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Bright Start West Tennessee launches, outlines a fourteen step roadmap for improving child welfare 

United Way of West Tennessee officially launched Bright Start West Tennessee, the new roadmap for child welfare in West Tennessee. 

The plan aims to build high-quality continuing care for West Tennessee children birth-third grade. Special attention was given to birth-5 years old and also to economically disadvantaged children.

The program will serve nine counties: Decatur, Dyer, Hardeman, Hardin, Haywood, Lake, Madison, McNairy, and Weakley.

“I want West Tennessee to become the best place to raise a family. I want West Tennessee to lead the way in being child-friendly, family-friendly, and parent-friendly,” Oliva Abernathy said. 

Abernathy is the fellow for Bright Start, run out of the United Way for West Tennessee office. She spoke to more than 150 people at the launch, explaining the all-round impact children’s welfare has on a community and region:

“These early years really matter, and yet they’re the years in which parents are left with so few options and so few supports. These are the years where parents are often new in their careers or in lower paying jobs, and yet childcare costs more than in-state college tuition. These are the years when a child’s brain is forming more neuroconnections than it ever will in its life, and yet their caretakers and teachers make $9/hour, less than parking lot attendants.

“So these years are crucial, and yet they’re the years where parents are forced to choose between working a living wage and caring for their children because of insufficient childcare. These are the most important years in setting our children, our community’s children, up for success, and yet they’re the years in which society is least invested and left parents to fend for themselves.”

The program is funded by Tennesseans for Quality Early Education, a nonpartisan and nonprofit organization that promotes early education among Tennesseans. They provided the data, funding, and support for the program. Eighteen members of the steering committee and 33 other community partners provided the manpower. 

Through two years, Abernathy explained, the committee held meetings, sent out surveys, hosted focus groups, and dug into the complex issues surrounding childhood welfare in West Tennessee. 

“Overall the message that we heard is, ‘West Tennessee is a childcare desert, and it affects everybody.’ The issue is not just COVID related. There are deep fractures in the industry like staffing and compensation. The lack of high-quality childcare was evident to all kindergarten and K-3 teachers. They can tell when a child comes in with the social/emotional skills to enter kindergarten, and when they don’t, and many do not. We also heard, very loudly, how difficult it can be for families to access services they need because of things like transportation and finances,” Abernathy said. 

This is all to reach the goal of 75% of third grade students proficient in reading and math by 2025, a critical benchmark in children’s welfare. 

This is the goal set by the Tennesseans for Quality Early Education. Through research, the statewide organization says children who are not reading at grade level by third grade are more likely to drop out of high school, be incarcerated, earn less, and have poor health. Currently, less than one-third of West Tennessee’s students are on track in reading (30%) or math (21%). 

However, Abernathy said, that goal cannot be reached by investing in children once they get to third grade. The holistic approach starts before they are even born. 

“The issues we face are really complex,” Abernathy said. “We’re not dealing with easy solutions. They also involve so many different sectors, from government to business to early education professionals, nonprofits and their funders. There’s so many different people that intersect with this problem and may not even know it. So it was important for us to have representatives from those sectors at the table to be able to participate and speak into the plan, but also get support as we move forward.”

A Lengthy Plan for a Complex Problem: 

The plan consists of three major steps: 

  • High-quality birth-through-age-8 learning environments
  • Physical health, mental health, and development on track from birth
  • Supported and supportive families and communities

Then, the plan describes 14 action plans, each one labeled with a different stage, ranging from “Stage 1” to “Stage 3.”

Stage 1 (as described in the launch): The strategy is a priority, but no partner has been identified or implementation depends on securing funding. 

  • Early Care and Education Workforce Pipeline – engage community partners to address the complex challenge of early childhood education staffing, including compensation, credentials, and professional development. 
  • Family Care Provider Network – recruit, train, and support family care providers in home-based care for rural families and those working non-traditional hours. 
  • Community Schools – create public schools that act as hubs for their neighborhoods to meet needs of the entire community.
  • School-based clinics and Health Services – provide medical and behavioral health professionals at schools for preK-12 students and staff. 

Stage 2: Strategies in the planning phase and will launch in 2023. 

  • Shared Services Alliance – connect childcare providers with business, professional development, and staffing support services. 
  • Micro-Center Network– create mini-childcare centers in existing schools, hospitals, and office buildings.
  • Employer-Led Initiatives – partner with local Chambers of Commerce business and industry leaders, and community organizations to create policies and practices to support working parents. 
  • Benefit Kitchen – implement a screening tool to use algorithms to determine eligibility and estimated dollar amounts for a family’s federal, state, and local benefits. 
  • Community-Based Literacy Initiatives – create a region-wide literacy campaign while supporting those already in place (Imagination Library, the Reading Railroad, the Read Team, etc.)

Stage 3: The strategy is already in motion.

  • LENA Early Talk Technology – tracks conversational turns between caregivers and children to improve interaction and language development. 
  • Evidence-Based Home Visiting – fosters healthy parental relationships by providing attachment-based, culturally respectful, and family-centered support. 
  • Handle with Care – encourages law enforcement officers to send notifications to schools when children have been involved in traumatic after-school events, ensuring they receive proper interventions. 
  • Tennessee Resiliency Project: Pathways Family+ – embeds licenced mental health professionals in places families already go to, including primary care offices, Head Start preschools, schools, and juvenile courts. 
  • Mobile Health and Dental Services – provides healthcare where the child is. Existing services include LeBonheur on the Move mobile healthcare, Helping Hands mobile dental clinics, and Pathways mobile telehealth.

“Team Madison County is in.”

In late 2022, Georgia-Pacific announced they are coming to Madison Co. with their latest Dixie paper plant. At $425 million dollars, it’s the largest single investment in the history of the county. 

That, along with BlueOval City in Haywood Co., is expected to bring in thousands of people. 

“We do not have nearly enough childcare to support the students and children we have now, much less the students and children we’re projected to get as our region grows,” Abernathy said. 

At the launch, Madison County Mayor AJ Massey referenced the exponential growth Greenville, S.C., had since BMW arrived 30 years ago, and how he uses it as a benchmark for Jackson and Madison County.

“Brightstart West Tennessee is one such plan to prepare our young people for the next 30 years and beyond,” Massey said. “I believe with the ongoing investment, Bright Start West Tennessee can move the needle on our region’s educational outcomes, which so often lag behind the investments made.” 

“Our childcare industry plays a huge part in that,” Abernathy explained, “Not only does it affect parents, but it also affects grandparents who might stay home with their grandchildren. It also affects family members who may have to stay with a child. There’s so many different ways it affects our economy. Because if businesses can’t find employees, they can produce like they need to. Childcare teachers are the invisible workforce behind the workforce.”

Going forward, the steering committee will look at their quarterly benchmarks and progress. They are working directly with local school systems and city and county governments, and asking others to get involved as well.

“Team Madison County is in, because our community is worth it, because our children are worth it, because my 9-year-old and 3-year-old are worth it. Let’s all pull on this rope the same direction, together, and I promise you the future is bright in West Tennessee,” Massey said.

Julia Ewoldt, julia@jacksonpost.news

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