Editor’s note: Gerald Szostak is the chair of the First Things First Board.
Certainly, 2020 has been a year of extraordinary challenges for many individuals, families and communities throughout our state. While it is easy to focus on the difficulties and disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to remember the many heroic individuals and organizations that rose to the challenge and were instrumental in moving our state forward.
Recently, First Things First completed its state fiscal year 2020 annual report, Fulfilling Our Commitments to Children & Communities.
While we are always pleased to share with policymakers and the public the impact of our work, this year we are most proud of the role that First Things First (FTF) and its many partners played in ensuring crucial early childhood programs were able to continue during the crisis and beyond. Accordingly, the report includes a special section dedicated to describing our collaborative efforts in areas like:
- maintaining the critical early childhood infrastructure built over the past decade;
- supporting Arizona’s struggling child care industry;
- and, encouraging grant partners’ innovation in delivering services to families.
Through these efforts, FTF has fulfilled its commitment to ensuring that the programs families have come to count on to support their children’s development, health and learning did not fall victim to the virus that ravaged our state and our nation.
At the same time, we are keenly aware that this crisis has only exacerbated the challenges facing Arizona’s young children. The 2020 annual report includes data that clearly show that, even before the pandemic, young children in Arizona faced high hurdles on the road toward school readiness. For example:
- 1 in 4 young children live in poverty.
- Almost 2 out of 3 children don’t attend preschool.
- And, 1 in 8 young children has had two or more adverse childhood experiences.
Those needs will only increase as we recover from the pandemic and its toll on our state’s economy. As of this writing, many child care providers statewide lack the financial resources to keep their doors open beyond the next few months. Thousands of parents remain unemployed without the resources needed to meet their families’ basic needs. And, pediatricians have sounded the alarm about the number of young children who missed required vaccinations and well-child visits during the pandemic.
The annual report describes the impact that our early childhood investments have had on young children and families this past year in many areas, including access to quality early learning, home visitation, oral health and strengthening families in their role as their child’s first teachers. These are investments not only in people, but in the future of our state.
Rest assured, FTF will continue to do its part to support young children’s health and development. But, as the report points out, with revenues still 27% below our initial 2007 funding and totaling just $231 per child, it will take the combined efforts of all community partners – those who traditionally have invested in early childhood and new ones – to ensure children have the support they need to succeed in kindergarten and beyond.
As you read this year’s annual report, I hope that you can see your efforts reflected in the successes outlined there. Moreover, I hope that the information presented motivates you to continue your contributions to our early childhood system and inspires you to help others find their role in supporting young children, as well. There are more than half a million children birth to age 5 in Arizona. Let’s all work together to make sure every child is ready for school and set for life!