By Paul Dworkin, MD

There is so much known about the importance of children learning to read proficiently by the 3rd grade. Children who do not meet this milestone are more likely to miss other key developmental milestones, they are more likely to drop out of school, and they are more likely to be hindered in career success.

As executive vice president of community child health at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center in Hartford and the founding director of our Help Me Grow National Center, I frequently speak at convenings around the country about the steps we must take to help all children, especially those who are vulnerable and at risk for adverse outcomes, reach their full potential. I often reference the importance of reading proficiency in my remarks, along with other important benchmarks, and I am pleased to recognize the impact organizations like the Campaign for Grade Level Reading (the Campaign) are making in advancing outcomes.

The Campaign embraces many of the strategies we utilize through Connecticut Children’s Office for Community Child Health and its Help Me Grow National Center to promote children’s optimal healthy development. One of those strategies involves strengthening partnerships and collaboration between community-based programs from all sectors impacting child development. Another one centers on engaging funders to take bold new steps in supporting promising, but perhaps unproven, interventions in pursuit of the often elusive health and development outcomes we seek.

Help Me Grow National Center has been engaged with the Campaign for more than three years now. As thought partners, strategy informants, and experts in facilitated network design, the National Center supports, and helped inform, the Campaign’s theory of change. Also, the National Center regularly attends, and participates in, the Campaign’s convenings and leverages the Help Me Grow affiliate network as a vehicle to explore our complimentary and often synergistic efforts.

To continue our partnership with the Campaign, I was honored to participate in two panel discussions during the Funder Huddle at its annual GLR Week in Philadelphia. The convening offers a tremendous opportunity for local and state education and child development advocates from across the country to gather with funders who are backing pioneering efforts to support early literacy and school success.

The first session I participated in focused on the need for funders to engage in “big bets” to support healthy development. Pediatrician John Maddox, MD moderated the discussion. Panelists Ira Hillman of the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust, Katherine Kaufmann of Bridgespan, Dayna Long of UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, and I discussed various ways to help build the capacity of parents to monitor their children and seek help when health and development concerns are suspected. We also discussed ways funders are partnering with child health and development experts to maximize the potential of well-child visits to identify and address such concerns.

During my remarks, I acknowledged the challenge of identifying big ideas capable of generating interest from funders. I encouraged funders to be open to taking a chance on promising innovations to bring them to scale and impact around the country and to ensure their sustainability. I also encouraged child development experts to continue their pursuit of developing effective measures to demonstrate both short-term success in improving kindergarten readiness and 3rd grade reading levels, and long-term success in improving academic and occupational outcomes.

The second session I participated in focused on leveraging Medicaid to address the health determinants of early school success and achieve child health transformation. Osula Rushing of Grantmakers in Health moderated the session. I was joined on the panel by Paul Meyer of Wellpass, who developed the federally-endorsed text4baby wellness campaign; Elena Rivera of The Children’s Institute; and Chad Shearer of United Hospital Fund. We discussed ways in which Medicaid is currently being utilized to impact school readiness and how funders can use their influence to move the discussion forward in communities and states that are of interest to them.

During my remarks with this panel, I highlighted the need to focus innovation efforts and funding on children first in order to achieve true healthcare transformation, rather than continuing to place a greater priority on achieving cost savings among adults with chronic conditions and senior citizens. Many compelling reasons support this idea, including the tremendous potential that exists to enhance health and development outcomes for those who are vulnerable and at risk, and the potential for enormous long-term cost savings due to maintaining a healthier population.

In order to leverage Medicaid to truly transform healthcare and impact population health, I noted that we must think big in order to transform the systems that impact child health, development and well-being. Our Help Me Grow model for system building serves as one of many examples that stand ready to be brought to scale around the country to advance population health. Help Me Grow serves all families to connect children to needed supports across sectors, but places particular emphasis on addressing developmental concerns of vulnerable children. To date, Help Me Grow has realized tremendous success in getting federal and state agencies to include the core components of the model as a requirement for funding.

As we look to engage both private funders and payers, such as Medicaid, in the healthcare transformation movement, we must focus on children first, especially those who are vulnerable. We must build comprehensive child-serving systems that reach across sectors. We must improve kindergarten readiness and reading proficiency. We must encourage innovation and engage funders in pursuit of the “big bet.” We must enhance health and developmental outcomes.

The Campaign’s annual convening provided inspiration that, together, we can accomplish all of those goals and achieve true systems transformation. Children are the future. They deserve no less. 

Paul H. Dworkin, MD is the executive vice president for community child health at Connecticut Children’s, the director of Connecticut Children’s Office for Community Child Health and the founding director of the Help Me Grow National Center. Dr. Dworkin is also a professor of pediatrics at the UConn School of Medicine.