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Foundations, groups unite to make early childhood education a higher priority

A group of 25 foundations and organizations are pooling their resources to make early childhood education a higher priority.

The groups formed the LiftOff Alliance, which kicked off its work Monday with a $350,000 report looking at the needs of early childhood education in Western New York.

"A group of foundations working together carries more weight," said Amber Slichta, vice president of programs with the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation.

More than a fourth of all children under the age of 6 in Western New York live in poverty. That is nearly 98,000 of the region's youngest residents who often face lifelong barriers to learning because of lack of support in their early years.

Many parents of these children don't know when to expect their baby or toddler to smile, point, wave bye-bye or form simple sentences. They don't know how to assess their child's readiness for kindergarten. And they often don't have easy access to high-quality and affordable early childhood education programs.

These major shortcomings in the development of young children have lifelong mental, social and emotional consequences. The issue has routinely been tackled by local foundations and benefactors making grants. But now, by working together, the organizations want to leverage their power as a single alliance to gain attention and commitments from both the business community and public policymakers.

Though individual foundations focused on early childhood learning, Slichta said the question became, "How can we come together more collaboratively so that we can move forward, faster together?"

Originally focused on the eight Western New York counties, the alliance has been expanding to the Rochester area.

The report released Monday concluded that Western New York funders must concentrate on these priorities:

  • Increase parent/caregiver knowledge of early childhood screenings that measure developmental milestones at various ages and can predict kindergarten readiness
  • Create greater awareness and access to high-quality child care, and making that care more affordable
  • Improve access to transportation

"It is the first time that a comprehensive report was done to look at all of Western New York," said Amherst-based consultant Maureen Millane, project director for the LiftOff Alliance.

Achieving these goals will require more buy-in from the business community, more coordination with elected officials to develop better public policy, and stronger advocacy work by Western New York leaders, according to LiftOff officials.

This summer the alliance's Steering Committee, representing 25 funders, will begin planning strategy about how to meet the report's goals, even though different counties may prioritize different needs, Millane said.

"We need to all agree, here's where we want to go," she said.

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