The stars are aligning for the state’s youngest population. Strong legislation was passed in the 2011 session to coordinate early childhood services for the whole child and family. A massive collaborative effort has gone into the preparation of Connecticut’s Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC) application. And, Connecticut has a governor who is a champion of early care and education.

There is a palpable sense of urgency to close Connecticut’s achievement gap, the largest in the country. Of the state’s 210,000 children from birth to age 5, about 60,000 at any one time face risk factors that jeopardize their healthy development and ability to learn. Continuing this trend will lead to more youth dropping out of high school, entrenched unemployment, higher incarceration rates and a lack of a skilled workforce. As a result, businesses will be forced to take their available jobs out of state to secure skilled labor.

This is our chance to close the achievement gap and make sure Connecticut’s children are healthy, prepared, and ready for school and life success.

The RTT-ELC competition, announced by the U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, aims to improve the quality of early learning and development and to close the achievement gap for children with high needs. In the event Connecticut becomes a recipient of the $50 million grant funding, it will help accelerate the implementation of landmark legislation passed by the Connecticut legislature this year. The measure (Public Act 11-181) will build a coordinated and integrated system of early care and education and child development. The proposal within the RTT application is to create an Office of Early Childhood Development, Early Care and Education, which will help bring the initiatives of P.A. 11-181 to fruition. The name of this office is important because it addresses both the educational and developmental needs of vulnerable children.

The application will address a tiered Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS) representing different levels of care quality – an absolute priority of the RTT-ELC grant; offer a better assessment of children entering kindergarten; align early learning standards to create a continuum for birth to grade 3; and enhance and expand community-based collaborative efforts on early childhood outcomes. These are just a few of the many initiatives highlighted in Connecticut’s application.

The Race to the Top “team,” composed of bright and committed individuals, has worked collaboratively to create a comprehensive system that will improve outcomes for children, parents, teachers, and communities. There has been strong support for the application and its goals, especially from Governor Dannel Malloy, a long-time early childhood advocate and champion. Malloy’s policy director, Liz Donohue, has served as an integral link between the governor and the application process. Couple that with strong legislative support for PA 11-181, which Sen. Beth Bye worked tirelessly to ensure passage of, with the support of early childhood advocates and providers. Connecticut also has Stefan Pryor, the new education commissioner, who comes in showing great promise to be an education reformer with a strong background in systems change.

Regardless of the Race to the Top outcome, Connecticut is on its way to building an early childhood system that will ensure children are prepared to learn and succeed in school and in life. While we hope to infuse the state’s efforts with a $50 million jump start, with or without the money, there is no choice but to move ahead to ensure success for Connecticut’s future generations of children.

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