A weekend interview with Mel Jurado, director of Florida's Office of Early Learning
Tea party activists pressured Gov. Rick Scott this past week not to apply for a new round of the federal Race to the Top grant that focuses on early learning. Scott filed the application regardless (press release attached below), while stating that if there are too many strings attached, Florida can always reject the money. But in applying, his team stressed that the $100 million could help the state pursue its vision of creating a world class education system. We turned to Mel Jurado, newly appointed director of the Florida Office of Early Learning, for more insights on the latest Race to the Top initiative and other activities in her office, which now reports directly to the governor. Jurado, formerly chairwoman of the Early Learning Coalition of Hillsborough County, spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek on Thursday after the application was submitted.
First, I didn't know know you were there. When did you go up to run this office?
Well, it was interesting. I have been here about 3-1/2 weeks. So I was probably approached maybe it's been as long as six weeks ago. At first I kind of laughed and hung up the phone on the first person who contacted me. And the second person got my wheels spinning. And the third person said, The governor's office is really interested in talking to you. So it was a lovely compliment after chairing the Hillsborough Early Learning Coalition for eight years. Of course Hillsborough has done, and I don't think it's because of anything I've done individually. We've got a great executive director in Hillsborough and a great board and a great professional team. But the last OPPAGA report Hillsborough was the highest in efficiencies, lowest in admin costs. And I think they looked around the state and said as the governor makes this a freestanding agency with a direct reporting line to him, he's taking a bold stand that he really believes in early learning initiatives. When you think about that 85 percent of the hard wiring of the brain happens by the age of 5, it is a really critical time for us to be doing some good quality initiatives with our youngest and our most vulnerable. So I came up and I was interviewed by the governor's office. That same afternoon they called and said, Why don't you start work Oct. 1? Someone else whispered in my ear, Why don't you start work on Monday? And I thought, If I'm really being called to do this, just put my yes out there and let me show up for work on Monday. So that's how it happened.
Are you no longer in Tampa at all?
My husband is a Tampa boy, fifth generation Tampa boy. So we are not selling our home in Tampa, and I'm up here. He giggles and says definitely during football season he knows I'll only be here Monday through Friday because I won't miss a Bulls game and I won't miss a Bucs game. ... We'll never leave Hillsborough County. That's where we love to live. ... But I feel like there's a real opportunity here to impact kids around the state.
So tell me what you're going to be doing.
As a freestanding direct report, and again this $100-million grant is probably the biggest collaborative work that has happened at a state agency. This was pointed out a couple of days ago. I was on the phone with Rod [her husband], and he said, Think about the list you just did. I said, No, DOE got their $700 million a few years ago. He said, That's it. It was just DOE. This was a collaborative work with our Office of Early Learning, DCF, DOE and DOH. So we're partnering with the Health Department on the early steps initiative. We're partnering with the Department of Education like we never have before to make sure there's alignment of the curricula we're using in preschool environments to make sure we're really having children ready to go into Commissioner Robinson's DOE K-12. And we're partnering with DCF to make sure we're streamlining and eliminating regulations on top of regulations. How can we make it easier for child care providers to do their business and at the same time up quality for children.
Are we looking then at taking pre-k out of the State Board of Education's realm?
Well, pre-k, they will always establish the standards. But as it has been since the beginning, the early learning coalitions are who use the child care resource and referral. So as parents are selecting, because VPK as with school readiness, it's all about parental choice on if they want their child in a faith-based VPK program, a private VPK program or if they choose to go through the school system. So DOE has always approved the curricula and done the measurement ... but we are the administrators through the early learning coalitions.
So what you would be doing then is overseeing the implementation of the grant, and what else?
That's one of the things we would be doing, along with all school readiness programs, the VPK program, and the child care resource and referral, where when parents are coming in and really looking at what are the best options to meet the needs of my child, that consultative approach of working with parents to make sure the programs they select are meeting all their needs and all their child's needs.
Are you supporting what the State Board is talking about to change the standards for pre-k standards and to change the curriculum?
