Panel Lays Out Challenges and Opportunities in Early Childhood Education

Left-right; Susan Perry-Manning, principle Deputy Secretary of the NC Department of Health and Human Services; Stephanie Fanjul, former president of North Carolina Partnership for Children; Meka Sales, director of Special Initiatives at The Duke Endowment; Lynne Vernon-Feagans, William C. Friday distinguished professor at the Emirtus 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

From left to right: Susan Perry-Manning, Stephanie Fanjul, Meka Sales and Lynne Vernon-Feagans 

March 1, 2019 –
North Carolina has a long history of leading in early education. But panelists participating in the final session of the North Carolina Early Childhood Summit said we must do more to change early learning outcomes for all young children across the state —especially children of color.

Stephanie Fanjul, former President of the North Carolina Partnership for Children, said ideas that may have worked in the past may no longer meet the needs of the state’s growing population and shifting demographics.

“I sometimes feel like our pragmatism is just a tiny sliver too close to settling for the status quo,” Fanjul said. “We have to bring it together on a different plane and the Early Childhood Action Plan gives us that shot.”

The action plan, released at the summit on Feb. 27, serves as a framework to galvanize coordinated, statewide public-private action to achieve 10 measurable goals for young children that address health, safety, family resilience and learning outcomes.

Susan Perry-Manning, Principal Deputy Secretary for NCDHHS, facilitated the discussion with state and local leaders in early education. She agreed with Fanjul. 

“I really appreciate you challenging us to leap forward. There’s this line between getting things done and being pragmatic,” Perry-Manning said. 

She connected the discussion to the summit’s keynote address– given by Jack Shonkoff, the director of the Harvard Center on the Developing Child – and his messages on science and innovation in early childhood. “Dr. Shonkoff really challenged us in that way.”

 A key message of the day around how to move into 21st century thinking in early childhood revolved around explicitly addressing the impact of racism on outcomes for young children and their families. Panelists said many learning environments leave behind children of color, particularly African American children, and that we have a responsibility to take action on this issue.

“Kindergarteners and first graders already know about racism,” said panelist Lynne Vernon-Feagans, a professor in the School of Education at UNC-Chapel Hill and senior scientist at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute. “They can tell you, ‘I’m at the bottom of my class. It’s those white kids that are doing really well.’ By second grade, African American boys don’t feel good about themselves as a learner. They’re thinking they can never compete with non-African American children to achieve the same thing.” 

Fanjul said that when she contributed to the design of North Carolina’s Smart Start program in 1993, “we weren’t talking about racism. The best we could do then was talk about class and a little about race, but nobody talked about the institutional racism that creates the situation we live in today.”

Overcoming challenges like racism requires skills many early childhood educators don’t have, the panelists noted. According to Vernon-Feagans, more collaboration is needed among community colleges, universities and early childhood educators. While educators may be prepared to serve children from middle class backgrounds, they need additional training to meet the more complex needs of children from low-income families.

“The teachers don’t feel good about the skills they have for these kids,” Vernon-Feagans said. “They want to do a good job, and I think higher education is at fault. I don’t think even our institutions of higher education understand how much a teacher needs to know about early childhood, families, and instruction.”

The panel also discussed the role of philanthropy in changing outcomes for young children and their families. Meka Sales, Director of Special Initiatives for The Duke Endowment, shared a sports analogy. Philanthropy can “go long, and go deep,” to make long term commitments to pilot innovation at the local level. 

Sales described The Duke Endowment’s 12-year effort in Guilford County focusing on supporting children and families from prenatal through age eight in their health, education and social services. “We [philanthropy] can take the opportunity to meld and intersect resources,” said Sales. “Philanthropy has the freedom to do that.”

Sales said early childhood is “ground zero” for prevention, and that, through her work, she gets to play a unique role in changing outcomes for kids

“I think we’ll be able to change a generation.”

A recording of the panel’s discussion is available for viewing.

Ryan Hill