Editor’s note: This blogpost was written as a part of Ringling College of Art and Design’s Storytelling for Community Engagement: Ringling Student Views course, fall semester 2022, led by instructor Sylvia Whitman. Students were paired with nonprofits to learn about their mission and impact, and the post that follows shares the story of Early Learning Coalition of Sarasota County (ELC).
The project was completed as part of a collaboration with The Glasser/Schoenbaum Human Services Center. Many thanks to Charlene Altenhain and Sarah Glendening, especially, for their coordination of student writers to nonprofit organizations.
Imagine being a young child, around the age of four to five, about to enter kindergarten. Prior to this important step, most of your peers had the privilege of interacting with others, maybe in a child care or preschool setting. But you are among the 20% of children entering kindergarten who didn't. Abruptly you are placed in an unfamiliar situation where you are expected to interact fully and communicate with your classmates. You might shrink within yourself, and perhaps act out or fall behind your flourishing classmates—like I did. Who can learn while overwhelmed by what's going on around you?
I remember stepping into my first real class and freezing, not being able to fully engage due to the sudden overload of sensory inputs. My peers seemed to voice everything and anything with the confidence I lacked. Like many other children, I was lost.
As young humans, we gather intel from outside sources—what to avoid, how to interact with others, how to move, walk, and talk. By age five, 90 percent of a human brain is developed. Many times at this age parents will be seen reading to their children or talking to them while in a grocery store or out and about. How does this help them? Children learn through observation and experience. We learn how to speak by hearing others speak; we learn how to interact by watching our siblings, parents, and peers interact with others.
This is where the Early Learning Coalition of Sarasota County (ELC) comes in. It manages $18 million of local, state, and federal funds, providing access to early learning experiences that ease the transition to kindergarten. “We are an overarching nonprofit that connects thousands of children with child care and then connects child care with high quality through teacher training and mentoring,” says Ana McClendon, ELC’s director of community outreach and engagement.
A child enjoys a book at a local preschool. Photo courtesy of the ELC.
The ELC provides families with not only an opportunity for their child to gain the important skills to be successful further down the road, but also the opportunity for parents to pursue their own endeavors, from a full day at work to more education to that small break that allows them to be their best selves for their children every day.
“We are not a brick and mortar preschool,” McClendon emphasizes. Instead, ELC’s mini grants and programs support literacy and arts activities done by private preschools.
Florida has a voluntary pre-kindergarten (VPK) program, four hours per weekday, free for all four-year-olds regardless of family income. The ELC manages VPK in this area for roughly 2,000 students.
It also offers scholarships and financial assistance to another 2,000 or so children ages six weeks to five years for full-day child care. Child care costs more than most mortgages—more than in-state college tuition, according to McClendon. Infant care is the most expensive and gets incrementally lower as the child gets older. “The average out-of-pocket cost for infant care is around $1,000 per month. For ONE child. We all know many families have two children under age five.”
Although a huge part of the ELC is to focus and inform others of the importance of early education, it also provides support for the directors and teachers of child cares and preschools through its outreach program, which is connected to all 160 preschools in Sarasota County. “The ELC has strong recruitment, training, and retention programs for new teachers,” says McClendon. “We currently face a major teacher shortage, and it’s causing a major capacity issues in Sarasota——making it difficult for families to find openings.”
It takes an important understanding to teach preschool. This outreach program offers, or helps teachers find, workshops around the art of early education. It encourages facilities to share resources.
As a state-funded nonprofit organization with its target goal of assisting young children, the ELC focuses on helping families navigate child care and preschool programs and offering scholarships. It also encourages families to continue their young child's education outside the classroom with books and tips and apps to create a learning experience from virtually anywhere. Even a grocery store run can be an educational experience through fun games or interactions with people nearby.
The first five years matter the most. “Every sight, sound, smell, and sensation packs a powerful punch,” McClendon says. “From the moment a child is born, neurons are building networks, cognition is booming, language is exploding, and every minute, the foundations are being laid for a lifetime of learning.”
Thanks to the Early Learning Coalition, so many children who might have been walking into the kindergarten classroom overwhelmed and unable to concentrate have gotten the resources they needed. They are now ready for the step into elementary school fully prepared. As McClendon says, “Access to an enriching early education environment is a game changer for life.”