Editorial: The year of the child

Gainesville Sun

Some have already declared it be the “year of the child” in Alachua County, but a lot of work remains to make that happen.

Alachua County Public Schools must keep making improvements despite a lack of adequate state support. County voters have stepped up in approving local funding for arts and music programs and other priorities, but more help is needed to improve aging school facilities, address disparities in achievement and prepare children outside the classroom.

That preparation begins long before children enter kindergarten. County commissioners created a children’s services board to direct funding toward programs from prenatal to age 5, including $400,000 for a home visit program for families with newborns.

The NewboRN Home Visiting Program, scheduled to start at the end of April, will send registered nurses to make visits within a week of local newborns arriving home. The nurse will assist parents with issues such as breastfeeding, safe sleeping and soothing a crying baby, as well as connect them to resources helping with postpartum depression and other services.

Research has found that most brain development happens in the first few years of life. Preventing and addressing childhood trauma that can have lifelong impacts and helping in the emotional, social and intellectual development of children before they enter school can set them on a more positive path for life.

After they enter school, keeping them on the right path in their studies and out of trouble requires ensuring they’re in the best environment once the school bell rings. The Sun-sponsored Gainesville For All initiative recognizes the importance of after-school and early childhood programs in addressing racial and socioeconomic disparities, endorsing the idea of a permanent funding stream being created locally for these programs.

County commissioners can take the first step in doing so by voting Tuesday to create a children’s services council and putting an initiative on the November ballot that would let voters decide whether to give it funding authority. The 10-member Children’s Trust of Alachua County would have authority to levy an up to 0.5 mill property tax increase to pay for children’s programs.

Of course, the details of how it would operate are more complicated than that. Voters can start informing themselves about the initiative and its benefits by attending a campaign kick-off next Sunday, March 4, at Depot Park from 2-4 p.m.

Independent children’s services councils have already been established in right counties across Florida. They pay for programs such as youth employment training in Broward County, youth reading programs in Miami-Dade County, programs to prevent child abuse and neglect in Pinellas County, and a variety of other initiatives helping children and their parents.

These programs have produced results such as improving school preparedness, reducing youth crime and increasing academic success. Local voters should weigh the front-end costs of funding a local initiative against longer-term benefits that end up saving taxpayers.

The initiative is part of efforts ensuring not only that this is the year of the child in Alachua County, but that children are a central focus in every subsequent year as well. This week’s vote and next Sunday’s kickoff are just the start of the work required to make that happen.

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