A four-year action plan to help Norwalk's youngest citizens was launched last week, with educators and community leaders promising to work to make sure all area children are prepared to enter kindergarten.
About 40 people met at Norwalk City Hall last Wednesday to begin work under the 2012-16 Norwalk Early Childhood Action Plan, which was formulated by members of the Norwalk Early Childhood Council and based on the results of efforts made from 2007 to 2010.
The work was called "by far the most important thing" that could be done, by state Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Norwalk, one of several politicians at City Hall to welcome and congratulate the group.
"In the world of education, if you do anything, it's got to be early childhood," she said. "It's got to be in early education because if you don't get it right in the beginning, it's much more difficult for a child to learn and to cope and to move forward, to continue to learn by (themself)."
Mary Oster, who was hired as the city's first early childhood coordinator in 2010, invited guests to take home the 60-page plan and digest it. Attendees listened to an abbreviated version presented in a PowerPoint.
Strategies for Goal One -- early care and education -- include:
Increasing the number of infant and toddler programs
Collaborating with Family Resource Centers to educate parents about early learning
Developing a centralized system for parents seeking preschool information
Aligning with community groups, such as Norwalk ACTS, to leverage resources
Integrating and aligning curriculum for pre-K to kindergarten and kindergarten to grade 3
Aligning the data between pre-K and kindergarten skills
Updating and expanding the kindergarten form
"We want to expand the form to include preschools and daycare in a check off so that we have a better idea as to a child's experience before entering kindergarten," Oster said via email.
"This (updating the form) is a strategy we are looking at because we need to get children to register into kindergarten in a timely manner," said Joan Parris, director of early childhood community education for Norwalk Community College. "We are looking at the registration form to make it more friendly for parents, as well as something that will register their children in an updated and timely manner."
Parris also said the state is working on new early childhood standards, which should be released in the fall. Those standards will be aligned with Common Core State Standards, a mandated effort to establish nationwide standards in education.
"Our Goal One is to see that all Norwalk children, birth to 5, have a quality early childhood experience; that kindergarten children are ready to learn and succeed in life and that by grade 3 children are at goal or above on the CMTs."
Goal Two of the plan is childhood health. The focus includes prenatal care, childhood obesity and dental care, as well as publicizing resources. Goal Three is family support and safety and includes strengthening existing programs, such as Reach Out and Read and Parents as Teachers.
Oster said children who visit the Norwalk Community Health Center are given a book by their doctor. Volunteers read books to children in the waiting area, and encourage parents to bond with their children through reading.
Parent Zone workshops, an existing program at the Stepping Stones Museum for Children, is being tinkered with.
"We're experimenting a little bit and have put in a different curriculum," Oster said. "We're having parents calling multiple times and getting parents to come more than just once. We really are creating kind of a nice, continuous learning experience for the families."
The NECC's Early Childhood Action Plan presents a foundation for the work of the council. The group supports literacy and early childhood initiatives in Norwalk through funding from the United Way of Coastal Fairfield County, the Norwalk Children's Foundation, the Grossman Family Foundation, Norwalk Public Schools, the State Department of Education and the City of Norwalk.
The council consists of working committees who are charged with supporting the goals of the Early Childhood Action Plan.
State Sen. Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, said there are "startling statistics out there" showing that children who grow up in housing projects enter kindergarten without being ready.
"We need to redouble our efforts to ensure that all of our children have access to early childhood education," Duff said. "There's lots of components out there, lots of people working hard. This effort that you have ensures that we are all trying to work hand in hand together, to try to make sure we move forward with one voice."