New Mexico’s Early Childhood Department Needs a Radical New Approach

Will the state step into a new paradigm with the new Early Childhood & Care Department?

The Neighborhood

Sunset in White Sands, New Mexico

Sunset in White Sands, New Mexico

All of us have gifts in this life. Mine - is working and connecting with children. I have a sixth sense. Jedi powers. I’ll just come right out and say it, strip away some of the jingles and I’m a veritable Mr. Rogers. Complete with the sweaters and shoes. I’ve spent practically my entire life working with children and most of these years specializing in early childhood.

But folks - there is a disturbance in the force. To say I’m concerned about the neighborhood is an understatement. My neighborhood is New Mexico, “The Land of Enchantment.”

Step into my neighborhood for a bit. It is enchanting indeed. Even at the end of a rough day, our sunsets can seep into you and spread its orange warm glow all over your bones. Our summer nights are so crisp and expansive that you almost feel a part of the starry skies. There is something ancient and magnetic about this place. But I have to be blunt here, the neighborhood is going to shit (I know, not very Mr. Rogers-like). The roots of our trees are thirsty for water and the foundations of our buildings are cracking.

By most measures in education, New Mexico is last (or nearly last). We have the most children in poverty. Car theft is so commonplace that it has turned into a meme that we try to laugh off on the internet. In the first 112 days of this year, we’ve had 114 shootings in Bernalillo County alone. I grew up feeling relatively safe in New Mexico, but I have to say I’m regularly looking over my shoulder these days.

There is no single fix for all of these issues. “Complex” doesn’t even begin to describe it. But there are three words that can have the most direct impact, BY FAR, on cleaning up the neighborhood over the next few decades: Early. Childhood. Education.

Governor Michelle Lujan-Grisham pictured with her granddaughter, signing the bill for the Early Childhood & Care department.

Governor Michelle Lujan-Grisham pictured with her granddaughter, signing the bill for the Early Childhood & Care department.

And check this out - the neighborhood is about to get over $300 million to start fixing things up. That’s right, this last legislative session our elected officials passed a bill to create a new department for children: The Early Childhood Education and Care Department. Headed by Senator Michael Padilla, this bill effectively puts all of our early childhood education departments (previously 4 departments) under one roof in efforts to improve efficiency, accountability, and coordination. Over the next eight years, our early childhood budget will more than  double. Governor Lujan-Grisham has said “The No. 1 priority in this state has to got to be the opportunity, well-being and education of our children.”

The Governor is talking about addressing the “achievement gap” in our state. As a longtime educator, I can tell you that she is on the money with this. You don’t have to like her or her politics. Personally, I’m politically agnostic. The words could be coming out of a cartoon turtle and it wouldn’t make them less true.

We are stuck in a nasty cycle that is burrowing further into the ground. The achievement gap occurs when children (typically from lower socioeconomic backgrounds) enter kindergarten with educational delays. Quite possibly the biggest contributing factor to the achievement gap is children growing up in homes where they get less quality/quantity interaction from caregivers. To put a finer point on it, it boils down to the type and amount of  language children hear in their preschool years. The numbers are crazy - some children hear up to 30 million less words than their peers by the time they enter kindergarten. The effects of this are brutal. 

Without the proper foundation in language, children have a difficult time synthesizing information properly in kindergarten. When children cannot keep up, frustrations mount and bad behaviors manifest. If we cannot “catch” these issues and get children on par by the time they reach 3rd grade, we lose them. It is a hard truth to swallow, but I’ve seen it time and time again. Essentially it’s too late to break the cycle by kindergarten. This is why early childhood education is not just important but vital!

So now, in May of 2019 “the neighborhood” has two great things going for it:

  1. Leadership that is spotting crucial areas and recognizing it as a top issue. 

  2. A surge in funding to address these issues.

But now for the hard part. Does anyone really have faith in government anymore? What are two things government and politicians are great at? 

