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The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has created an Office of Early Learning, the department announced Tuesday during the State Board of Education meeting.

This change is part of DESE's focus on early learning and early literacy — one of its four priority areas in its Show-Me Success strategic plan.

In December 2019, Missouri announced it had received a $33.5 million Preschool Development Grant Birth-Five from the U.S. Department of Education. This grant provides funding over three years to coordinate a "more effective, high-quality early learning system that prepares children to be ready for school," according to a news release from DESE.

The Office of Early Learning will administer the Preschool Development Grant and support state early learning programs including Parents as Teachers, First Steps Early Intervention, early childhood special education, Quality Assurance Report pilot, Childcare Block Grant, Missouri Preschool Project and state- and federally-funded preschools.

"The need for this new office is directly connected to our work surrounding the preschool development grant and the focus on early learning and early literacy in the Show-Me Success Strategic Plan," said Tracy Hinds, deputy commissioner for the Division of Learning Services, at the board meeting.

As the lead agency for the grant, DESE has worked closely with state agencies that serve early childhood, including the Department of Social Services, Department of Health and Senior Services, Department of Mental Health, and the Missouri Head Start State Collaboration Office and Children's Trust Fund.

"It became clear that we had multiple programs working to support families in the area of childhood development," Hinds said. "We quickly understood that in order to be successful, we needed to create a comprehensive system that would meet the intentional focus and coordination and alignment of these programs."

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Twenty DESE staff members who already worked in early childhood programs will now work in the Office of Early Learning.

Pam Thomas, DESE's current chief of strategic initiatives and talent development, will assume the role as chief of early learning, effective immediately. Thomas has led the work for the Preschool Development Grant for the past year, and she has worked in the early childhood field for more than 17 years, serving 11 years as the state coordinator of DESE's First Steps early intervention program.

During the board meeting, Thomas said this position is her dream job because her passion for helping children started at a young age.

"It's a chance to combine my passion for education and my passion for early learning," she said. "I am honored and humbled for this opportunity to make a difference."

The Office of Early Learning's primary goal is to ensure every child in Missouri is ready for school, Thomas said.

"We know prior to entering kindergarten, some children do not have access to services or programs," she said. "This range of experiences results in a varied foundational skill and behaviors that are appropriate for school setting."

The Office of Early Learning has three sections of priority: parent education, preschool and projects, Thomas said.

The parent education section's goal is to promote and improve family engagement in their child's development, learning opportunities, and everyday routines and activities, as well as to promote annual developmental screenings for young children.

The goal for the preschool section is to improve instructional practices in preschool programs and promote equitable access to high-quality learning opportunities for every child.

The project section will focus on project management and improvement strategies and developing and promoting reports with data that show the benefits of early learning programs.

"We're doing great work to better align efforts between agencies, and we saw a need to model that in our own department," said

In DESE's news release, Missouri Commissioner of Education Margie Vandeven said the Office of Early Learning will better align efforts between agencies.

"Bringing our early learning team members into one office will enhance our efforts towards achieving equitable access, inclusive practices and high-quality early learning opportunities for Missouri's children and their families," she said.

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