In one week, New Mexico will launch its newest state agency — the Early Childhood Education and Care Department.

New Mexico will join just three other states that have created Cabinet-level early childhood departments.

This is significant for two reasons.

First, it means early childhood education and care will be equal partners at the policymaking table — right alongside K-12, higher ed and other essential human services agencies.

Second, it demonstrates New Mexico’s commitment to creating a more cohesive, effective and equitable early childhood system. Right now, the state’s prenatal-to-5 services are distributed across three different state departments. By bringing these services together under one department, we can better align these services and focus on improving access for families and young children to high-quality home visiting, early intervention, nurse case management, child care, pre-K and nutrition.

That means all families and all communities. Today, New Mexico ranks 50th in child well-being and 49th in child poverty and inequality in our state is unacceptably high. Part of the department’s mission is to help change these statistics by ensuring that every child in New Mexico has access to the health, developmental, educational, nutritional and socioemotional supports they need to thrive.

To ensure strong partnerships with New Mexico’s tribal communities — and to strengthen our government-to-government relationships — we have appointed the nation’s first assistant secretary for Native American early childhood education and care, Jovanna Archuleta. Already, Assistant Secretary Archuleta has made a difference by enhancing the agency’s understanding of New Mexico’s diverse tribal communities and by seeking guidance from tribal leaders around the agency priorities and direction.

I am extraordinarily honored to serve as the early childhood department’s first Cabinet secretary, and I bring my own life experiences to our work. I began my early childhood career in Head Start — first as a family services coordinator, then as an administrator of a Head Start program and eventually as director of Colorado’s Head Start State Collaboration Office.

These experiences helped me understand the critical importance of family leadership, appreciate and respect the diversity of communities, and see the direct connections between public policy choices and the day-to-day opportunities available for families, children and educators in early childhood settings.

Later, I directed early childhood education for United Way Worldwide, where I came to understand the extraordinary power of population-based early childhood data for identifying — and addressing — inequities in service delivery. I continued this work at the Early Childhood Data Collaborative, a national coalition designed to improve state policies and practices around early childhood data systems.

Most recently, I served as assistant superintendent of early learning in the District of Columbia. In some ways, my efforts in Washington were excellent preparation for New Mexico. In both places, I have worked for leaders who are committed to universal pre-K — and who made it their mission to build an early childhood system that will ensure equal access for all families and young children.

Here in New Mexico, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham understands and recognizes the deep connection between supporting our youngest children and achieving so many of our other ambitions as a state. We know that the first five years have profound impacts in every area of a child’s life — and that every dollar invested in high-quality early childhood programs saves more than $6 in education, health care and other costs down the line.

If we want all New Mexicans to realize their full potential, then we need to ensure they have access to the high-quality programs, services and experiences that will help them get off to a great start. And that’s what the Early Childhood Education and Care Department — along with an extraordinary network of government officials, private sector partners, providers, educators, parents and communities across the state — aims to do.

Elizabeth Groginsky is the secretary of the state’s Early Childhood Education and Care Department.

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