Community partners focus on children's issues at annual summit

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By: Mariel Carbone
April 12, 2017

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV)-- Putting a focus on the future of Tallahassee, residents and community partners filled the Turnbull Conference Center Wednesday to discuss issues affecting the youngest of residents.

The Mayor's Office hosted its third annual Community Summit on Children, the culmination of several events held throughout the week. This year's summit had a particular focus on investing in children during their earliest years.

"It is the most critical investment that we can make over the host of human life," said Mayor Andrew Gillum. "These early years where our children are literally sponges."

It is a point keynote speaker Laura Justice expanded on, specifically in the first five to seven years of a child's life.

"The young child's brain is very actively being developed through biological processes. So it's just a very crucial period of life where the brain is being actively developed and that doesn't come again in our future,” said Justice.

She called this period of time the "sensitive period." During this time children need interaction, fine-tuned sensitive conversation, cognitive stimulating experiences and opportunities to explore environment.

However, many families aren't able to provide these things because they are barely getting by and are preoccupied with the daily struggles of life. Justice said one third of kids in Florida live in homes receiving public assistance.

Still, Justice pointed out that early education is on the radar nationwide, with Obama making progress during his time in office and President Trump also continuing the conversation. In Leon County, local partners are working to make sure that there's a focus not just on early education, but a focus on quality early education.

"If we're going to have the greatest impact on children, it is in the first few years of life," said Matt Guse with the Early Learning Coalition of the Big Bend. Guse moderated a panel on "Quality Early Learning: A Community Driven Strategy," during the summit.

One of the focuses during the panel, was a pilot quality rating and improvement system the ELC is currently working on. Right now 12 centers caring for 700 children are part of it.

"What it will ultimately do is provide a recognized process for parents to make an informed decision about what's best for their child," said Guse.

It'll also help providers understand where they need to invest to make sure they're offering quality education. Once complete, Guse said they hope it will help lead parents, students and providers on the right path.

"When we're finally ready to break it out and are able to spread it widely, the goal will be to make sure our children are walking through the doors of the K-12 system ready to learn," he said.

Another panel discussed Family Friendly Workplaces.

The Mayor's Office put together a Family Friendly Workplaces Task Force, which has been engaging with businesses over the past month to participate in an online survey to gauge just how family friendly the businesses are. Leaders on the task force hope to eventually make Tallahassee the most family friendly city in the nation, and believe it's very important to retaining talent.

"Society and our community is changing in a way that if you're a business that's only worried about the bottom line and getting every ounce of productivity out of your employees, no sick days, and if your children are sick it doesn't matter, those businesses are going to lose the talent that makes them great,” said Tom Derzypolski, who is the co-chair of the Family First Workplace Initiative.

More than 100 businesses participated in the survey, with about 50 rating three stars, or higher.

The panel also discussed ways to be family friendly, including flexible working hours, flexibility when it comes to taking leave, on-site child care services and more. However panelists warned that it must be a conversation geared towards both genders, and policies must be implemented for "parents" not "moms" or "dads." And, workplaces need to be accommodating for whatever an employee defines as their family.

For one panelist, it all came down to building a relationship through trust with employees.

"You have to create a trust building environment. You have to focus on climate, you have to focus on culture. Because if people trust their employers, they'll feel more comfortable with them, they'll share more," said Dr. Atira Charles with Florida A & M University. "And then the employer will be able to meet the needs more efficiently because people hide what's going on in their personal life when they see it as a liability."

Through a continuation of the Family First Initiative, Mayor Gillum hopes that Tallahassee can continue to focus on children and families, and set an example state wide.

“It’s year three, we want to continue to grow this ad I’m hoping we’ll build this into a model that’s exportable to cities all across the state,” said Gillum.

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