Report: What an Early Learning City could look like

  • January 20, 2017
  • /   Shannon Nickinson
  • /   early-learning

Teacher Perry Merritt in her Pre-K class for 3-year-olds at C.A. Weis Elementary School.

The Pensacola metro area’s economic future lies in our 5-year-olds.

That’s a message that Dr. Rick Harper, University of West Florida economist, has been delivering since the Studer Community Institute’s first Metro report in 2014. It is part of the reason that our research led not only to the educational and social links between early childhood and community well-being, but also to the economic impacts.

The success of the public school system, the strength of our workforce, the path that leads to a quality of life that includes lower crime rates, higher property values, and better wages all rely on, in the economist’s words, “making sure our 5-year-olds show up for kindergarten literate, numerate and eager to learn.”

“The focus on early education is absolutely the right focus for economic development,” Harper said at the 2016 Early Learning Summit hosted by the Escambia County Early Learning Coalition in May. “Today, technology growth outpaces human skills growth.”

That's why kindergarten readiness was among the 16 metrics in the Pensacola Metro Dashboard — developed with UWF to give a snapshot of the health and well-being of the community.

Shannon NickinsonStuder Community Institute project manager Shannon Nickinson in the 3-year-old preschool class at C.A. Weis Elementary School. Credit: Ron Stallcup.

It's why, as we continued to look into the roots of our community's lagging educational and economic indicators, we found ourselves in "the first 1,000 days" — the first three years — of a child's life.

It's why helping to create an Early Learning City in Pensacola is now SCI's passion project.

The only way we can close that gap is to ensure that our children show up for school kindergarten ready. According to Harper, some of the reasons why that is important:

— Kids who grow up in and around the Pensacola MSA earn about 8.4 percent less than the same kid would if he/she were to grow up in an average place in the U.S.

— For Escambia County, the results are even worse. Kids who spend 20 years of their childhood in Escambia earn about 15 percent less at age 26 than the same kid would if they grew up in an average place in the U.S. That’s $3,870 a year less than in the “nationally average” place.

— Escambia is second worst among the 67 counties in Florida, with only Gadsden County registering lower, at -$3,910.

Harper’s bottom line: “Pick your friends wisely, because your hometown matters, and it matters with whom you grow up.”

That is why embracing the challenge to become America’s first Early Learning City is important, not only for the parents of young children, but for the business owners who employ those parents — and will one day employ their children.

The key pieces of an Early Learning City are health care, public schools, current resources, media and architecture and the environment. Each segment has a hand in building a culture of lifelong learning that supports early brain development, parent engagement and school readiness.

When each does its part toward the common purpose of giving each child the best chance to be ready for kindergarten, the quality of life in the community improves for:

— A voluntary prekindergarten system that has a common language around quality and supports the healthy development of young children and their families toward the goal of school readiness.

— A public school system that gets better prepared students and more engaged parents who understand why support at home is crucial to a child’s success. Those better prepared students should lead to higher high school graduation rates and better post-secondary attainment levels.

— Business owners who invest in their community, and see employees who are parents more productive and engaged at work because they feel their workplaces value their role as parents.

— Employers who have a better educated, more skilled workforce from which to hire.

— Residents who see their city improve through the benefits of a better educated workforce — lower crime rates, higher wages, better schools, less of a public investment in the reactionary services, and a quality of life that makes companies and individuals want to invest in the community.

In short, an Early Learning City looks like remarkably the way former Mayor Vince Whibbs described Pensacola: “Where thousands live the way millions wish they could, where the warmth of our community comes not only from God's good sunshine, but from the hearts of the people who live here. Welcome to Pensacola, America's first place city and the place where America began."

Making North America’s oldest settlement our nation’s first Early Learning City would honor the city’s past and speak volumes about its commitment to the future.

Health Care

Much of the healthcare community’s role in early childhood today is focused on health and well-being, with interventions for children and mothers deemed at-risk or with developmental delays.

Less information is given to parents touching on the critical importance of exposure to language from ages 0 to 4 — and stressing the power parents have to impact early brain development. Early Learning Cities help parents understand, embrace and use that power by:

Building in brain development. The wiring of a child’s brain is laid between birth and 3 years old. The stronger the connections between the brain’s synapses, the more that brain will be able to learn later on — and the smarter that baby will grow up to be. From prenatal visits at a doctor’s office to childbirth classes, doctors will talk to their pregnant patients about the importance of words in early brain development.

