Lafayette education leaders and statewide education officials toured two Lafayette early childhood learning centers on Thursday, watching as students engaged in creative play, developed fine motor skills and expanded their vocabularies through games and teacher interaction.

The visits were part of a local and state push to build community support around expansion of early childhood opportunities.

In 2019, Lafayette was one of seven communities to receive a $100,000 grant to pilot the next phase of the state’s overhaul of its early childhood education system. The overhaul began in 2012 with the implementation of Act 3, which brought all early childcare centers under the oversight of the Louisiana Department of Education and mandated that local lead agencies coordinate all early childhood education for their area.

The Lafayette Parish School System is the lead agency overseeing the parish’s early childhood community network, Ready Start Lafayette, which includes all LPSS pre-K classes, independent early childhood learning centers and daycares, and Head Start programs.

Network coordinator Emmy Thibodeaux said the next phase is focused on giving local networks more control over the growth and strengthening of quality early childcare and education in the parish. Previously the network acted as a liaison between the state and childcare providers, ensuring requirements were met, classrooms were observed and students receiving public funds were assessed, she said.

“Before we were told to do certain things, get certain boxes checked and we did that. Now this allows us to establish a local decision-making body that’s going to drive what Lafayette early childhood care looks like as opposed to another parish or network,” Thibodeaux said.

Christine Duay, LPSS director of early childhood, said being a member of the pilot program allows Lafayette to be on the ground level of changes to early childcare and serve as a model for the state. It also helps increase community buy-in and drive investment.

“When you can own your own work there comes an intrinsic higher level of responsibility,” Duay said.

Thibodeaux said Lafayette used the grant funding to support instructional bootcamps for the directors at independent early childcare learning centers, hired a data consultant to analyze access needs down to the zip code around the parish and to create a strategic plan.

She said the network is finalizing its blueprint for early childhood education’s future in Lafayette and is preparing to release it to community stakeholders. The plan has four main goals: increasing access to quality childcare for at-risk children, increasing the quality of care, engaging and educating families about their options, and increasing fundraising dollars to expand services, Thibodeaux said.

It’s not a job for educators alone, they said.

“If we’re going to get 100% of all kindergarten children entering kindergarten ready to learn, it’s going to take all the entities,” Duay said.

Jessica Baghian, state assistant superintendent for accountability, analytics, assessments, data systems and early childhood, said the state needs all hands on deck to solve its early childhood access crisis. The state currently serves about 95% of 4-years-olds, but only 33% of 3-year-olds and less than 7% of infants to 2-year-olds, she said.

All hands on deck means business groups, professional groups, non-profits and other community stakeholders. Gaining support requires communicating about the benefits of early childhood education and educating people about the professional, beneficial learning that takes place, Baghian said.

“It’s not just watching children or babysitting,” said Rori Brooks, co-owner and director of Close to Home Daycare on Vermilion Street. Brooks’ early learning center was one of two sites Baghian and Board of Elementary and Secondary Education member Holly Boffy visited Thursday.

Brooks, a former teacher, said it’s important the public realizes young children require structure, stimulation and expert, well-rounded care to help prepare them for kindergarten. All Brooks’ classes, from toddlers through pre-K students, are taught using age-appropriate curriculums that challenge them academically and provide social-emotional supports, she said.

“You may think all a baby needs is to be fed, get sleep and to have her bottom kept dry, but that’s not it,” she said.

Brooks said the network supports her in providing her teachers with continuing education and certifications, building that professional environment in her center.

Baghian said traditionally the professionalism of early childhood centers has been discounted and it’s time for that to change.

“To me, it’s a logical and a moral obligation for us as a state to recognize the professionals that do this important young age work and to support them in all the ways we would K-12 educators and higher education professionals,” Jessica said.

Email Katie Gagliano at kgagliano@theadvocate.com