Meeting the needs of Iowa’s youngest learners
A highlight of my weekly school visits is popping into early childhood centers and classrooms. I love the joy and unbounded energy that emanates from these rooms. And as a former high school history teacher of mostly juniors and seniors, I have a deep appreciation for our educators who care for and support our youngest learners.
While there are certainly differences between serving young children and the near-graduates I taught, the vision remains the same: every learner will be safe, healthy, engaged and prepared. In Iowa, we’re focused on the programs and practices that will make this vision a reality.
But for those who don’t have a background in early childhood, particularly parents, the alphabet soup of programs can be intimidating. What’s important to know, though, is the range of services meeting the needs of Iowa children and families and creating a foundation for academic and life success.
A good starting point for understanding early childhood education in Iowa is the programming serving children from birth to age 3. These programs include:
- Early Head Start: a locally operated, federally funded comprehensive child development program serving pregnant women and children from birth to age 3 with guidance, information, and direct services to foster healthy development of children and their families. Thirteen programs operate Early Head Start services in 30 Iowa counties serving 2,276 children.
- Shared Visions Parent Support Programs: provides educational support services to parents of 1,061 Iowa at-risk children from birth to age 5 with priority to applicants that serve parents of at-risk children from birth to age 3.
- Early ACCESS: provides services for 6,189 Iowa children from birth to age 3 with developmental delays or disabilities and their families as part of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) 2004. The focus of Early ACCESS is to support parents to help their children learn and grow throughout their everyday activities and routines.
As we move up the age spectrum, there are a range of programs for 3- to 5-year-old children, including:
- Statewide Voluntary Preschool Programs: this program prepares 26,710 Iowa children ages 3 to 5 to enter kindergarten ready to learn by improving access to quality early childhood education through a sustainable state funding model.
- Head Start: like Early Head Start, this is also a locally operated, federally funded program for low-income families, but with a focus on 3- to 5-year-old children. Head Start serves 6,447 Iowa children.
- Shared Visions Preschool Programs: provides quality child development programs with comprehensive services for 1,299 Iowa children with specific at-risk factors, such as coming from a family with a low-income background.
- Early Childhood Special Education: provides services for preschool children and their families through area education agencies and local school districts. Preschool children who are eligible for special education and support/related services and their families are also entitled to the rights and protections of IDEA 2004.
The statewide coverage of these learning opportunities in Iowa is impressive. This map illustrates which programs operate in each county.
These learning opportunities are grounded in program standards and learning standards. Program standards – including Iowa Quality Preschool Program Standards, National Association for the Education of Young Children Accreditation Criteria and Assessment Standards, and Head Start Program Performance Standards – represent research- and evidence-based knowledge and practices. Program standards cover areas like health and safety, learning environments and community partnerships. School districts and community preschool partners who are providing Statewide Voluntary Preschool programming and/or early childhood special education services are required to implement one of the three approved program standards.
Learning standards – including the Iowa Early Learning Standards (IELS) and the Head Start Early Learning Outcomes Framework – are the descriptors of the knowledge, behaviors, and skills that children from birth through age 5 should demonstrate. These standards cover developmental and learning areas such as social emotional skills, physical and fine/gross motor skills, approaches to learning, and various academic content areas. School districts and community preschool partners who are providing Statewide Voluntary Preschool programming and/or early childhood special education services are required to utilize instructional content and strategies representative of the IELS.
Iowa’s early childhood system is supported by Early Childhood Iowa (ECI), which includes a network of 38 local ECI area boards that serve all 99 Iowa counties. The ECI State Board ensures fiscal and programmatic accountability and coordinates state-level early childhood efforts to create better outcomes for young children and their families. I enjoy serving on the ECI State Board and our collective work to promote the vision of a comprehensive early care, education, health, and human services system.
I truly appreciate Iowa’s early childhood educators and the work they do each day to serve our state’s children and families.
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