Editor’s Note: The Early Learning Nation Studio recently attended the 2022 National League of Cities’ City Congressional Conference where we spoke with early learning researchers, policymakers, and practitioners. The full collection of video conversations can be found here.
For years, Hartford (CT) has been recognized as a leading city in early childhood learning. As Mayor Luke Bronin describes, the results come from a committed community, dedicated civic resources, including a Department of Families, Children, Youth and Recreation, with a division specifically focused on early child development – and the willingness to accelerate good ideas no matter where they come from. It starts, he says, by “working closely with families.”
Chris Riback: Mayor Bronin, thanks so much for coming to the studio.
Mayor Luke Bronin: Thanks for having me.
Chris Riback: I saw, I believe it was yesterday that you posted your State of the City address, and I couldn’t help but notice that you appeared to be in a library when you were giving it. Why is that the location you chose?
Mayor Luke Bronin: Well for a whole bunch of reasons. First of all, the Hartford Public Library is, in my view, one of the most important institutions in our city. It’s a phenomenal library system. It’s branches are really oases in our neighborhood. They are about place where you can go access books, but they’re about a whole lot more than that too. It’s access to technology. It’s access to adult education. It’s a place where families can go. Kids can learn. Adults can search for jobs, on and on. The services provided at our libraries are really vital. That’s one answer. The other answer is it was a library that we had just built after the neighborhood had been asking for it for about three decades. It was on the site of a historic theater that had been demolished through neglect. Part of the theme was about perseverance and partnership and what we can do with those two things.
Chris Riback: Interesting. You pre-taped and released the State of the City address. Smart way to do it.
Mayor Luke Bronin: Well, it’s something we did last year because of COVID. We could have done it in person this year, but this was a nice way to be able to deliver the State of the City address and still be at the National League of Cities.
Chris Riback: You finally figured out what we all look for.
Mayor Luke Bronin: That’s right.
Chris Riback: How can we be two places at once?
Mayor Luke Bronin: Exactly.
Chris Riback: What is the state of early childhood learning in Hartford?
Mayor Luke Bronin: Hartford has been a real early leader when it comes to early childhood. I am grateful to my predecessors who really focused on this area for a while. We’ve got a great team that manifests itself in a lot of ways. One, we have a pretty extensive network of early learning centers throughout the city that the city operates or contracts out. We’ve also been working hard to try to identify best practices and bring them to Hartford. The Providence Talks program was a great example of an innovative way to use technology to help increase the number of words the kids were hearing from their caretakers and family. We adopted that, brought it to Hartford, and call it Hartford Talks. We’re not above stealing good stuff. We’re constantly looking for ways to do more in this space. The other thing that I would say is we’re really focused on infant and toddlers as well because number one, learning starts very early and number two, a lot of our families need that help.
Chris Riback: In terms of the government institutional support and yes, the history that Hartford has even here with the NLC is quite extensive. You have a Department of Families, Children, Youth, and Recreation.
Mayor Luke Bronin: We have a Department of Families, Children, Youth, and Recreation, and within that department, we have a division that is specifically focused on early child development.
Chris Riback: And did you inherit that or is it-
Mayor Luke Bronin: I did. I inherited the broader office of Families, Children, Youth, and Recreation. We’ve really built up that focus on early childhood.
Chris Riback: What inspired you to build that up?
Mayor Luke Bronin: Well, just the enormous amount of data that suggests how important and how powerful early learning is for lifelong learning and lifelong success. We want to set up our kids for success as best we can. It’s one of the most important interventions that we can make. Like I said, we like any community, have a long way to go and a lot more to do. But our team works awfully hard. And I think they’re one of the more innovative and certainly committed teams around.
Chris Riback: Any insights, lessons you can give around coordinating across private and public sector? To be doing what you are talking about, to have so many years in your city of commitment to early learning, business must be involved.
Mayor Luke Bronin: Yes. Our business community is involved, and they’re very supportive. But what I actually would say is where we’re really focused is building those partnerships with families. You cannot be effective in early learning space without working closely with families. And that means identifying the barriers and the needs that families may have, the things that they need to have a little help overcoming so that they can get their kids into the early learning programs. It also means trying to change the mindset about early learning so that it’s not seen as a form of childcare, but really seen as fundamental to a child’s education. That’s something that we really focus on and have really worked hard to communicate and build partnership with our family.
Chris Riback: It so much more than just childcare. What is the Hartford Unity grant?
Mayor Luke Bronin: Hartford Unity grant is one of a number of initiatives that we are funding with our American Rescue Plan resources. It’s geared toward young people in our community and trying to make sure that they are getting connected to mentors, to coaches, to sports programs, to a whole lot of fun after everything they’ve been through over the last couple years. We’ve already given out about a million and a half dollars to 68 youth serving organizations around the City of Hartford. But we set aside seven and a half million dollars for this Unity grant program. We’re reviewing the newest applications now. That focus on young people, not specifically on early childhood, but on young people in general was one of the top priorities in our American Rescue Plan because young people have experienced this pandemic in profoundly dislocating ways. We need to make sure that we are focused in every way we can on helping them heal, recover, and reconnect after this.
Chris Riback: I’m sure you already knew it, but can you believe how many organizations you have in Hartford and in the area who are focused on serving youth through that whole [inaudible]? I looked at the list of who have gotten the grants. It’s kind of an embarrassment of riches.
Mayor Luke Bronin: We’re blessed to have a tremendous number of organizations that are doing great work. One of the things that we really wanted to do with our Unity grants was make sure that we were providing support to organizations big and small. It wasn’t just the usual suspects. It wasn’t just the biggest players. It was in some cases, small neighborhood organizations that are doing great work on a small scale, and they don’t have the capacity to put together a big 100 page grant application, but they do awfully good work with the resources when they get them, and we want to make sure they got them.
Chris Riback: What’s next? What’s next for Hartford specifically around early learning?
Mayor Luke Bronin: Well, I think that a couple of things. First of all, we want to continue to focus on quality. It’s not just about getting young people into the classroom. It’s also about making sure that we are making that early learning experience as effective and educational experience as possible. We study closely the results that we have, and we’ve also partnered with the National League of Cities to look at the pipeline of early learning educators and look at compensation issues because there have been longstanding challenges in that area across the country. Compensation’s not high enough. Amounts budgeted are not big enough, that’s including in Hartford. The first thing was to look in the mirror and see what wasn’t working and then try to get better at building a system that attracts, recruits, and retains great talent to deliver quality education to our kids. I think it’s important that that be a national priority.
Chris Riback: No shortage of challenges or opportunities. Mayor Bronin, thank you. Thank you for joining us in the studio.