Member Login

Brain Scans Got Children, Inc. Director Involved in Early Childhood Education

Northern Kentucky’s Mike Hammons is the director of advocacy for Children, Inc., the Covington-based nonprofit that has become a leading regional voice for early childhood education.

Hammons is perhaps best known as the long-time president of Vision 2015 and its predecessor, Forward Quest. In that position, he helped build broad-based support for regional strategic plans for Northern Kentucky.

A statewide leader as well, Hammons served in the administration of Gov. Brereton Jones as director of Boards and Commissions and on the Kentucky Health Policy Board, directing the state agency responsible for implementing Kentucky’s 1994 comprehensive health care reform. More recently, he was executive director of the Kentucky Philanthropy Initiative.

An attorney, Hammons has served on numerous nonprofit boards, had leadership positions with the Kentucky Bar Association and has received numerous awards and honors for community service. He is a graduate of the University of Kentucky with a bachelor’s in history and a law degree. He practiced law in Covington for 14 years. As chair of the board of the Thomas D. Clark Foundation of University Press of Kentucky, he led in the publication of the Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky in 2009.

At Children, Inc., where he has been since November 2011, he leads efforts to increase public awareness of and support for young children.

How did you wind up in working in early childhood?
 
I have been interested since I heard John Pepper speak to Leadership Cincinnati Class XXI about the subject. He talked about Ron Kotulak’s book called Inside the Brain and called it ‘a life altering read.’ The book describes how recent brain research using MRIs demonstrates the extraordinary development of the brain after birth.
 
Brain scans of children who had been housed in Romanian orphanages with little or no positive human interaction or impact were compared with those of children who experienced a lot of positive human interaction. The difference was startling. The former were dark with little color showing brain activity. The healthy scans were bright and colorful.
 

I knew then that I wanted to learn more. I went out and bought the book and read it right away. After I left Vision 2015, I helped start an organization called the Kentucky Philanthropy Initiative to increase philanthropic support for early childhood. At the end of three years, Rick Hulefeld asked me to lead advocacy efforts for Children Inc. and I agreed.

Why does a childcare agency need a director of advocacy?
 
It’s not common for a nonprofit childcare agency to get involved in advocacy, especially, public policy advocacy. Children Inc., however, is not a typical provider. As a leader in the child development field, it recognizes the need to raise awareness about the importance of early childhood and build support for funding and policies that protect children and prepare them for life and learning.
 

Why is it important to invest in early childhood?
 
Children’s brains develop the most from the time of birth through about age 3, as synaptic connections grow by the trillions and form reference points for experiences throughout life. Loving, positive interactions lead to healthy lives and lack of interaction and toxic stress lead to problems later on.
 
Investing early yields a much higher return on investment than any other time in life and investing in early childhood helps level the playing field for children from different socio-economic backgrounds.

Shouldn’t parents be responsible for their children’s development?
 
Absolutely! Parents need to understand child development, but not all do. For one, we know much more about child development and the impact of early experiences on children throughout their lives. Parents are their children’s first and most important teachers.
 
Home visitation programs such as Every Child Succeeds help young inexperienced parents learn about child development and how to interact with their children in ways that will help them grow and be healthy.
 
Most parents of young children work and need childcare. Unfortunately, quality childcare is expensive and low-income parents need assistance to pay for it.
 
Federal and state governments cover most of the cost of home visitation and childcare and also provide funding for preschool for low-income families and children with disabilities. Many local school districts also pay part of the cost of preschool. Voters in a handful of leading cities such as Denver and San Antonio have recently approved tax support for preschool.

Can government afford to invest in early childhood?
 
Governments cannot afford NOT to invest in early childhood. Investments in home visitation, childcare and preschool save money which would otherwise be spent on special education, remediation and drop-out intervention.
 
Quality early childhood programs help children learn and help develop character strengths such as following instructions, interacting well with others, perseverance and other social and emotional skills that prepare them for kindergarten and form the foundation for life and career.
 

Children who start kindergarten prepared are much more likely to be proficient in reading by third grade and then graduate. Children who don’t graduate generally make less money in life and experience more problems with relationships and employment.
 
They are also more likely to end up in prison. Government pays the consequences in programs, prisons and lower taxes. It makes more sense to invest in ways that can reduce those costs.

Is there much support for early childhood investment?
 
Leaders from business such as John Pepper, former head of Proctor & Gamble, and Jim Zimmerman, from Macy’s, have helped lead the call for businesses across the country to support greater investment in early childhood. PNC Bank Foundation’s primary philanthropic focus is early childhood.
 
The U.S. Chamber, Kentucky Chamber and Northern Kentucky Chamber also support the cause as have military leaders who are concerned with the nation’s military readiness with only 25 percent of young men and women qualifying for today’s military. Law enforcement officials across the nation have also called for greater access to early childhood programs.

As state and local governments finally come out of the economic challenges of the last few years, many have committed to investing significant new dollars for early childhood as the best means to be better prepared for the economic challenges of the future.

What are the challenges with your work?
 
Ten years ago, Children Inc. launched an online advocacy network of parents, providers and friends to communicate with policy makers. My first task was to recruit more advocates to join (kentucksvoice.org.)
 
Then early last year, the state announced that it was going to cut childcare assistance for low-income families by a third, leaving more than 16,000 children without assistance. We mobilized quickly and reached out to other state and local organizations to help.

Together we made hundreds of calls to the governor and legislators, sent thousands of emails, collected thousands of signatures on petitions, held rallies, testified before legislative committees, met with administration officials, collected stories from parents affected and shared them with the media.
 
The cuts drew more than 200 stories in the media across Kentucky. In January, the governor added childcare assistance back into the budget he sent to legislators. We then ramped up our efforts to make the case with legislators in the House and Senate.

What lies ahead?
 
We will be working to improve outcomes for children in childcare and preschool, as measured by Kentucky’s state-wide kindergarten assessment. In order to do that, we need to raise childcare quality with an improved quality rating system that applies to all providers.
 
We need to leverage these quality childcare centers with school districts to expand preschool access for more children. We also will be working to build support for federal funding for home visitation, childcare assistance and preschool. States and local school districts rely on federal dollars for these programs.
 
We also need to increase local support for early childhood investment, both public and private. I am confident that we can make the case for the wisdom of investing in children – even in these challenging times.
 
In the end, the cuts to childcare assistance were almost completely restored. And, in addition, funding was added to expand access to preschool for children of low-income families.

How can the public get involved?
 
First of all, become informed about child development. There’s a tremendous amount of new research about how a child’s brain develops and the implications on long-term cognition and social and emotional health.
 
A good source is The Heckman Equation. James Heckman is a Nobel laureate economist at the University of Chicago who has spent years studying the return on investment in early childhood.

Another excellent source is the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. See also Mission Readiness here to learn why hundreds of retired military officers are promoting early childhood investment.
 
For the business perspective, see readynation and for law enforcement’s effort, see fightcrime.

Finally, lend your voice to the cause, by joining Kentucky’s Voice for Early Childhood or Ready Nation’s list of business and civic supporters.

This article appears courtesy of KY Forward and is written by Mark Neikirk

Mark Neikirk is executive director of Northern Kentucky University’s Scripps Howard Center for Civic Engagement. A version of this Q&A originally appeared on the website of the Cincinnatus Association. Hammons is a Cincinnatus member and past president