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Kids Get a Smart Start in North Carolina

by Carl Hoffman

In 1990 the nation's governors held a summit with President George Bush in Williamsburg, Virginia, to assess the status and the needs of the nation's education system.

One of the strongest recommendations to come from that summit was that every child should be adequately prepared to start school.

When James B. Hunt Jr., who had previously served two terms as North Carolina's governor, was reelected to that post in 1992, he found his state a long way from that goal. Nearly 20 percent of North Carolina's children under the age of six lived in poverty. Every day in the state three babies died, 67 children were abused or neglected, and 38 teenagers dropped out of school. Many children did not receive basic childhood immunizations. And nearly 10,000 families were on the waiting list for subsidized child care.

The national Kids Count Data Book ranked North Carolina 39th out of the 50 states on the health and well-being of its children.

Governor Hunt decided to make improvement in conditions for North Carolina children a cornerstone program of his administration. In 1993 the North Carolina legislature funded his vision for Smart Start, a program designed to provide quality early education, health care, and other important family services for every child under the age of six in the state.

"Nothing is more important than providing a better future for our children," says Governor Hunt. "The best way we can do that is give them a solid start in those critical first five years of life. That is what Smart Start is all about: offering a strong foundation and a good beginning to ensure a bright future."

Instead of mandating another new program from Raleigh or handing out money to already existing agencies, however, Smart Start did something radical. It required individual counties or groups of counties to create local boards of community leaders, which would in turn create local nonprofit "Partnerships for Children" to design—and eventually run and administer—local Smart Start programs. Parents and representatives from community colleges, local businesses, churches, civic groups, and already existing social service agencies such as departments of housing, health, recreation, and mental health would all sit down together and map out a comprehensive, proactive strategy to improve their community's services for families. There was an extra hitch, however. The creation of the requisite board and nonprofit partnership guaranteed nothing. The partnerships had to compete for a limited pool of state funding to be awarded over the course of several years.

All of this is easier said than done, explains Doris Huffman, intergovernmental liaison for early childhood initiatives at the North Carolina Department of Human Resources. "Before funding can be received, that local nonprofit partnership has to be in place," Huffman says. "Creating it is a new, difficult, and long process involving the cooperation between long-established agencies used to their own roles."

"We had to develop an organization from the ground up," says Sally Morgan Guerard, director of the Mitchell County Partnership for Children, "and it would have been easier for us to have simply not dealt with it at all."

Some thought the process was so difficult that North Carolina's 29 Appalachian counties, many of which have a history of persistent poverty, would be unable to compete with the state's non-Appalachian counties. Enter the Appalachian Regional Commission, which granted $2.4 million to help North Carolina's Appalachian counties through the arduous planning and analyzing process necessary to create partnerships that would win funding. Today, as Smart Start enters its fourth year, 55 of North Carolina's 100 counties have received Smart Start funding. And thanks to the ARC grants, 19 of those are Appalachian counties. "The Appalachian [part of the state] has a higher percentage of Smart Start counties than any other area of the state," says Huffman. "A great deal of that is because of the ARC grants, which helped the counties enhance their application process."

Grassroots Organization

"For us," says Mitchell County's Guerard, "the ARC money has been really important and the development process really healthy; we've developed an organization from the grass roots that is very committed." Although Mitchell County has not yet been chosen for state Smart Start funding, Guerard says the nonprofit Mitchell County Partnership for Children board has become so committed that it's just plowing ahead anyway. "The ARC has given us seed money to create a community-wide plan and to fund some services which have given us some visibility and trust in the community. Our challenge is to build on that and become self-supporting."

Smart Start has begun to show dramatic results. More than 24,500 children receive subsidized child care so their parents can work. More than 47,000 children have gotten early intervention and preventive health screenings, and more than 150,000 children have been immunized to prevent childhood diseases. The program has helped create 24,000 new child-care slots, and more than 31,000 teachers have gotten additional training through Smart Start training programs. And the number of day-care centers holding North Carolina's highest ranking—AA—has gone from 327 to 532.

Perhaps most exciting for local partnerships is that program management remains local. "Smart Start is very flexible and locally autonomous, and it's different from county to county," says June T. Smith, executive director of the Region A Partnership for Children, which comprises the state's seven westernmost Appalachian counties of Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Jackson, Macon, and Swain, as well as the Qualla Boundary Cherokee Indian reservation.

