For the first time, Excel by Eight hosted its semiannual Learning Community outside of Arkansas’s capital city, bringing more than 30 community leaders to Independence County in mid-October for local site visits and informative sessions. The two-day event took place in the cities of Batesville and Southside and focused on early care and education for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers.

On the first day of the Learning Community, participants visited a classroom at Southside Preschool to observe the LENA Grow program. LENA – short for Language ENvironment Analysis – is a professional development opportunity for early childhood educators that uses cloud-based software and a small, wearable device – often referred to as a “talk pedometer” – to measure conversational turns that happen between a child and an adult caregiver. These conversational turns, the simple back-and-forth interactions between a child and an adult, are crucial to early brain development. The brain develops faster from birth to age three than at any period in life, building the foundation for future learning, behavior, and health.

The site visit preceded an interactive panel discussion featuring certified LENA coaches representing four public preschools in Independence County. The LENA coaches have already seen measurable improvements since the program was implemented in September, not only in terms of the increased number of conversational turns between caregivers and children but also in the way children engage with adults.

“My teachers have learned from the data how to be more intentional about encouraging children to respond audibly rather than simply shrugging or nodding their heads,” said Margaret Elumbaugh, LENA Coach at Southside Preschool. “By the fifth week, the teachers have seen a noticeable increase in vocalizations from the kids. They were eager to confirm the increase through the data and are excited to continue making improvements.”

Learning Community participants also toured the expansion at Batesville Preschool, made possible by federal funding from the 2021 American Rescue Plan. The plan dictated that funding could not be used for major construction or renovation projects, so Batesville School District had to think swiftly and creatively to allocate limited space for expansion.

Kimberly Whitman, director of early childhood mental health programs for Research and Evaluation at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, was the keynote speaker.

In the fall of 2019, Batesville School District expanded its early care program to accommodate infants and toddlers in addition to preschoolers. Data from Excel by Eight’s initial needs assessment revealed that fewer than 10% of infants in Independence County had access to high-quality child care. Since the expansion, enrollment has increased from 277 in 2018 to an expected 360 in 2023, with more than 300 children still on the waiting list. Learning Community participants were able to learn about some of the challenges facing child care providers that are part of a public school district as well as best practices they could replicate in their own communities.

In addition to the site visits, the Learning Community included a keynote address along with informative sessions that highlighted components of Excel by Eight’s resource grid, which is a visual depiction of all the areas that must be addressed so that children have what they need to thrive.

Kimberly Whitman, director of early childhood mental health programs for Research and Evaluation at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, gave a keynote address exposing myths surrounding early childhood behavioral health. She offered actionable steps to building emotional support and social skills in young learners.

Batesville School District was the first school district in the state to adopt the community schools model.

Other sessions included a panel discussion on digital equity – which is achieved when all Arkansans have access to affordable, reliable internet service and the means to use it to its fullest capability – as well as a discussion of financial assets, such as checking and savings accounts, home ownership, retirement accounts, and college savings accounts.

Participants also learned about Batesville School District’s community schools model. The district is the first community school district in the state of Arkansas. This model emphasizes integrated student support, expanded learning time and opportunities, family and community engagement, and collaborative leadership and practices – all of which are meant to provide services and support to the larger community through the school district.

Excel by Eight communities director Jessi Rice Woods said while the Learning Community has always provided local steering committee members with an opportunity to learn from each other plus experts in children’s health and education, the October event allowed participants to see the outcomes of the E8 process firsthand.

“After spending two years planning via Zoom in each E8 community, it was so rewarding to be together in person and very meaningful to see projects as they were unfolding,” said Rice Woods. “The first on-site Learning Community was so successful that we look forward to hosting the event in other E8 communities in the future.”

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