Voices from the Field

“It’s hard to find people at the state level that don’t support early childhood. But what you really need isn’t just people who say it; you need people willing to step up and advocate for it.”

Interview with Clayton Burch
Chief Academic Officer for Teaching and Learning
West Virginia Department of Education


by Senior Policy Advisor Steven Hicks

Steven: How did you begin your career in early learning?

Clayton: It actually started in college. I had no idea what I wanted to do. I was one of the college students who by the time you’re a junior reaching your senior level you think, “I need to make a decision.” I had a professor [at Marshall University] who said she had a friend who was running a local childcare center here in Huntington, and they were looking for someone to run the afterschool program for four year olds. I did that my entire junior and senior year in college and that was it—I was hooked. I knew from that point on that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to be in early childhood. I left the university and my first job out of college was teaching second grade in Kuwait City. I spent two years working with eight and nine year olds there. I got into some of the pre-K and kindergarten activities in the school too. Later I got a phone call from Marshal University to see if I would you be interested in coming back and running our laboratory preschool. So from 1999 to 2007, I spent eight years teaching curriculum and [providing] guidance to pre-service teachers, running their laboratory school, and doing outreach for the Southern West Virginia area on early childhood. Honestly, I can’t imagine doing anything else.

Steven: What can be done at the State level in improving the quality of early learning?

Clayton: It’s hard to find people at the state level that don’t support early childhood. But what you really need isn’t just people who say it; you need people willing to step up and advocate for it. Saying you support early childhood is one thing, but in the state of West Virginia, what we’ve been able to do in the last decade is we don’t just want legislators saying they support early childhood. We want to work with them so they understand how to support early childhood. We have a governor’s office and a state board of education that says we really know what we’re talking about. When they say early childhood, it’s not just kindergarten anymore in West Virginia. They want to talk birth through eight years old. And they want to have a comprehensive conversation. And I know that makes people nervous sometimes because in the state of West Virginia, we have universal preschool and kindergarten and we don’t really have authority over birth to three. But when you have folks at that level who really know how to support early childhood and they have a very clear understanding that whatever their authority is over—pre-k or kindergarten-it’s one little piece of the puzzle of birth to third grade. I think if you can get people at the state level to understand their role and whatever role that is, it goes a long way in creating a comprehensive system—and not a system that all of us in early childhood are used to: a very segmented, siloed system, whether it be birth to three, family care, home visitation, Head Start, early head start, preschool, kindergarten. We want to have a conversation that says all those siloes brought together are part of a larger context of birth through third grade. We are looking at $90 million a year in state funding just for preschool. And funding isn’t just being used in schools; its being used in collaboration with Head Start and child care. And we just saw this year the Governor putting a $5.7 million increase in first to third grade literacy. We have a brand new program that targets third grade literacy when most states are having a conversation around what does it mean if students can’t read by third grade. Are we going to retain them? West Virginia’s approach is very different because we had leadership that understood the comprehensiveness, the money is going to birth to third grade initiatives: school readiness, attendance, how to support the workforce, family engagement, and how to really put those supports in place in the community from birth to third grade, not just focusing on that third grade year.

Steven: Why is the President’s proposal to provide high-quality early learning programs for our children important to our country and what do you see as some of the challenges and opportunities?

Clayton: We see the President’s proposal almost mirroring what we’ve been doing in West Virginia: bring local folks together to understand what a comprehensive approach to four year olds looks like. And when you start talking about the opportunity, we see the opportunity if done correctly is just more and more resources earlier for our children. To have a national dialogue around four year olds is really important, but when people start understanding the return on investment, and what it means to the long term impact on society, they see we have to begin early. West Virginia is paying attention to that research like the rests of the nation. We truly believe if we can target early childhood and put more resources earlier, then that return on investment is going to be huge for our state, and I think the President’s saying the same thing. The hard thing, I think the challenges, are the same challenges West Virginia’s faced the last decade. And that is, if you put forth an early childhood initiative, especially Preschool for All, be sure you’re not redundant, you’re not duplicating services, and that it actually truly does mesh with what’s already in existence. I think one of the things we’ve done well is honor what’s already in existence. We have a long history of Head Start in this state. We have a long history of child care and family care. How does this initiative support and not supplant and duplicate those efforts? And that’s one of the challenges we continue to face. The more resources we put into early childhood, does that offer opportunity to shift some of our current resources even lower down into the birth to three year olds? I know in West Virginia when we talk about the President’s proposal, one of the things we’re interested in is does this potentially allow us to expand what we’re able to do for young children?