Richard Ruelas: Good evening and welcome to "Arizona Horizon." I'm Richard Ruelas in for Ted Simons. A new report from the Annie E. Casey foundation, called "The First Eight Years: Building a Foundation for a Lifetime of Success," addresses how states can help children thrive. The report shows problems children are facing and also points to solutions. Dana Naimark, President and CEO of the Children's Action Alliance, is here to talk about the report and how it applies to Arizona. Dana, thanks for joining us. This report is sort of the kids’ account report. Give us a synopsis about what it says about the nation and Arizona.
Dana Naimark: This report says the nation is struggling, in terms of kids and their first eight years, and we now have longitudinal data showing that a large majority of third graders are behind in their cognitive skills, social and emotional skills, and their physical skills.
Richard Ruelas: What makes third grade such an important marking point?
Dana Naimark: Third grade is really a benchmark time. Our state has really focused on third grade reading, and that’s for good reason. Up until third grade, kids are really learning how to learn, and they are learning how to read, and how to be part of a group. And sharing skills. After third grade you are expected to read to learn, and to learn content. So that really is a turning point in education.
Richard Ruelas: If the nation as a whole is doing poorly, it seems that we have spent a decade or more of No Child Left Behind and trying to ramp up to solve the problem of kids not being able to read by third grade. What's happened and what have we missed?
Dana Naimark: We have missed consistency and ongoing commitment. And so, there has been a lot of talk, which is great, and attention to early childhood. But, if you think about it, our attention kind of ebbs and flows and other things take over. And even just looking at Head Start we have long waiting lists for Head Start, and that's, that's an area that we know really helps kids from low income families start kindergarten so they are not behind. So, our commitment has really lagged some of our conversation.
Richard Ruelas: Typically, we hear Arizona being worse than the nation. Are we going to hear different news tonight from you?
Dana Naimark: We are behind, even further behind the nation. We have more kids living in low-income families. And we have fewer young children in preschool. And again, that means that more are starting kindergarten behind. We know that quality preschool is something that parents want; they want that to be available. They know it helps their children learn those social skills, learn how to be part of a classroom, and get those basic academic skills started.
Richard Ruelas: So, it seems as people talked about preschool, they sort of diminish it by saying they are just doing arts and crafts stuff, but it's that interaction of being away from mom and dad and being with other children.
Dana Naimark: Right. It is the foundation, that's why the first eight years so important; it is literally laying the architecture of the brain. Happens in those young years, and so how you are interacting with teachers, with caregivers, with the world around you, that is literally shaping your brain; that will affect how you learn and succeed the rest of your life. It is critically important, and we know now, business leaders around the state are recognizing that. And as we are raising our expectations, in this state for educational success, business leaders have come together with educators, with early childhood professionals to say, how we start early? We know that waiting until third grade is it too late. How you can we start early?
Richard Ruelas: You were mentioning a group called Build, I imagine, that's an acronym, what does that stand for?
Dana Naimark: Build is part of a nationwide network focusing on early childhood issues. And so in Arizona, we have the Greater Phoenix Leadership, the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce, and the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, along with educators, nonprofit leaders, childcare professionals, and so we're looking at it from all angles. How do we do right for our economy, for our workforce, for our families? And everybody agrees we have to focus more on those early years.
Richard Ruelas: So, the business leaders, coming into it, are looking at not just third grade, but down the road, graduate level? That they need workers to attract the jobs to fill their office?
Dana Naimark: Absolutely. We hear a lot from the business community now that when they hire folks, they need a lot of help and a lot of extra training. And we hear from our higher ed folks that a lot of students who start in higher ed need remedial classes. So, we know that our pipeline is not as strong as it should be. All the way along.
Richard Ruelas: Do you think that the business leaders will change the message you’re giving? Or I guess, will the business leaders being attached to this message, help it when the legislature opens up again?
Dana Naimark: I do think so. I think it's very important to have a broad coalition, and to show that we're not just bleeding heart liberals. In fact, we are tough-minded economists. We are looking at what it means for taxpayers, again, what it means for the workforce, and meeting those educational goals that Arizona has agreed on, we have much higher standards for third grade reading, and we want fewer drop-outs from high school. How do we get there?
Richard Ruelas: The tie, we have seen it nationally, and I imagine it's the same in Arizona, the tie between poverty and lack of cognitive skills, what causes that and what do you see here in Arizona?
Dana Naimark: It's a combination of factors. So, it's the fact that many poor families, parents are stringing together multiple jobs. They are under extreme stress because even with those jobs, they are having trouble making ends meet, and they have trouble getting to work. They don't have books and school supplies at home. They don't have the time or the energy or the know how to help their kids with homework and they don't -- they are intimidated about going to their children's school and getting involved. So there is a whole variety of factors, often they are worried about safety, in their neighborhood, in their areas area, so they are focused on that. Or how are they going to put groceries on the table and what's the next meal going to be? If that's what you are thinking about you are really not spending time doing the math homework but thinking about how am I going to feed my children to get through the week and the month.
Richard Ruelas: Are there some policy ideas that you want to put forth next year as the legislature opens up?
Dana Naimark: Yes, and I think these will be long-term conversations, on what Build is recommending, we expand access to quality, voluntary preschool for three and four-year-old children. And we know that's something that parents at all income levels want for their kids. And also expanding mentoring for parents.
Richard Ruelas: Explain voluntary preschool. You mean like free?
Dana Naimark: Well, I think there is a variety of ways to do that. We have not worked out the exact strategies yet. But, I think certainly, we need some state funding, we need to leverage Federal funding and private funding, so that we can make more opportunities available.
Richard Ruelas: And you mentioned another plan?
Dana Naimark: Yes, expanding mentoring for parents. There is a strategy called home visiting services, which has a ton of research about how effective it is. And that is when mentors come into a family's home, and so they are really helping the family with everything that they are doing with their kids. And if we are worried about get the next meal on the table, how do we address that? And then be able to move on to helping the kids with homework.
Richard Ruelas: Yes, so the mentor can come in and not only see how the home environment is, help the parent out, see how the child is doing, step in if there is some intervention that needs to take place.
Dana Naimark: Exactly, and one of the impacts of those kinds of services has been increased employment among parents. Because they basically increase their confidence in their skill set, while they are doing better with their kids, they are also able to move up the economic ladder.
Richard Ruelas: Well, we'll see if this report causes some minds to change at the state legislature. I know that you will probably be down there in January every day. I appreciate you joining us this evening here on Horizon.
Dana Naimark: Thank you.