Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – New Mexico on Wednesday launched its new early childhood department, charged with preparing kids for school, promoting healthy families and developing a labor force to carry out the agency’s work.
The new agency – the Early Childhood Education and Care Department – makes New Mexico one of just four states with a stand-alone department dedicated to services targeting children through age 5.
It will oversee the state’s growing investment in prekindergarten, home visiting programs for new parents, child care and similar services that previously were scattered across several departments.
The challenges run deep in one of the poorest states in the nation. New Mexico has one of the nation’s highest rates of maltreatment of kids through age 5 – a critical period of brain development, according to analysts for the Legislative Finance Committee.
In an interview, Elizabeth Groginsky, who’s leading the new department, said New Mexico isn’t getting the results it wants out of some of its early childhood programs. But the new agency, she said, offers a good opportunity to design new programs – or revise old ones – to ensure the state gets the kind of return on investment that research shows high-quality programs can generate.
“Whenever you’re starting a new department,” Groginsky said, “you want to make sure it’s really going to make a difference.”
Analysts for the LFC said in a 2019 report that New Mexico is getting mixed results in its early childhood initiatives. They said prekindergarten programs, in particular, have been successful at improving academic outcomes that last through 11th grade, but they questioned the effectiveness of other programs and warned about a lack of coordination.
In interviews, early childhood educators and advocates said an immediate priority for the department should be developing the workforce. Child care employees and teachers work with children at a critical point in their brain development but aren’t paid as well as they should be. And she said they are especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Our child care workers are some of the most underpaid workers, and yet in this crisis, they’re some of the people we’ve relied on the most,” said Lori Martinez, a social worker and executive director of Ngage New Mexico, an education group based in Doña Ana County.
Hope Morales, New Mexico executive director of Teach Plus and a former teacher in Roswell, said the state has worked to expand the availability of early childhood programs but should now focus on improving their quality.
“Having access to an effective teacher should be non-negotiable,” she said.
Legislation establishing the early childhood department won approval in 2019, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Michael Padilla of Albuquerque and Rep. Linda Trujillo of Santa Fe.
But the agency formally came together Wednesday, the start of the 2021 fiscal year. About 270 employees from other departments were transferred into the new one, now led by Groginsky, an education executive and researcher who has worked in Colorado and Washington, D.C.
One of the key goals is to better coordinate the state’s network of early childhood services by housing them in one department rather than having them overseen separately by other departments.
The initial operating budget is $419 million for the coming year.
Groginsky came on board last year to prepare for the transition. Her leadership team includes Deputy Secretary Jennifer Duran-Sallee, former director of the Early Childhood Center of Excellence at Santa Fe Community College.
Jovanna Archuleta of Nambe Pueblo is assistant secretary for Native American early education and care. She has worked for the Eight Northern Indian Pueblos Council and the Los Alamos National Laboratory Foundation.
Some leaders in the early childhood field already are crediting the department’s leadership for effective communication in recent months.
“We’ve never had that open line of communication with any other Cabinet secretary,” said Crystal Tapia, owner of Noah’s Ark Children’s Academy in Albuquerque and an early childhood consulting company.