(See this article in the Las Cruces Sun News)

Every second, 700 neural connections are formed in a baby’s brain. Over 80 percent of brain development occurs within the first five years of a child’s life.

And while our state continues to wrestle with how to fund early childhood education so we can take advantage of this critical time in our children’s development, the seconds and years continue to slip by. So last month, Doña Ana County decided not to wait any longer.

On Sept. 5, 2014, over 40 leaders in early childhood education from throughout the county gathered at the Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum in Las Cruces. As participants went around the room introducing themselves, the excitement began to build. All of the stakeholders necessary for a deep and inclusive conversation were at the table: non-profits, academia, head start, for-profit childcare, city and county government, and the list goes on. Never before has such countywide collaboration occurred in the early childhood community.

The focus of the convening was making sure that all of the 16,000 children under age 5 in Doña Ana County are given the opportunity to learn, grow, and develop. Currently in our county, only 29 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds are enrolled in some form of preschool, and only 15 percent of families with newborns are served by home visiting programs.

At the end of the day on Sept. 5, participants accomplished an outline for a comprehensive and ambitious early childhood education plan for all of Doña Ana County. The plan is now progressing, with a determined cluster of NMSU Ph.D. candidates, armed with generous community input, developing the detailed plan under the guidance of distinguished J. Paul Taylor Endowed Professor of early childhood education, Dr. Betsy Cahill from NMSU.

This sort of collaboration has turned heads, both locally and around the state. Around the same time as the convening, two major philanthropic organizations, W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Daniels Fund, came together to sponsor a coalition of eight different local early childhood education organizations who took part in the Sept. 5 event to carry out a program that builds skills among parents so they can better facilitate early literacy and numeracy among young children throughout the county.

Early childhood education has proven to have long-lasting and transformative ripple effects throughout a child’s life. Countless studies have demonstrated that when children receive early childhood education, they are more likely to graduate from high school, hold a job, and earn more money later in life. They are less likely to be arrested, repeat grades, or need remedial classes. Early childhood education saves our schools money in special education costs, and helps to create a more educated and attractive workforce. It is for all these reasons that places like Oklahoma, Georgia, and Washington D.C. have heavily invested in providing universal early childhood education.

While Doña Ana County made significant strides to provide leadership in early childhood education on Sept, 5, the main impact of last month’s convening was the precedent it established. Various sectors of the community came together to collaborate. Individuals refused to wait for the political battles to end and the dust to clear before children can get what they need to be successful. Southern New Mexico-based organizations looked within and to each other to provide local solutions to local problems instead of waiting for solutions from Santa Fe or Washington D.C. And most importantly, through the process of focusing on our shared concern for our children’s education, a deeper community emerged.

All of this is possible through the process of collective impact. The event in September is just one part of a larger movement that is emerging throughout Doña Ana County. In the past year, the community has launched the SUCCESS! Partnership. Using the local non-profit Ngage New Mexico as our backbone organization, the Partnership is building on the work of the many existing education organizations and programs to foster meaningful partnerships between all sectors of our community and our educational institutions. We know that we can have a transformative impact on the lives of every child in our county if we simply unlock the potential that exists within our community.

Although we are in the very beginning stages of the partnership, our progress in early childhood education demonstrates the potential that we as a county have to change education right here, right now. And most importantly, we’re demonstrating that success doesn’t necessarily have to yield winners and losers. We can achieve educational success for all children in our county by uniting as a community and building on the values we all share.

David Greenberg is a former teacher and director of the Doña Ana SUCCESS! Partnership (SuccessDAC.org)