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A Q&A with Jada Rupley, Oregon’s Early Learning System Director

Nearly a year after Jada Rupley took the helm of Oregon’s Early Learning System, we asked her to share her thoughts on the state of early childhood education in Oregon, and what the future holds for Oregon’s youngest learners.

The following has been edited for clarity.

Metro Parent: I understand that your mission is broad and includes health care, preschool and more. For the purpose of this interview, I’d like to focus on preschools and early learning.

You’ve been in your job nearly a year now. What are the most important initiatives launched regarding preschools in the last year?

Jada Rupley: We’ve started work on a number of fronts, but the goal is simple: work to ensure our youngest Oregonians enter kindergarten with the tools they need to succeed in school and beyond.

My vision of the past year has focused on one principle – change. Change in how families and children receive services across the state, change in ensuring quality and improvements, and change for a focus on better results and outcomes.

Successful early learning efforts include more than a single service or program. Our biggest focus right now is coordinating programs and services locally and across the state to get our young children ready to succeed in kindergarten and beyond.

A priority focus is supporting families to make sure a child’s earliest years, before preschool, include a healthy and nurturing environment through quality health and child care and a stable family environment. Then, at preschool age, we want to make sure all our kids have access to a quality learning environment to get ready for that important transition to kindergarten.

At the Early Learning Council we are working with communities to redesign services into an “early learning one-stop-shop” approach for families. This is also Governor Kitzhaber’s priority, and the Council oversees and implements this work. It’s my commitment to make it as easy and convenient as possible for parents across the state to know where to turn. Oregon is one of 14 states in the nation leading the early learning charge, and it’s exciting to make it happen with the Council and Governor.

It’s also an exciting time for Oregon families because Governor Kitzhaber’s proposed budget dedicates additional resources to Oregon Pre-K (state-funded Head Start) at the same time President Obama has unveiled a Preschool for All proposal. These additional resources would allow Oregon to expand preschool access to all of our neediest children.

Oregon is the lone state in the country that has matched and exceeded federal investments in pre-kindergarten education. We’re connecting the dots between child care, health care and preschool by creating a child care rating system to help parents recognize quality environments using a star rating system – similar to what you’d see for hotel or restaurant reviews – and using the Ages and Stages Questionnaire (asqoregon.com) as a screening tool for parents to understand their child’s development and make necessary adjustments.

In the past year, we submitted a plan for early English Language Learners in preschool settings, initiated work to connect preschool teachers with kindergarten teachers to ensure a smooth transition between preschool and K-12, and started work to implement early literacy in all pre-K programs because preschool plays a major role in ensuring our children are reading at grade level by third grade. Throughout, we are committed to keeping the conversation going with parents through questions, comments and feedback. Be on the watch for outreach efforts on their way.

Research proves time and time again that early learning is one of the best investments our state can make, and these initiatives support that. It’s been a busy year, and this is just a snapshot of what’s happening to support families and their kids in Oregon.

MP: What are Oregon’s strengths in early learning?

JR: Among our greatest strengths are the facts that our Governor is championing this work as part of his visionary education agenda and 40/40/20 goal; his vision makes the connection between health care and education in the early years; and the Legislature is committed to increased investments in early learning.

Another major strength is the network of people committed to working together to get kids ready for school. As I continue to share the Governor’s vision and my aim for Oregon’s kids, I’m impressed by the extremely dedicated, passionate and intelligent people working hard across the state in every area of early childhood and family service settings, including community business leaders.

Not to say Oregon hasn’t faced challenges, but the kind of transformation we’re looking at requires that we find efficient solutions to problems and that all Oregonians be willing to roll up their sleeves, problem solve, make adjustments and build on past experience with an eye toward future results.

MP: What is left to do? What could Oregon be doing better for its tiniest scholars?

JR: Right now, only 60 percent of Oregon’s youngest children enter kindergarten with the tools they need to succeed. With 45,000 new Oregonians born every year, this is an issue that drives every part of our work. We have dedicated people working in early childhood, and now is the time to turn our collective focus to better coordinating services so we get better results. We can’t keep leaving 40 percent of our kids behind at the starting line. We will continue to connect early childhood education to health care, use federal and local resources to ensure quality child care, and work to encourage collaboration and communication between everyone who supports a child’s transition to kindergarten – especially preschool and kindergarten teachers.

