot of the same concerns between Deming and Las Cruces. Where their communities diverged, however, was in need.
“When we start talking about what’s not happening in rural New Mexico, that’s a very big issue,” she said.
Rural areas in particular are seeing lack of access. Or, the services are there, but not getting to the people who need them most, Latham said. Unique needs are cropping up in each area, including a request in Deming for more training that helps early childhood workers to build bridges to communities that have historically been distrustful of outsiders. This is especially important for workers visiting parents in their homes.
One other difference Noble said she has noticed is the upswell of enthusiasm and participation.
“People are seeing that this is a ripe moment in New Mexico, and I think they want to share,” Noble said. “They’re ready to say, I have something to contribute. I have information that’s important to be heard.”
Teena Bhakta, a training specialist at the Children’s Garden, a group of five-star childcare centers and preschools in Las Cruces, had plenty of feedback to give.
She trains workers in a range of classes required for child care and NM PreK facilities. She finds much of the training redundant, and also mind-numbing for experienced workers. She’d like to see training that is broader and tailored to experience level.
“Being passionate about it, being vocal about this, is what I think will make people higher up, maybe, take notice,” she said. “We’re the ones on the front line.”
How to participate
Want to take part in the community conversations? Here is a schedule of upcoming gatherings being put on by the New Mexico Early Childhood Education Partnership:
Roswell – Sept. 10, noon, Eastern New Mexico University
Hobbs – Sept. 11, 11 a.m., Hobbs City Hall Annex
Clovis – Sept. 19, 11 a.m., Matt 25 Hope Center
Farmington – Sept. 24, 11 a.m., Cate Center
Gallup – Sept. 25, 5:30 p.m., El Morro Theatre and Event Center
Española – Oct. 2, noon, Northern New Mexico College
Raton – Oct. 3, 10 a.m., High Plains Regional Education Cooperative
Las Vegas – Oct. 3, 4 p.m., New Mexico Highlands University
Albuquerque – Oct. 8, 5:30 p.m., Central New Mexico Communiy College
Socorro – Oct. 9, 5:30 p.m., Bodega Burger and Lounge
For more details, go to the partnership’s Facebook page.