Arizona's First Things First program was created in 2006 after voters passed Proposition 203, a citizen's initiative to fund a quality early childhood development and health system that would prepare children for kindergarten. Rhian Evans Allvin helped draft that initiative and is executive director of First Things First. After nearly 20 years of working to improve early childhood education in Arizona, Evans Allvin is moving to Washington, D.C. to put the issue on the national agenda. She spoke with KNAU's Gillian Ferris about the move.
REA: Our goal is to make sure that families are reinforced in their role as their child's first and best teacher, that when parents are choosing out of home settings, child care, pre-school for their kids, that they're looking for the best quality available to optimize their child's early childhood experience. And to make sure that young kids have access to the preventative health care they need. We know that if you focus on these types of things when kids are young, the payoffs are just really extraordinary down the road.
GF: There has been some debate over the effectiveness of kindergarten when it comes to overall academic success. In your experience, what is the effectiveness of early education? Of kindergarten?
REA: You're right. There is often a lot of debate. But what is not debatable is the neuroscience that we have right now. Unlike 15 years ago, we now can see inside young childrens' brains and we know what learning happens. And what you can see from that science is extraordinary, I mean, explosions of growth, literally, in how their synapses are connecting. Young infants are born with this huge capacity to learn: to learn language, to learn information. And it's our job as the adults in their lives to create environments where we optimize that.
GF: In the discussion of early childhood education, we talk about "readiness", readiness for kindergarten. What is the criteria for readiness?
REA: We do use that word a lot. To me, readiness is making sure that young children can articulate their needs and desires; that they can ask questions; that they can use their language well whatever their language is that they can use it well. When you look at the common core which is now what the standard is in our schools in Arizona, young kids for example in reading when they start kindergarten, need to know what the connection between the illustrations in a book are and what the author is saying with the words. For arithmetic, they need to be able to do basic sequencing. But as important is if they're socially and emotionally ready to go to school, too. If they can get along well with others, if they know how to take turns, they know about sharing. Those kinds of social and emotional skills really pay off later down the road.
GF: You're about to step down from your position as executive director of Arizona's First Things First program. You're making a big move to Washington, D.C. to bring this issue into the national spotlight.
REA: I am. It's with mixed emotions that I am. I've been involved in First Things First since we conceived it, before it was even a ballot initiative, and so that's been for the last 11 years. I'm going to be the executive director for the National Association for the Education of Young Children. We've overcome a lot of tough times in Arizona. And, families have struggled these last year mightily. I think about yes, the state budget has struggled. But, more importantly, local families and communities have struggled. One thing that has always stayed the same is that our communities care about young kids and I know we don't always create the best policy to make that happen. But, that doesn't change that local communities want what's best for their kids. I'm sad to be leaving Arizona and the work that we're doing here. But I'm really excited about being able to take this agenda and move it on a national level.