MP: The role of preschool seems to be changing dramatically. What is the role of preschool in this brave new world of common core standards and increased rigor in elementary school and beyond?

JR: In short, prepare students for a successful transition into the K-12 system.

In the past, it seems our society hasn’t fully understood the importance of what happens in preschool, but now I think we are beginning to fully appreciate how important it is as the stage for learning. Preschool is a vehicle for the rest of a child’s life in a few ways: It provides early opportunities for play and social interaction, which are key to kindergarten readiness; and it’s the link between the early years, kindergarten and beyond.

That doesn’t mean it should be all work and no play. We are focused on getting children ready for school in a developmentally appropriate and fun way. Beyond building positive social skills, and helping parents develop in their role as their child’s first teacher, preschool offers children the opportunity to develop skills in a familiar setting on a regular basis. These skills include getting along with other children; recognizing numbers, letters, shapes, and sounds; becoming comfortable with tools such as pencils and scissors; and learning how to communicate effectively.

We look forward to working together to create a seamless approach for our children to move from early learning and child care settings to K-12 and beyond, in a way that will benefit all Oregonians. It is important that early educators understand how to align early education with K-12 so children are prepared from the start.

MP: The Early Learning System’s mission statement says it aims to “get Oregon’s kids to kindergarten ready to succeed.” What are the most important ways to do that?

JR: This goes back to that old saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.” At the Early Learning Council, we are focused on creating a system where communities across our state recognize the importance of a comprehensive early childhood care and education system – and embrace the group responsibility for outcomes. Coordinating our services and programs into a cohesive system at every level is our key strategy.

Some of the most important pieces of being ready for kindergarten involve a child’s behavior and emotional development, such as eagerness to learn and the ability to follow directions, work well with others, recognize numbers and letters, and use a pencil or crayon correctly.

Parents, as your child’s first and most important teacher, setting aside time every day to help your child build these skills is crucial. Create projects to work on together. Help them work through challenges. Pose problems and ask questions for them to think through and solve. Introduce literacy and numeracy recognition into their daily lives through simple prompts throughout the day. Working with your child in this way, before preschool, gives them the base they’ll need to further develop their skills in kindergarten and beyond.

There is a great website focusing on child behavior that gives some tips on how to address these pieces, as well as other tips for parents and teachers: challengingbehavior.org/do/resources/backpack.html.

MP: How do public and private preschool programs work together? How do you make sure everyone is on the same page?

JR: Communication. Communication. Communication. While preschools themselves may be different, they all share the same values and mission in supporting Oregon’s youngest learners. Preschools should share success stories, models for what’s working, ideas for addressing challenges and training opportunities for early education teachers. Collaborating, creating events and forums, and simply focusing on communication between preschools across the state will ultimately make us better as a whole.

MP: What is the one most important piece of advice you would give parents of babies or toddlers?

JR: That’s an easy one. Read and talk to your child every day! Start your development plan for them before they are born and follow through when they arrive.

Local libraries host numerous events and opportunities for babies, toddlers and preschoolers. I highly recommend visiting your library often to foster imagination and instill a love of literacy in your child as early as possible. Families should be learning together every day to set the stage for their child’s lifelong success.

MP: What are your five favorite books for the preschool set?

JR: That’s a hard one given all the great books out there. I think it’s most important to select books that really interest and connect with the child. OPB’s resource “Reading Rockets: Launching Young Readers” (http://www.pbs.org/launchingreaders/) is a great resource.

Also, as a teacher I loved reading Dr. Seuss books. They’re such fun!

MP: What book is on your nightstand?

JR: Paul Tough’s new book How Children Succeed is a great look at why some children succeed, and what that includes. It’s one of my favorites.

Learn more and share your thoughts with the Early Learning Council at oregonearlylearning.com, or connect with them on Facebook (facebook.com/EarlyLearningCouncil) or Twitter (@OREarlyLearning).