Today, Region A serves as a model for the program as a whole, one of six partnerships rated "superior" in a recent independent assessment of Smart Start by the national accounting firm Coopers and Lybrand. Its board of 39 includes everyone from county commissioners to business leaders to parents of children receiving child-care subsidies. "Our two watch words are prevention and intervention," says executive director Smith. To that end, the partnership's largest project is subsidizing day care so that more families, especially the working poor who earn too much to qualify for programs like Head Start, can send their children to quality day-care centers, and so that day-care centers will have financial incentives to improve their facilities beyond minimum licensing standards. In addition, the partnership has created a training center where both parents and day-care providers can upgrade their level of care and Family Resource Centers where myriad social services are available in one location; provided funding for seven social workers and three parent counselors to facilitate access to child-care subsidies and other family services throughout the region; developed a computer database of social and family services called the Regional Resource Directory; allowed funds for nurses and mental-health professionals to screen children for health problems at day-care centers; and provided money for evening, weekend, and summer Head Start services.

A visit to Region A reveals just how intertwined the various programs are. The Macon Program for Progress New Horizons Center for Children and Families in Macon County, for instance, has long been a Head Start program. But now, thanks in part to Smart Start, it has expanded into a regional Family Resource Center offering day care, Head Start preschool classes, literacy and General Equivalency Degree classes, mental-health services, and long-distance training. It even has shower facilities for families who don't have running water. "Now," says Lois Sexton, a Smart Start board member and director of the Macon Program for Progress Head Start program, "we're more family and regionally oriented. We draw many resources together into one place."

Upgrading Skills and Salaries

The centerpiece of the New Horizons facility is a regional distance-learning training center, which provides classes to upgrade the level of expertise among child-care providers, traditionally a low-wage, high-turnover occupation. As many as four locations can participate simultaneously in classes ranging from CPR to curriculum development to language arts for young children. As day-care staff increase their skills, their salaries are increased, with the help of Smart Start money, all part of an effort to reduce turnover and reward expertise.

Sheri Turk, director of the Sylva Infant and Toddler Center in Sylva, North Carolina, has felt the effects of that training firsthand. Her day-care center in a cozy house at the edge of town is the only one in the county exclusively serving infants to three-year-olds. As children that young require a low child-to-staff ratio, serving them is expensive. "I couldn't stay open if it wasn't for Smart Start," says Turk. "It just costs too much. I've got parents who both have jobs and they can barely afford to send one, much less two, children to day care." Thanks to Smart Start, her seven infants are cared for by a staff of three when the state-mandated ratio is one caregiver to five infants, and her 14 one-year-olds have four teachers, again more than the state minimum. Smart Start subsidizes their pay and provides constant training. "It has a tremendous impact to go beyond what is a basic level of care," says Turk. "I have a teacher in every room who has a college degree or is working on it. Smart Start allows me to provide annual raises, health insurance, and retirement benefits. It helps with stability and that's huge; we can go way beyond the institutional setting to create a place that fosters loving and appropriate development."

When it comes to development, nothing is more important than a child's health, which is where Mary Woodcock comes in. A registered nurse whose salary is 80 percent paid for by Smart Start and 20 percent by Haywood County, Woodcock visits each of the 27 day-care centers in Haywood County every two weeks. On one rainy summer day, she slipped behind a pint-sized table at a private, in-home day-care center called Little Dreamers, set up her laptop computer, and started updating the records on all the children. She keeps track of their immunizations, prods parents whose children need them, and conducts periodic hearing, sight, and developmental screenings. Woodcock's ultimate goal is to catch small problems before they get big. Recently she helped enroll a girl who was having behavioral problems in speech therapy; it turned out she was simply frustrated by her inability to communicate. As her speech improved, so did her behavior.

The Little Dreamers center, run by Doris Hamilton, is, in fact, a perfect example of Smart Start at work. Using program funds, Hamilton created more activity centers, upgraded her play equipment, gave her staff raises, and improved her child-to-staff ratio, and yet she also increased the number of children enrolled whose parents needed financial help. She and her staff have received training in management, effective discipline, nutrition, and even the care of children with breathing problems. These changes resulted in an upgrade for the center from A to AA certification. "Getting that AA rating was wonderful for me," says Hamilton. "Improving my child-to-staff ratio would have cost me too much money without the Smart Start subsidy, but going for those higher standards was worth it. The kids get more quality time and the parents have noticed; they take more pride in the center, and I've seen my parent involvement grow."

"I'm a single mom," says Tootsie Rogers, as she picks up her four-year-old son, Jesse. "For people like me who have to work, it's a big help."

The accounting firm Coopers and Lybrand gives solid backing to Rogers's feeling. Smart Start is "a credible program that delivers substantial good to children and families in North Carolina," stated the firm's 1996 performance audit.

Although the real impact of Smart Start may not be known for several more years, as children who are now in preschool move on to higher grades, the program already has all the makings of a model for other states to follow.

"Through Smart Start, we are helping families make sure that their children start school healthy and ready to learn," said Governor Hunt. "Together we must make sure Smart Start is available to every child in every county in the next four years. Only by helping our children achieve their best can we build a stronger work force, a stronger economy, and a brighter future for North Carolina."

Carl Hoffman is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC.