Shannon Nickinson: Our children need more than a letter

The Florida Children and Youth Cabinet recently voted to write state leaders urging them to prioritize early education and child services for “the first 1,000 days” – from pregnancy to age 3.

Based on data from the Pensacola Metro Dashboard, only 66.2 percent of Escambia County’s 5-year-olds are ready for kindergarten; in Santa Rosa County the number is 81 percent. Kindergarten-ready children have greater success as they move through school, increasing their chances of success in the workplace and thereby improving the quality of life in our community.

That means Escambia’s young children need more than a firmly worded letter to help them.

The Aug, 27 letter notes that research shows 85 percent of a child’s brain growth takes place from 0 to 3. It is the crucial window in setting the path for a child’s future as a student, as a citizen, and as a person.

Cabinet Chairwoman Wansley Walters, according to the News Service of Florida, wanted to stress the importance of making sure Gov. Rick Scott, Senate President Andy Gardiner and House Speaker Steve Crisafulli  “understand that the first 1,000 days constitute a research-driven, evidence-based coalition of child-centric authorities across the state — because otherwise they’re probably not going to have any clue what we’re talking about.”

That alone ought to stop you cold.

If the three most powerful men in Florida need to be reminded in small words that investing in early education is more than something to do because it makes you feel warm and fuzzy, the children of this state are in trouble.

And given the Pensacola metro area’s ranking as one of the poorest metropolitan areas in the state, that means our children are in more trouble than most.

The News Service of Florida reports that longtime members of the youth cabinet — established in 2007 — saw the letter as a symbol of their hopes for a new relevancy.

“We got it done,” said Tallahassee lawyer Steve Uhlfelder, a cabinet member since 2009. “We didn’t just listen – we acted.”

Is the bar that low that when it comes to focusing state resources on the needs of our children, we get excited over a letter?

Maybe so, given the fact that for the past two years Florida lawmakers have failed to pass measures that would have made early learning centers safer, improved staffing and increased transparency. Read about that here.

Bruce Watson, executive director of the Escambia County Early Learning Coalition, said the “first 1,000 days” is “the new push. It puts a title to it. The 0 to 3 initiative has been growing every year.

Watson will attend The First 1,000 Days Conference  Oct. 21-23 in Palm Beach. The conference is for advocates, providers and policymakers in the realms of early education and infant and maternal health to share best practices and strategies for collaboration.

“I think the overall impetus is good,” Watson said of the letter. “I Iike the fact that they sent out a copy to every legislator in the state, to say ‘Hey, you need to think about this.’

“Reading the science, reading the documentation, (0-3) is where we need to put our money,” Watson says. “Some people would argue that even VPK is too late if we haven’t done what we need to do in the 1,000 days.”

Children who are ready for kindergarten have more success throughout their school career than those who start out behind.

And as Escambia County data suggests, those who start out behind in kindergarten are likely to stay behind come graduation day. Because our high school graduation rate is 66 percent as well.

The dimmed economic prospects of young people who don’t get that diploma as are well documented.

In a community where the real per capita income of the average person lags behind the state average by more than $4,400, our workforce needs every mind as well-armed as it can be if we are to prosper.

The Children’s Cabinet’s letter will go to Scott, Gardiner, Crisafulli and the rest of the Florida Legislature – after years of lobbying efforts about the merits of focusing on early childhood to prevent future crime, joblessness and dysfunction.

“I’ve been frustrated,” David Lawrence, chairman of the Children’s Movement of Florida, told cabinet members at their meeting in Tampa. “I would like this cabinet to stand for something. I’d like some focus here.”

From your lips, Mr. Lawrence, to Tallahassee’s ears.

Shannon Nickinson is the editor of, a news and commentary website in Pensacola. Follow her on Twitter Column courtesy of Context Florida. 

Shannon Nickinson


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