  1. Lip service 

  2. Wasteful spending. 

I mean, we’ve all heard this song and dance before. Administrations come in and tout education reform, yet year after year we sink further into a hole. Nothing against this administration. Yet. I have spoken with Senator Padilla and people under the Governor that will be at the helm of organizing this department. Credit where credit is due - they have returned my calls, emails, and actually sat across a table with me in the roundhouse. But unless they are prepared to completely step outside of the box (or into a new paradigm), even the best of intentions and efforts will fail. Nothing resembling the current state of affairs will make the impact that needs to happen.

The New Paradigm

Here’s the rub folks - This sci-fi future in which we live is rife with smart phones and screens in the homes. This is leaving NO kids immune from the achievement gap. The effects of prevalent screens in our homes has the same effect as children growing up in poverty (and in many cases worse effects). If you think we have problems now, just wait and see what happens if we don’t take this on properly. You know that uneasiness you feel in the neighborhood? That’s because we have seen a 10 fold increase in depression, anxiety, and attention deficit disorders in the last half century.

The way humans are acting and interacting with the proliferation of screens in our homes is nothing short of a paradigm shift in humanity. Don’t gloss over these words - a true PARADIGM SHIFT. This is uncharted territory folks. We now sit on the cusp of a time where either we harness the gifts of the future properly or, be the ones that get harnessed. Just because we aren’t teleporting and traveling around in flying cars, doesn’t mean we haven’t entered a different kind of future. It’s a future we didn’t anticipate.

Paradigms have always changed when it comes to children. For the most part we have incrementally been improving. There were times when giving children a good beating was commonplace. There were times where children were “seen but not heard.” Now we tend to know that not spanking and ignoring our children is good. As a whole, people have a good understanding that early childhood is important. This is progress. But do we collectively know why it is important and what specifically is best for development? Collectively, I’d say we have work to do but the answers are out there.

Yes, in this new paradigm we have an improved understanding of child development, but across the nation we also have teachers throwing in the towels, growing mental illness, and almost weekly school shootings. We are the frogs in a pot of boiling water. If we don’t recognize the source of the heat soon, we’re toast (or in this case frog legs?).

The Manual

Corey Walker engaged in play-based education

Corey Walker engaged in play-based education

Over the years, I have worked with children and families all around the state. I’ve been in public schools, on reservations, done hundreds of home visits, and now work in a private clinic. I’ve worked with families from all walks of life - in mansions, in one-room homes with dirt floors, and everything in between. I could write a book about the things I’ve seen in New Mexico homes, but there are 3 things that are relatively consistent with everyone.

  1. People have a deep connection with their children. Not everyone shows it in the same way, but everyone yearns for a bright future for their children. 

  2. Everyone is equally freaked out about how to raise children. I don’t care who you are, raising a person is scary business. Everyone wishes they had the proverbial “manual” for raising children.

  3. Just about all families with children have devices and are fully living in this new paradigm. 

Has this all been a little depressing? 

Here is some good news...We actually know the main causes and solutions for the achievement gap. We essentially DO have a manual for what is best for children during early childhood. This is an amazing time in history actually. We have reached a level scientifically where we know much of what is happening as a child’s brain develops and how best to feed it. We have also reached a time a time in history where we can spread this knowledge easier than ever before.

This is a chance for New Mexico to lead the way in this new paradigm. We are actually well-positioned to make a difference in numerous ways:

  1. Our relatively small population makes it easier to reach people. I’d wager a bet that most people in the state have seen “New Mexico True” in some form or another. This state sponsored tourism campaign has been done tastefully and done a good job of getting in front of most of the eyeballs in the state. Imagine using some of this magic to spread basic educational knowledge to families around New Mexico.

  2. A newly formed department for early childhood

  3. An increased budget

  4. Benefits of modern technology that allow people to be reached easily

  5. Access to people that know how to work within this paradigm. (Eh-hem 🙋🏻‍♂️)

We have a manual. We have the tools. But now what?