It's one of those really challenging times. We always want to be focused on how we can increase quality and get better results for children. At the same time that we up standards, we always have to look around corners to say, as we do this, is there any potential for harm. The mantra is, how are we best serving children. It's going to create some challenges in the short term. Long term, I understand the goals of the State Board is the same as our goal, and that is making sure what we do is quality and clean. It will impact our work load, probably in a good way.
We've already reached out to our early learning coalitions -- you know we have 31 of them around the state -- and we are talking to them about how can we best meet the needs that our providers will be facing and perhaps even preemptively do some technical assistance and some coaching to help them. The concern always is, where we have children most vulnerable and have the highest needs, who maybe a bit behind. We don't want providers to start to pick and choose who they bring in. That's where it starts to get exciting in that Commissioner Robinson, the DOE, David Lawrence, who's just a champion of children's causes -- more and more of us are seeing rather than a single point in time measure, we really need to begin to look at how we're creating gains for children. So if we can take a look in time at, we brought a child into the program and this is how they rated, as they exited the program this is how they rated. If we really start to look at gains as an initiative, we probably will be doing the best for our children and the state. Knowing that there have to be standards, but, again, if we have pre- and post-tests, it really is the best.
And I don't know if you're familiar with the teaching strategies gold. It measures on six indicators and pre- and post opportunities. They look at social-emotional growth, physical growth, language growth, literacy growth, cognitive growth and math growth. And all 31 early learning coalitions are committed to utilizing these measures. They just provide a really wonderful pre- and post-outcome test. ...
I saw a letter from some of the providers that went out to some lawmakers. They were very concerned about some of the changes that might come with a federal grant because it might place sort of an undue burden, they say, on them. The state would be able to define what it is they can do with much more stringency, and there would be more government in their business, so to speak.
The nice thing about this grant, and some misinformation might have been directed that way, this grant is totally optional. No provider needs to in any way interact with this. ... The who goal of this grant is to infuse needed resources into our child care businesses. And the feds as they established the criteria they really wanted us focused on -- the highest risk, most vulnerable children -- Dr. Mimi Grant from FSU joined with us in looking at demographic information. What we identified to do was, let's do a ZIP code overlay on those children who historically we know children in these areas just simply are not reading at third grade level. We know if you're not reading at third grade level you have a much higher probability of getting involved with the juvenile justice system, and then the prison system, and then on and on.
So we said if we really target our child care providers in those areas by inviting them to participate, it's their choice. But there might be someone who says, I've always wanted to do something with differently abled children but I didn't know how to build out a PT room. Or I really wanted to do emergent literacy skills. I'm in the Ruskin area and I have a lot of Hispanic children that could take part in a program, but my teachers don't know how to teach English as a second language. There will be training dollars. There will be resource dollars available, if a provider wants to apply. We're almost doing it like mini block grants. If they've got a great idea on how they can impact quality and make a difference for these high-risk, high-need children, they'll simply say, Here's my idea. Here's what I think I can do. That really is in a nutshell of how the grant will work. It really is, how can we best serve the high-risk children. They'll be working through the early learning coalitions so there is no increase in the size of government. It's the partners they already have in their communities. And again, at the end of course, we want to be able to measure and say if what you did is working. Is it a model we can take statewide?
If it doesn't work, there won't be penalties?
And if they don't want to participate, will they not be told, You can no longer participate in or something like that?
Absolutely not. Because that would hurt us. Parental choice is one of the key models in VPK and school readiness. We need all of our providers. There is no tie in to any of their contracts, any of their work, that says if you don't play ball with this grant. What it's going to be is, there's a $100 million infusion into the state. And I think a lot of people will be coming up with a lot of good ideas on how that money could be utilized to really impact children. I'm hopeful and, you know, I've been three weeks on the job, but I think I have a real opportunity in the next couple of months before the grant announcement is made to visit with anyone who might have misinformation or be concerned about it. Because honestly I am just so excited about it. I think this is a great opportunity. Working with the four agencies in unison, we all agreed we're communicating like never before. And the governor has really shared he wants silos broken down in government. He wants us more seamless. And he wants us working across lines. And we have all said, We think we have a strategic plan of great things to do for children regardless if we're awarded the $100 million or not. If we get the $100 million we are going to be able to achieve those outcomes much more quickly. Because of course we know economic challenges continue. This is going to allow us to do good work for children, even in a tough economic climate.