Early childhood policy academy kicks off in Ogallala, sets pace for fresh strategies in Nebraska

By: - October 18, 2023 12:32 pm

Sen. Tom Briese talks with Callie Wilhite of Lincoln and Taylor Brase of Grand Island in the Nebraska Capitol Rotunda. The women attended the 2022-23 Nebraska Early Childhood Policy Leadership Academy. (Courtesy of First Five Nebraska)

LINCOLN — A group of 26 advocates from across Nebraska is gathering this week in Ogallala, kicking off a six-month program that will help build leadership and fresh strategy for early childhood care legislation and policy in the state.

Organized by the nonpartisan First Five Nebraska research and advocacy organization, this year marks the fifth cohort of what is known as the annual Nebraska Early Childhood Policy Leadership Academy.

Participants selected for the latest class range from child care providers to teachers to public health professionals. They’ll gather monthly for a daylong workshop in different parts of the state, exploring trends, listening to experts and discussing needs in respective communities.

In the end, they’ll identify possible solutions to advance the healthy development of children and families.

Jodi-Renee Girón, First Five Nebraska outreach adviser and facilitator of the Nebraska Early Childhood Policy Leadership Academy. (Courtesy of First Five)

“The PLA goes beyond policymaking,” said Jodi-Renee Girón, First Five’s outreach adviser, who facilitates the academy. “It develops skilled, knowledgeable and credible movement builders who are prepared to lead change in their local communities.”

Elevated discussion

Girón said that quality child care has long been key to a family’s economic mobility — and to workforce participation. But more recently, state business and civic leaders elevated the discussion to among the top concerns facing the state.

For instance, State Sen. Wendy DeBoer of Bennington, chair of the Legislature’s planning committee, said child care, housing and water issues were propelled to the top of a list of most pressing issues in a recent survey of state lawmakers.

Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry leaders have said often that affordable and quality child care is among priority issues to be confronted to fill labor force gaps that hamper economic growth.

With the brighter spotlight on the industry she works in, Girón expects the work of the leadership academy to gain traction.

Kids Can, an early childhood education and day care, recently expanded into a new Omaha headquarters. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

Among priorities of the coming year, she said, is reducing the time it takes for public agencies to complete fingerprinting and background checks on child care applicants.

State Sen. Teresa Ibach of Sumner, in working with the First Five group, called for an interim study to examine the criminal history check process required by state law for the child care workforce.

Legislative Resolution 191 seeks to identify solutions that can involve the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services and the Nebraska State Patrol.

Today, Girón said, it can take up to eight weeks for employers to get the all-clear for a new hire. Potential employees during that wait often move on to a different job, she said, adding that child care facilities already have a tough time recruiting workers.

‘Piece of state infrastructure’

Girón said that an end to a federal stream of pandemic-related child care funding also has local providers seeking ways to ensure that families have access to quality care for their children.

Since the academy began, more than 125 participants representing 35 Nebraska communities have graduated. Girón said the event is supported by the Buffett Early Childhood Fund. This year’s class brings together people from rural and urban parts of the state, from Scottsbluff to Omaha.

Past participants have gone on to play key roles in public policy conversations such as the reauthorization of the school readiness tax credit in 2023 and eligibility standards for a child care subsidy.

“Child care is such an important piece of the state infrastructure,” said Girón. “I’m excited it’s moving more to the forefront of community conversations.”

Jodi-Renee Giron, grassroots and outreach adviser for First Five Nebraska, addresses the leadership group gathered this week in Ogallala, Nebraska. (Courtesy of First Five Nebraska)


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Cindy Gonzalez
Cindy Gonzalez

Senior Reporter Cindy Gonzalez, an Omaha native, has more than 35 years of experience, largely at the Omaha World-Herald. Her coverage areas have included business and real estate development; regional reporting; immigration, demographics and diverse communities; and City Hall and local politics.