How can we all speak up on behalf of our county's youngest residents? By using the power of our voice to create real and lasting change.

Advocating for policy change can be big or small. For example, you can urge your government to invest more in schools. You can petition your school committee to adopt a health curriculum that has been proven to make a significant difference in outcomes, or you can mobilize residents to speak out on a critical community issue in person, via phone or online.

Berkshire United Way would like you to join us in advocating for universal pre-kindergarten for our children. According to Nobel Prize winner Dr. James Heckman, "The basic skills needed for success are formed before children enter school. Investing early helps to prevent the achievement gap, and investing in our most disadvantaged children provides the greatest returns."

Formed in 2005 by the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, the Berkshire Compact for Education is comprised of more than 150 regional civic, education, and business leaders who seek to ensure the well-being of each individual and the strength of our economy and community by raising the educational access, aspirations, and attainment of all Berkshire County residents.

In partnership with Berkshire Compact, Berkshire United Way will host an Early Childhood Advocacy Day on Friday, June 8. Jass Stewart from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education's Leading the Nation Campaign and Amy O'Leary from Strategies for Children — both experts in early education— will speak to Berkshire Compact members, raising awareness of the need to start earlier, before kids arrive at kindergarten, to ensure our children's success in school.

It really does make a difference.

"We have been able to see Isabella grow not only physically, but in personality, knowledge and understanding of the world, and above all, in her love of learning," exclaim the parents of a young girl who completed the early education program at Gladys Allen Brigham Community Center.

Three years ago, the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care received a federal Preschool Expansion Grant that funds a year of free, high-quality preschool for 4-year-old children in five Massachusetts cities. Other communities with multiple risk factors, such as high rates of poverty and homelessness, were invited to apply for planning grants to design a collaborative model for providing high-quality preschool.

As a result, North Adams, Pittsfield and Lee Public Schools will have preschool readiness plans in place by month's end due to collaborative efforts between Strategies for Children, school personnel, local legislators, government officials, early childhood program directors and early interventionists. Those plans include an investment of $16,000 to $19,000 per student, and include access to all public-school services as well as family advocates to provide support for the entire family, connecting families to helpful resources within their community.

While Berkshire United Way advocates for the funding needed to implement these expansion plans, we are implementing other strategies to ensure our children arrive at kindergarten ready to learn. These include building stronger care coordination between providers who support families, offering professional development for early educators, advocating for higher wages for preschool educators, and building parents' capacity to advocate for their children. Most importantly, we are collecting and analyzing data to determine what is working.

What can you do to help? You can advocate to your state and local legislators to support preschool funding.

"Elected officials are anxious to hear from you. Effective advocacy is often the key ingredient in meeting policy change and funding goals," says state Rep. Tricia-Farley Bouvier. "For me, the voice that resounds most clearly is a voter from my district who has a personal passion for the issue at hand."

For more information, please visit or call Karen Vogel, director of community impact, Berkshire United Way at 413-442-6948.

Kristine Hazzard is president and CEO of Berkshire United Way, The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.