The Center for the Study of Social Policy has launched a new section of their website, called The New Neighborhood, dedicated to highlighting and sharing the various community early childhood system efforts emerging across the country. We asked Dr. Joan Lombardi, longtime champion and founder of the podcast that first launched this name, to reflect on this important step forward to connect the dots, improve the lives of young children and families and assure equity from the start.
Years ago, a colleague referred to afterschool programs as the “new neighborhood” for school age children. I always liked the term as it conjured up the changing context of children’s lives, yet with a combination of nostalgia about the past, as well as a freshness that comes with anything called “new”. I have often thought that the “new neighborhood” for young children goes far beyond a single program. Rather it is a system of supports and services that help families assure that their young children grow up healthy and thrive during the early years of life.
Neighborhoods are where children live and play. Sometimes people think of their neighborhood as just a few blocks around their home, others think of the broader community, such as a section of a city or town. When we look across the country, we see amazing efforts to create community early childhood systems. Some are focused on a specific neighborhood; others are city or county wide. Some are part of a statewide network, while others have grown within a single community without connections to the state. Some are part of a national network (such as EC-LINC) others are not connected to such supports. While some focus on the period from cradle to career (like Strive Together) others are more focused on one part of the developmental continuum.
If one looks across these community efforts, some common characteristics appear. More and more communities are focusing on the period prenatal to school entry, the time where services are the most disconnected. In most cases, there is an effort to bring more coherence to disjointed sectors- health, care and education, and family support, all important to the developing child. And, given climate change, safety issues and the housing crises, an increasing number of communities are focusing on broader environmental issues and their impact on children and families.
What has been most challenging to watch is the number of communities that are struggling to make all this work for families, without the policies and financing in place that could facilitate change. In addition, the community early childhood system efforts often feel like they are recreating the wheel: trying to figure out what is the civic infrastructure that should be in place, how best to listen to families, involve them more directly in decisions, and help them navigate services. While these challenges remain, it is exciting to see the vision, coordinated governance, shared data systems and local financing emerge. While each may define the overall goal with different words, the focus seems to be on improving “readiness” for a population of young children and supporting the economic and social well-being of families. While we have a long way to go, the journey is underway.
Whatever the pathway towards assuring that the community supports families and young children, we need to learn from efforts; where challenges have been faced and solutions found to address them. To that end, the information posted on the New Neighborhood site, is another step to bring more cohesion to this movement for change. Each of us can ask- how do we make this the best place to raise a child? Hopefully we will move towards a time where local, state, and national policies will help provide the answer to this critical question.
Please share information about your community system efforts by emailing email@example.com.