Clinics, doctor’s offices, health department and WIC offices can make their waiting areas early learning friendly with tools for parents and children that tout the benefits of early language exposure.

Developing brain bags. Early literacy kits — ”brain bags” to stress the importance of early brain development — will be given to every new mom before she leaves the hospital.

Make your baby smart bannerVideos developed by the Thirty Million Words Initiative will be used in local hospitals. Every well-child appointment at a pediatrician’s office can include information about kindergarten readiness, with milestones to look for at all ages.

Supporting home visits. The 16-question universal screening tool used by Healthy Start, Early Steps and others could be used to target moms who may benefit from home visits to stress the importance of parent talk. Doing that effectively means enlisting agencies that already do home visits for at-risk moms — including Healthy Start, WIC, Early Steps, 90Works (formerly Families First). The folks at those agencies agree that their clients need coaching and support on why talking to your baby is critical.

Education (VPK-12)

Florida offers voluntary prekindergarten free to every 4-year-old. There are 85 contracted VPK providers in Escambia County, and 36 in Santa Rosa County. Data from the Florida Office of Early Learning for 2014 shows that only half of Escambia children who don’t attend VPK are kindergarten ready; 80 percent of those who complete VPK are ready.

An Early Learning City maximizes these resources by making sure every eligible child is enrolled in VPKs that follow quality guidelines, encouraging parent involvement and success in school. The tools for that include:

Star system that stresses quality in early learning. Parents can use the Escambia Early Learning Coalition’s “star” system to choose a childcare center whose curriculum supports strong early brain development. The coalition gives a bonus of $500 or $1,000 annually to centers that achieve 3- or 4-star ratings. Centers that don’t have a contract with the Coalition could still see the value in the rating system and volunteer to be rated.

Putting kindergarten on everyone’s mind. Halfway through the VPK year, a packet designed by Escambia kindergarten teachers could go home to every 4-year-old. It would outline the kind of information children will be expected to know to be kindergarten ready — shapes, numbers, letters, sight words, listening, writing their name beginning with a capital letter, following directions, how to use the trackpad and a mouse. A version, designed for the parents of 3-year-olds, could be sent home to all children at childcare centers, churches and libraries.

Getting siblings on board. Escambia students with younger siblings get strategies they can use to help their younger brother or sister get ready for school. Students get extra credit in class for work they do at home with siblings. At parent conferences, childcare for younger siblings is provided, as is help registering for VPK or Head Start for the next generation of learners.

Boosting connections between preschool, K-12. Parents often get a portfolio of a child’s prekindergarten year that includes results of the VPK assessments and developmental assessments. There’s no means to share that with the kindergarten teacher who will inherit that child. This portfolio should be sent to the principal of the elementary school where that child will attend kindergarten. At the parent-teacher conference before kindergarten, the teacher can use this information to help the parent and student prepare for the beginning of school.


In Escambia County, childcare, Head Start and early learning centers are housed in private businesses, churches, community centers and on school campuses.

But children and their parents are not only in those places. Workplaces, churches, businesses, parks and other spaces can have early brain development woven into their fabric, too.

An Early Learning City maximizes all of the resources in the community and points them toward a common purpose — helping all children have the best chance to be ready for school.

Churches do their part: Churches are powerful cultural institutions in this community. In addition to hosting VPKs and early learning centers, churches can integrate readiness skills into their Sunday school and mother’s day out programs.

The Rev. Lonnie Wesley at Greater Little Rock Baptist Church and Baptist Minister’s Union of Pensacola and Vicinity have sought to broaden their influence, supporting an effort called the Barbershop Books program.

The program started in Harlem, and puts bookshelves in barbershops to create child-friendly reading spaces in barbershops for boys ages 4 to 8 years old. It leverages the cultural importance of barbershops in African American communities to help black boys identify as readers. That’s an important issue in Escambia county, where 2016 Florida Standards Assessment data shows only 29.2% of African-American students in third grade scored at proficiency in language arts.

