NC Leaders, Advocates Gather for Early Childhood Action Plan Launch

Leaders from across the state came together for the North Carolina Early Childhood Summit on Feb. 27. 

March 1, 2019
– Governor Roy Cooper, former Governor Jim Hunt, NCDHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen, and other top leaders in early childhood came together to launch a detailed framework to galvanize coordinated, statewide public and private action to improve health, safety, family resilience and early learning outcomes for young children. 

Dr. Jack P. Shonkoff, the director of Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, delivered the keynote address.

The launch of the North Carolina Early Childhood Action Plan took place at the NC Early Childhood Summit on Feb. 27 at the Raleigh Convention Center, with distinguished speakers and panels throughout the day.

Secretary Cohen provided an overview of the plan and its goals. 

“Our vision for North Carolina’s children is that all children will get a healthy start and develop to their full potential in safe and nurturing families, schools and communities,” Secretary Cohen said. “The plan is ambitious and comprehensive. It’s meant to be hard. We have the tools to do it and it’s time for us to prioritize that work.” 

Governor Roy Coper urged the audience to take action to benefit North Carolina’s children and families. 

“This is an obligation for us,” Cooper said. “We have this specific plan with specific action items that are going to make a difference…We are not afraid to be measured…. Let’s make this the North Carolina we know it can be.”

A public data dashboard was also launched as part of the plan to promote collective insight and awareness around the data outlined in the plan and track progress toward the plan’s targets.    

“One of the things I love most about this plan is our commitment to using data to help inform our conversation better about the actions we need to take,” Rebecca Planchard, senior early childhood policy advisor for DHHS said.  The online data dashboard features interactive information on each of the plan’s 10 goals, including over 50 different measures related to children and families that have never before been brought together at the state level. 

During the summit, three panels explored the plan’s three themes: that North Carolina’s young children are healthy, grow up safe and nurtured, and are well-supported to be learning and ready to succeed.

The Healthy panel discussed health disparities in infant mortality and institutional racism facing black women trying to get good medical care in North Carolina.  

Keisha Bentley-Edwards, associate director of research at Duke University’s Cook Center on Social Equality and an assistant professor of medicine at Duke, talked about some of the struggles that African American women face during the early years of motherhood. 

“If you look at our nationwide data, age doesn’t predict infant mortality rate for African American women,” Bentley-Edwards said. “… We know that African American women with a bachelor’s degree, their infant mortality rate is higher than a white woman who did not graduate from high school. There has been a bigger push in the last 20 years to look at the social systems that are both inhibiting and supporting healthy birth outcomes.” 

The summit’s second panel discussion focused on cultivating strong relationships for children in their earliest years, ensuring that children are safe and nurtured. 

Betty Rintoul, executive director of Encouraging Connections, talked about the mental and emotional bond between the mother and the child. In a study, it was shown that when a mother and child make eye contact, they have similar wavelength patterns on an EKG. 

“We have a beautiful and emotional interchange between adults and babies,” Rintoul said. “It is most important and critical to have this interaction. We grow the brains for the environments we are in. Those developmental skill can’t be taught on an iPad or a worksheet. They are taught through time and attention from the caregiver.” 

The final panel for the day focused on ensuring all children are learning and ready to succeed in school and beyond. Panelists focused on disparities in early learning by race, and how academic environments often aren’t supporting all students equally. 

Lynne Vernon-Feagans, a professor in the School of Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and senior scientist at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, shared that African American children start to decline academically by second grade, while they enter preschool on par with their peers. 

“It’s really amazing that African American and Non-African-American students both start school in these rural counties at grade level at grade entry and we do not find a race difference in these kids,” Vernon-Feagans said. “Something good is happening out there, maybe it is heard start North Carolina Pre-K and the families. Once kids enter school, things aren’t as good. If they look so good at school entry, what is happening to these kids?” 

Meka Sales, director of Special Initiatives at The Duke Endowment, said a shift in community mindsets needs to occur to improve education outcomes for minority students. 

“It’s a stressful time for everyone,” Sales said. “We have a community that says, ‘these kids are all our kids.’ We need to have a more community mindset behind it. We have a community that takes care of our people.”

In his keynote address, Dr. Jack Shonkoff, focused the conversation around the data science driving early childhood discussions into the 21st century: “It’s not race, it’s racism,” he said. He challenged North Carolina to continue the progress begun with the Early Childhood Action Plan. 

“I am counting on you North Carolina, to be a leader and bring in this next generation of programs and make the sparks fly. Push yourselves to say, ‘what can we do differently?’” Shonkoff said. “We cannot change children’s lives without changing the lives of the adults around them.”

Sheila Arias, a parent and campaign associate for MomsRising, helped to close out the day with a call to action. She spoke of the medical struggles her daughter with special needs faces every day, and how much she and her family have benefited for numerous community programs, including Dress for Success, Medicaid and Head Start. 

“Because of all of the opportunities today, my family is a success story,” Arias said. “Please remember loving parents all over the state only want what is best for our children. The Early Childhood Action Plan will do that.” 

Secretary Cohen delivered the final call the action at the end of the summit, urging all North Carolinians work to improve the lives of the state’s young children. A planning tool is available to allow people to share what they will do to help, and Cohen shared the commitments DHHS is taking to align with the goals of the action plan. 

“We are talking about bold actions,” Secretary Cohen said. “We are all in for NC kids! We are working differently at DHHS. We are going to think differently. What are you going to do differently?” 

The event was broadcast and live-streamed by UNC-TV. Recordings of the summit sessions are available.

The learn more about the Early Childhood Action Plan, the data dashboards and how to commit to taking action for North Carolina’s young children, visit

Gretchen Kalar