Ana Ortega and Bianca Nuñez

Ana Ortega reads to her daughter, Bianca Nuñez, at the Walla Walla Public Library. The two were participating in “Prime Time Family Reading,” a program sponsored by Humanities Washington to promote thought and conversation between children and adults through reading. The goal is to boost long-term achievement and build lasting connections with local libraries. Local experts say reading to children and having books in the home is one factor in getting an early start on education.

How can this community best serve families with young children?

That’s the question local agency leaders put to parents and others in nine listening sessions over the past three months, as a way to determine what kinds of support for kids will be most fully embraced, said Christy Lieuallen, executive director of United Way of Walla Walla County.

What she and others heard back was heartening, Lieuallen said Wednesday.

“People said they want to come together as a community, to drop all ethnic and socio-economic lines and be together. And I like that.”

United Way, along with the city of Walla Walla and the Walla Walla Valley Early Learning Coalition — which encompasses dozens of area partners — was recently awarded a two-year, technical-assistance grant to explore how to improve outcomes for young children here.

The concept is called “Early Learning Communities,” and eight cities are on the ground floor of building models for use around the country.

Each chosen city will work on what is best for its residents, said Jennifer Beckmeyer, who seeks grants to support community and economic development for the city of Walla Walla.

As part of her job, Beckmeyer serves as a liaison between the city and national groups, such as Early Learning Communities.

In the fall of 2018, Walla Walla’s early learning officials joined to seek the technical assistance grant from the National League of Cities to help define an early learning focus here, Beckmeyer said.

To be designated as an early learning community is an ongoing process that starts with recognizing the importance of helping children and their families thrive to have a more educated, healthier, productive and safer town, according to The Center for the Study of Social Policy and the National League of Cities.

The two organizations developed a guide for places such as Walla Walla to focus local efforts around key concepts of early learning goals. Those include committed leadership, quality services, family-friendly neighborhoods and supportive policies.

Here, those goals are still being defined, said Eiledon McClellon, program director for Walla Walla Valley Early Learning Coalition.

By using the expertise, research and technical assistance offered by the national organizations, local leaders can engage more in a conversation about what is most needed here. That could be a focus on the birth to age 3 population, preschool or a central spot for a robust menu of early learning services, McClellan said.

Accepting the grant — which does not offer any funding — means Walla Walla is saying “yes” to formally identifying ways the city and other partners can find and support early childhood education, she said.

The National League of Cities gives its chosen communities tasks and time lines to determine dedicated resources to address early childhood needs. A recent survey, along with parent feedback in the listening sessions, showed Walla Walla-area families are concerned about safe neighborhoods and schools, affordable child care, the cost and availability of family activities, peer support for single parents and a positive place for teens.

More than 230 people responded to the survey that asked questions about where families access community information on needed services and what opportunities they need to build social and other connections.

Indicators so far point to a hub, a place to be, where “village” children can thrive, Lieuallen said.

“There are a lot of ideas out there,” McClellan said, noting one important goal is to not duplicate programs or services that already exist.

“So that more people are getting reached,” she said.

What is appreciated about the grant from the National League of Cities is the opportunity to take things Walla Walla experts do well — such as understanding and preaching the importance of building resilience in children — and creating concrete action steps.

Those may include pulling others into the effort, such as medical providers and state legislators, McClellan said.

One project under consideration in Washington is the creation of a rating system for day care centers and preschools that gives parents and other payers a way to see who is meeting quality learning standards, Walla Walla officials said.

Gov. Jay Inslee is also proposing $173 million to, among other things, provide universal newborn screening assessments and home visiting services to support early learning efforts, according to Inslee’s office.

Expansion of early learning is an ongoing priority for the governor, who has worked with the Legislature to nearly double the number of children in early learning programs to more than 15,000 since 2013.

Sometimes, McClellan noted, helping families might be as simple as teaching them the importance of reading in the home and having age-appropriate books on hand well before they ever get to school.

“That has such a big impact on a child’s development,” she said.

So far the vision for Walla Walla is fluid, Beckmeyer said, and undergoing tweaks as local Early Childhood Coalition members await a visit this summer from national leaders.

As work on the topic continues, planning for a regional approach to early childhood learning is on the horizon, she added.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers education in the Walla Walla Valley. She also writes a column, Home Place, usually highlighting family life and slices of local life.

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