Mark “early learning friendly” businesses: The Studer Community Institute will encourage all businesses to become early learning friendly. That means providing activities and learning experiences for children that will enhance and improve their early education in businesses in neighborhoods (convenience stores, Dollar General, Family Dollar, hair salons and beauty supply shops), in downtown Pensacola (the Bodacious Family of Shops), and throughout the county. Near the cash registers, in waiting areas, and in end-cap displays can be material to take home that stress sight words, numbers, colors, shapes, etc.

Where you wait, you can learn: The Early Learning Coalition in Orange County got a grant to put children’s books in Laundromats. Neighborhood businesses where people with children will have to wait — clinic waiting rooms, Laundromats, restaurants — can become places where books, and activity sheets that stress numbers and common sight words, bring learning to places where people are.

The grocery store classroom. A simple trip to the grocery store can become a learning experience. Every grocery store can put early education fliers in grocery bags at checkout.

Choose a letter as you're walking into the store. Make a game of finding things in the store that start with that letter. For example, for the letter "p" you could find peanuts, popcorn, pineapple, paper and pizza.

Architecture and the Environment

Children learn from what they see around them everyday. If that environment is colorful, filled with words and encourages them to explore using all of their senses, their brains will build strong connections and thrive.

If that environment is sterile, missing books, lacking an adult who talks to them every day, the connections in that child’s brain will wither.

Early Learning Cities see the link between the “built environment” — buildings, signs, public spaces, businesses — and brain development and take steps to make every space a learning space.

Play areas that builds brainpower:  Building letters, numbers, shapes and colors into the physical environment can make early literacy part of everyone’s experience. In fall 2016, the City of Pensacola’s Parks Department will use the results of a survey done by the University of West Florida to build the long-term park development strategy for the city. Equipment in Escambia County parks is replaced about every 10 years or as needed by wear.

New equipment can help young children build their fine and gross motor skills — the small muscles in their hands that they will use to hold a pencil or crayon and the big muscles they will use to walk, run and climb. It will engage all of their senses, foster imaginative play and encourage adults to play with their children, not just be bystanders.

Born Learning Trails, which feature markers and activities that parents and young children can do together to boost early learning, could be in all 92 of the city’s parks. There are fewer than 10 trails now.

Bring in nature. Children learn best when they use all of their senses. Research shows children respond to water, vegetation, animals, sand, natural color and material, places to sit on or under, things with loose parts that can be moved. Grass mazes or sensory gardens can be built into new or existing facilities that parents and young children frequent. Examples of this can be seen in the numbered steps at Wahoos stadium, and designs for the Early Learning Garden at the Bodacious Brew coffee shop’s drive-thru on Main Street. Landscaping should be safe to touch and non-toxic.

Make everything a canvas. The exterior walls of buildings and parking garages could be painted with murals that encourage counting, shape and letter recognition, and comparison. Interior walls with space for artwork can include artwork that uses letters or primary sight words as part of the art. Tile floors can deliberately be designed to spur pattern recognition. Signage can encourage adults to count tiles and other shapes with children.

Design for early learning. Architect Miller Caldwell III is working on a design book for architects that would include ideas that support early learning and parent-child engagement. Written by a professional for a professional, it will give credibility to the practice in the field. It includes advice about materials, design and signage in ways large and small. One example: Design at “eye-level” for a child. Color, sight words, texture, materials at a child’s level can complement what’s at “eye-level” for adults.


An Early Learning City uses all of the media tools available to convey the importance of kindergarten readiness to parents, business and community leaders.

The Studer Community Institute staff produces content for use online, in print, in radio and television focused on the importance of kindergarten readiness and its tie to economic development.

An Early Learning City uses this content in multiple ways:

Share what we learn: Partners at the Pensacola News Journal, InWeekly and elsewhere use research-based content developed at SCI with their readers.

Show what right looks like: Create videos of parents engaged and involved in their child’s education and development as a model example to share best practices with other parents. The videos can run at public venues, in doctor’s office waiting rooms, on local television, and in movie theaters during previews.

Spread the lessons of Thirty Million Words: Use radio spots to promote early learning and increase awareness based on research from Dana Suskind and the TMW. Share the recorded radio commercials with daycare providers so they can use the strategies and ideas with the children under their care.