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GARY — Relationships are the active ingredient of early childhood experience.

That was the message early childhood scholar Geoffrey Nagle brought to the kickoff of the 2019 Strosacker Early Learning Fellows program.

Nagle, president and CEO of the Chicago-based Erikson Institute, was the featured speaker for the SELF program’s Wednesday night kickoff at Marquette Park Pavilion ahead of the fellows’ first class Thursday morning exploring early brain science on the Purdue University Northwest Westville campus.

The SELF program is now in its second year in PNW’s Center for Early Learning, and brings together a small cohort of professionals representing local business, healthcare and mental health to advocate for early childhood education on a higher level, program founder Mary Jane Eisenhauer said.

Strosacker fellows — a cohort of 10 this year — commit to attending four sessions over the course of three months exploring brain science, economic investment and workforce development.

Current and past fellows come from Lake, LaPorte and Porter counties and represent local companies and organizations like the Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce, Mental Health America of Northwest Indiana and Early Learning Indiana in an effort to expand the growing conversation about early learning.

While support of early education programs such as expanded access to pre-kindergarten is gaining traction, Nagle posited Wednesday night that schools alone cannot be held responsible for early childhood experiences.

Instead, he suggested policymakers and advocates consider pushing for a range of reforms to allow for greater family interactions during children’s early years, including everything from exploring universal prekindergarten access to expanded paid parental leave, quality childcare and home visiting programs.

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“Universal pre-K is a step in the right direction, but we need all of the above,” Nagle said. “We need to reconceptualize what we’re trying to do with early experiences, which means increased family support.”

The 2019 cohort will take a look both at a sweeping comparison of early learning strategies nationwide and ways to best invest in such efforts in the Northwest Indiana community ending with a call to action.

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Last year, fellows and program chairs introduced data to industry partners, worked with local education leaders and wrote editorials to their local newspapers.

Its goal is to expand the knowledge of the long term effects proper early childhood experiences can have on later education and workforce development — especially given data the suggest brain synapse formation peaks between the ages of three and 15 months.

When organizing the program’s first cohort last year, Will Glaros, a founding co-chair of the SELF program, said industry leaders often asked, “How will this help my company today?”

“For 15 years, it won’t,” Glaros said he usually responds. “But, the workforce pipeline starts so young. We need to catch students when their brain is fertile.”

It’s a conversation SELF organizers say is being received more openly now than in years past, especially with the support of workforce leaders who can lend a voice to policy advocacy while teachers can focus on serving the students in their classrooms.

“People are beginning to listen,” Glaros said.

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Education Reporter

Carley Lanich covers education in Lake County and throughout the Region. She comes to Northwest Indiana from Indianapolis and is an IU-Bloomington grad.