Teaming up for early childhood education in Arizona

Janet Napolitano and Steve Nash
Gov. Janet Napolitano, Steve Nash and staff writer/producer Vicki Louk Balint. Photo by Daniel Friedman.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article went to press the week President-elect Barack Obama appointed Gov. Janet Napolitano to join his cabinet as Director of Homeland Security.

A lace glove fits over the mallet resting on a table near Gov. Janet Napolitano’s desk in her ninth-floor office at the State Capitol. It’s from a local group of Washington Elementary School District teachers. The attached card reads, “It’s about time someone pounded the table for Arizona’s children.”

Napolitano has consistently expressed a commitment to early childhood education during her tenure as governor. Recently, she found a new teammate to join her efforts to level the playing field for children in our state. Of course, Steve Nash does some pounding of his own—on the courts—as a tenacious guard for the Phoenix Suns. But he also understands the opportunity his high-profile NBA career gives him to help others. And through the Steve Nash Foundation, he works to provide opportunities to enhance the lives of young children.

The foundation’s latest endeavor is supporting the Educare movement in Arizona. Started in Chicago more than 10 years ago—and thriving in several other cities around the country—Educare provides state-of-the-art support to families based on the latest, science-based brain research for children from infancy through age 5. It’s a network of programs under one roof, designed to help young, at-risk families raise healthy children so that, by the time they arrive at school, they are ready to learn. It also serves as a catalyst for statewide policy change.

The Educare model works through cross-organizational partnerships between private dollars and state government. That’s where the Governor’s Office for Children, Youth and Families comes in. Gov. Napolitano leaves a legacy of education reform for the state of Arizona, including full-day kindergarten programs, raised awareness of the importance of early childhood intervention and a statewide literacy program. Educare is a logical next step.

Turns out, when it comes to making a difference in the lives of young children, it’s not such a long way from Planet Orange to that office on the ninth floor.

Vicki: As a professional athlete with an established foundation and many choices for community outreach, why did you decide to support Educare?

Steve: You look at all the different ways you can make an impact locally. To be able to touch children by educating them—especially children who are at risk, or who have abusive or oppressive domestic situations, or whatever the situation may be…if you can have an impact on their early education, which allows them to thrive educationally as they move forward, the ripple effects are huge. They become contributors, they become great parents, they can become leaders.

Vicki: You’re a dad, right? What are the ages of your children?

Steve: I have two. My daughters are almost 4. They’re twins.

Vicki: How did your parenting experience affect your decision to support Educare?

Steve: Well, parenting heightens your interest in educating yourself about how you can educate your children…[and] that whole process of psychological and personal development. You know, it’s inspiring to be able to help kids. And it’s difficult to be a parent. Especially if you don’t live in Paradise Valley, and you aren’t afforded a lot of the things that we’ve been luckily afforded. I can only imagine what some of these families and some of these children go through. For us to be able to help—we feel really, really pleased to be a part of this.

Vicki: Governor, how does Educare tie into full-day kindergarten and Head Start?

Janet: Head Start is part of the Educare model. What we’re working on is quality early childcare—preschool—that better prepares these kids for full-day K. The full-day K, in a way, accelerates first grade. So that ripples all the way through their school years. We want them starting off full-day kindergarten fully prepared, and ready to go. Educare is really one-stop shopping, in a way, for early education. You have everything on-site. Everything focused on the child, such as what the child needs to get the maximum brain development, maximum support services to enable that to happen. Put it in an area of town, as Steve said, where kids are oftentimes missing a lot of these things. So this is a great way to close the gap for them.

Vicki: What does it mean to have someone like Steve on board with this project?

Janet: Oh, it’s great. The visibility is terrific, and also the willingness to give back to the community. You know the team that Steve plays for is a big part of the community. He’s obviously the team leader to have that symbiosis going on. And to give back is so very important, and something I really appreciate.

Vicki: I know you’re a big sports fan. If you look around the office, there is a lot of sports stuff here…. I see a pair of shoes over there.

Janet: [looking at Steve] Yeah, you know, the Suns sent me a pair of your shoes over here for my birthday last year.

Steve: I sent those!

Vicki: I hear there’s a story about those shoes.

Janet: See, here we go [points to shoes]. They are signed.

Vicki: It says, “HAPPY FIFTIETH”!

Janet: Yeah, that was the problem.

Steve: But 50 is the new 30!

Janet: You should be in politics!

Steve: Well, the governor’s been so supportive of me and my career and our team and this community—sending over a little birthday gift was the least I could do.

Vicki: Steve, how did you connect with the Governor?

Steve: Well, we both have Santa Clara University in common, for one. We have Arizona in common for two, so that puts us in a group that’s…

Janet: Fairly small!

Steve: [Laughs.] It’s nice. And the fact that the governor loves sports. Which is another group. In many ways, I think, we are like-minded. I realize the impact and the effort that the governor has had on our community in health and education—all of the different things that are so important to me and my foundation, so I couldn’t wait to get a chance to meet her. But also to work together, create change…make Phoenix—and Arizona—a better place.

Vicki: So you’re here to stay?

Steve: Ah, yeah, well…I will always be part Arizonan. You know no matter where I go, having such a great experience here…. I could live here forever, I could not, but whatever happens I’ll always want to help. I’ll always want to be a part of the community. I’ll always want to be a part of the legacy the Suns have in this community, for sure.

Vicki: Governor, what are you looking forward to for 2009?

Janet: From a state government perspective, it looks like it could be a very challenging year for us. The economy is very slow, and it looks to be that way for the rest of the year. And so what I’ve been telling people is we need to exercise common sense now—but have a vision for the future. And an integral part of that vision is making sure we are investing in the education of the next generation.

More about Educare

  • Educare Arizona has three local anchor funders: the Steve Nash Foundation, the Whiteman Foundation and the Ibis Foundation. Capital costs, guidance and technical support are being provided by the Buffett Early Childhood Fund, in partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the George Kaiser Family Foundation.
  • A wide spectrum of support services will be offered to children and families, including health, nutrition and social services. Head Start and Early Head Start services will be provided by Southwest Human Development.
  • Educare will be located on the campus of Brunson Lee Elementary School in East Phoenix, on land donated by the Balsz School District.
  • Construction costs for the facility are estimated at $14 million. Target date for completion: late 2010 or early 2011.