Helping the city’s young learners
The benefits of quality early childhood and preschool education programs have been well-known for many years. While educators know all children benefit from these programs, the biggest winners are children who are poor or dual language learners.
Despite this knowledge, the institution of universal preschool and early childhood education programs is uneven at best in Connecticut, contributing to the educational gap between the state’s wealthiest and most disadvantaged children. Some state lawmakers for years have fought for legislation guaranteeing free public preschool for all the state’s children, but high costs and lack of appropriate space in which to offer such programming in many districts, have hindered these efforts.
In this disparate landscape, New London is charting a different and very promising course for its youngest learners and their families. It is one for which it deserves much praise.
Officials in the city’s school system, non-profit community agencies, city departments and the state’s Birth to Three program have come together to provide not only high quality early childhood education, but also to link parents and families more seamlessly with needed services and benefits that go well beyond quality play and learning for their children. These include mental health, speech and language and other services.
The city’s Birth to Age 8 Early Childhood Resource Center is now housed in the former B.P. Learned Mission on Shaw Street. That agency was established in 1859 to serve children of low-income families, merged with the non-profit Child and Family Agency of Southeastern Connecticut in 2003 and closed at the end of 2020 due to the pandemic. Now, the building the city has committed to purchasing is alive with the happy sounds of a broad diversity of children having fun while learning, and programming is offered both during the day and in the evenings.
Six half-day classes and two full-day special education classes are offered. In addition, afternoon and evening parent and community hands on learning and community engagement events also are conducted there, along with City Park and Recreation Department programming.
The school hosted family events every three weeks during the past school year. In June, the school year finale event featured giveaways of necessary items such as diapers, baby food and wipes for families who have been hard-hit by both the COVID pandemic and double-digit inflation. The event also featured free food and books, a therapy dog and a petting zoo.
“We’re getting to know families a lot sooner and we’re connecting,” School Superintendent Cynthia Ritchie told a reporter for The Day at that event. “We’re trying to get every child we can find to provide these opportunities. And we’re trying to serve families that need so many different things right now, especially post-COVID.”
The city has made a big investment to make this early childhood center a reality. It was the city’s largest investment of federal American Rescue Plan Act funds. The purchase price of the building is $1.5 million and operations cost about $1.67 million in the first year.
While maintaining these important programs into the future will require a hefty financial commitment from the city, both city and school officials appear determined to keep the center operating. New London Board of Education President Elaine-Maynard Adams told a Day reporter at the June event: “In my opinion, there’s no way the board is going to let this go.”
We commend New London’s efforts and urge school and city officials to remain dedicated to this center for early childhood learning and its programming long after federal ARPA funds have disappeared.