The Solutions

Clearly we are aiming at the right target here, but we have got to use the right weapons. Right now our approach is “go to them.” Generally, children are identified as at risk by pediatricians, teachers, or concerned parents. From there, a number of processes are enacted that deem whether a child is delayed and “in need.” Then children are put into programs in the form of home services, preschool, etc... This process can often be lengthy and clunky. This leads to precious developmental time being lost and a large amount of misdiagnosed issues. 

Children Playing in Meow Wolf

Children Playing in Meow Wolf

The people that work in these fields are well-intentioned and good at what they do, but they are overworked, overwhelmed, underpaid, and there aren’t NEAR enough of them. This is not a sustainable platform - in fact it has already collapsed. Once upon a time this format worked relatively well. In an old paradigm. We need to move past the idea of trying to track down children with delays or who are “at risk.” All children are at risk and every parent needs a manual.

We have to adopt a “come to us” approach. What do people like to do these days? We know people are practically living in social media. There is also a big trend these days in what is referred to as the “experience economy.” In general people are wanting less things and wanting more experiences. Don’t believe me? Just ask one of New Mexico’s biggest shining stars, Meow Wolf. In just a few short years they are spreading across the country with people lined up outside the doors. Just about everyone in the state has heard of them. Why? Because they dared to think outside of the box. They honed in on what people naturally enjoy - art and experiences.

Every day I work to infuse educational material into what children naturally enjoy - play. And it works! What’s to say that the same can’t be done with adults? Build (or become a part of) places that we know people already enjoy, then infuse educational material into the experience. Heck, if the state played its cards right it might even be able to MAKE money. When I work with children, the most important part of my job isn’t the 30-60 min I see them per week, it’s showing  families how to adapt the lives they’re already living. The grocery store, bath time, driving to school, cooking - this is all prime teaching time. Daily life IS the learning experience. Rather than making some bureaucratic office building with paperwork and employees, work within places people already enjoy making a part of their lives.

If people don’t want to go places, we know for certain that most are already “visiting” social media. Social media needs to be leveraged to its fullest extent. I know, I know...I said that screens are a problem in society - and they are. But for now we need to fight fire with fire in this regard. This is where we start harnessing and stop being harnessed. Imagine if we put the marketing minds of top corporations behind a social media campaign? I started a Facebook page around 2013 that has grown to nearly 100,000 followers and now reaches millions of people in New Mexico each month. I’ve grown the page by myself with little more than some pocket change, creativity, and tenacity. Imagine what an entire department armed with $300 million could accomplish!

I want to be clear, I’m not calling for the government to be the nanny here. We shouldn’t want or expect government to sweep in and fix these issues, but the bill for the new department has passed and the money will now be spent. I’m calling for accountability. I’m calling for YOU, the citizens, to make sure the government spends our money properly. With fresh eyes. In the current paradigm - not a paradigm from 1999.

The best thing about “the manual” and “the solutions” is that anybody can obtain and understand the manual, and anybody can implement the solutions. The changes needed to impact the achievement gap do not require money for materials or fancy schools and they don’t require extra time. It’s about adaptations, not additions. It’s more about educating families than the kids. It’s not about expanding educational institutions, it’s about marketing! And we need to market as if we were trying to make billions. Anybody, from any walk of life can learn what to do, IF the manual is properly written and disseminated.

New Mexico faces educational issues like no other state in the nation. It is incumbent upon us to lead on this issue in ENCHANTING ways. To break molds. To be creative. To have the foresight to lay the foundation for future decades. To harness! We must start watering our roots and patching the foundations of our neighborhood. My hope is that all of you will join me in letting our elected officials know that we are watching and that we expect them to spend our money in ways and places that work within this paradigm. As I go forth and try to spread these messages to the powers that be, I have one question for you: “Won’t you please, won’t you please, please won’t you be...my neighbor?”

Corey Walker