County creates Early Learning Hub

By Nicole Montesano of the News-Register

Yamhill County has landed one of six Early Learning Hubs under a new state program intended to improve and expand children’s education from an early age.

The hubs are intended to help daycare providers, pediatricians, schools, social services and public health centers coordinate their efforts, so that more children receive help when needed, especially at-risk children, and thus more children enter public school ready to learn.

The hub consists of an advisory committee and council of directors with representation from all seven school districts, Head Start, Lutheran Family Services, Catholic Family Services and the county’s public health department.

“It’s the medical and educational fields working together to do the best for kids,” said Kyra Donovan, elementary education coordinator for the McMinnville School District. “Everyone around the same table, from well-baby checks to literacy.”

Early Learning Hub Coordinator Michele Bergeron said the hub will continue “work that we’ve been doing at some level in the county for a lot of years.” However, she said, it offers a chance to create “a more focused effort.”

In addition, she said, “I think it’s an opportunity to get a more direct level of support from the state,” and to share ideas, both around groups in the county, and across the state about particularly successful programs.

The county learned in February that it had been successful in winning approval for a hub. Efforts are in the very earliest stages, Bergeron said, but already people are noticing areas where programs could be coordinated in some fashion.

Donovan added, “everyone involved is so passionate about young children.”

Yamhill County has taken a unique approach to the program by applying to have the county Coordinated Care Organization serve as the hub’s parent organization, providing more of a focus to physical and mental health, as well as education.

CEO Jim Carlough said the hub group approached his organization to ask it to host the new program.

“It was a pretty obvious choice for us to move forward with,” Carlough said, since before the recent health care plan expansion, “75 percent of our Oregon Health Plan enrollees were children, many of them young children, with a pretty good number in the 0 to 6 age group.”

Another factor, he said, is “the emphasis we’re putting on health, and health being important for children to be ready to learn.”

Many of those young children, Carlough said, “have many challenges to getting ready to learn. Many of them are starting with some early dental challenges. Some of them have had what we refer to in the Coordinated Care world as ‘adverse child experiences’ — parents that are separating and divorcing, or traumatic experiences, such as physical abuse in the home, or possibly having parents battling chronic or terminal illnesses.”

Any of those factors, he noted, can make focusing on learning difficult for children, and helping them challenging for the adults in the family.

“It’s important for us to make sure they’re getting well-child visits, getting oral health, behavioral health, to get prepared for walking in the door ready to learn, and we think health is a very important aspect of that,” Carlough said.

He noted, for example, “It can be huge distraction if you’re dealing with dental pain in the classroom.”

Bergeron called working with the CCO “just an amazing experience.”

“The CCO is focusing on doing developmental screening by 36 months, and that aligns with an outcome the early learning hub is required to meet as well,” she said. “Having that connection with our health plan entity gives us the opportunity to have a more holistic approach.”

Bergeron said the group will be determining where there are currently gaps in services.

“A couple that we have known for a long time relate to our highest risk population; English language learners, and availability of early childhood education for them. … there is also a high degree poverty in the county, so that’s another area we’ll be looking at; are we meeting the needs of those children, and do they have access to early learning opportunities?”

That could lead to a number of different types of programs, she said. For example, the group might create fliers for parents, to help them understand the importance of interacting with babies and toddlers, to help very young minds develop.

“So much of what helps a child be ready to learn are simple interactions, talking with them, reading with them, interactions in their play,” Bergeron said. Those fliers might be distributed through churches, pediatricians’ offices, and through public schools, she said.

The group would like to expand the “Ready for Kindergarten” program offered by the McMinnville School District. In the program, parents of very young children, particularly those from families in poverty, are offered a series of three workshops to teach them how to “act as their child’s first teacher.”

This is the third year McMinnville has been offering the program, Donovan said. It has proven successful in making sure children start kindergarten knowing their letters and numbers and how to write their name; able to hold scissors and pencils; and able to socialize and self-regulate — all skills they need “so they are ready to move along the continuum,” she said.

Without such an intervention program, she said, “the evidence is pretty clear that a large number of children are coming to kindergarten not ready to learn.”

The Ready for Kindergarten model may spread to other districts through the Early Learning Hub. “We’ve applied for funding to be able to take that countywide,” Bergeron said.

Another angle might be addressing caretakers, such as daycare providers and preschool staff, she said.

“We really want to help them get the best level of knowledge,” she said. A new state program will rate providers “based on the educational level and the classes they’ve taken, and whether they are continuing their professional development,” she said, and the early learning hub also would like to help such providers learn how to align their teaching with the expectations public schools set for children entering kindergarten.

The hub may look at offering conferences or workshops, or funding to help providers attend continuing education classes, she said.

Another goal of the hub is to help prevent child abuse and neglect by working earlier with at-risk families.

“We’re very excited about the opportunity to have some focus on early learning, so that we’re really meeting the needs of those children who are falling through the cracks. So it will be really amazing as we start to see changes in some of our outcomes, especially for kindergarten readiness, but also the stable and attached families piece, so that we’re making sure we are reducing the number of children entering foster care,” Bergeron said.

The program is sending out requests for proposals to the remainder of the state this month, in an effort to create similar hubs statewide.

Reprinted with permission of the Yamhill Valley News-Register, ©2014