Alachua County implemented the fiscal year 2017 budget of over $300 million on Saturday, October 1.
A portion of the budget, $1.25 million, is going toward a brand new program called the Children Services Advisory Council.
“In the first year, [the program] will start to address the real gap in how we handle kids 0-5 years old from poor families,” said Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson, Alachua County commission chair.
The community is establishing the Children Services Council for children between 0 and 5, including prenatal children, in order to give them a better start in life, said Dorothy Benson, an Alachua County citizen who helped conceptualize the initiative.
“There’s always been a desire to expand services to children in the community,” said Dr. Gordon Tremaine, CEO for Early Learning Coalition of Alachua County.
Due to the economic gaps between families, this program will work to improve kids’ early childhood learning, nutrition, safety and health.
It is important for all parents and childcare givers to have the tools that will enable them to give these children the best start in life, Benson said.
“It’s just a matter of everyone who’s taking care of children getting what they need and understanding how important those first few years are,” Benson said. “I think the first 1,000 days are the most critical.”
Hutchinson explained that eighty-five percent of brain development takes place prior to kindergarten.
“When we wait until children are in kindergarten, we’ve already waited too long,” Benson said. “Our community sees this as an opportunity to identify the gaps and the barriers that parents have for getting the best high-quality early-learning support for their children.”
When children start behind in kindergarten they often do not catch up, which sets them on a different trajectory of life.
The county already appointed a group of citizens to get the initiative started, Hutchinson said. The group has been working for the past 4-to-6 months on a detailed assessment to make recommendations on how to spend the budget money.
“The first thing we had to think about was, if we could find the funding source, what kinds of things could we be doing that we can’t do now,” Tremaine said.
Benson, among others, started advocating and talking to county commissioners early last spring to discuss what could be done to support this initiative.
“The evidence is all there,” Hutchinson said. “This is where the problems in society start.”
According to Tremaine, lack of early learning can lead to a variety of issues in the community down the road, both economically and socially. Based on studies, if children are ready for school by the time they reach kindergarten, they are less likely to be involved with drug and alcohol abuse, teen pregnancy and less likely to drop out of school.
The children will also be more prepared to be independents as they grow older and be more productive in a work force.
“That is probably the single-most important investment that we can make,” Hutchinson said.