Helen Raikes, Willa Cather professor of child, youth and family studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, will be the keynote speaker at the Thriving Children, Families and Communities Conference on Sept. 16.

The event, which will be at the Younes Conference Center in Kearney, is intended for those who want to learn more about high-quality early childhood education and how it enhances child development and boosts our economy. 

Registration is open until Friday.

Raikes' speech, titled “Children and communities: What thriving looks like and what it takes,” will describe how communities can collaborate and coordinate early childhood education efforts.

One of Nebraska’s early childhood pioneers, Raikes founded and ran a cutting-edge child development center in Lincoln in the early 1980s, at a time when such high-quality centers were rare.

She also ran a key federal government research project that illustrated the importance of Early Head Start in Washington, D.C. 

With her late husband, state Sen. Ron Raikes, and a group of early childhood leaders, she pushed to expand and fund Nebraska’s education system so it includes the state’s youngest residents, making it more likely they will be ready for kindergarten.

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She has been a consistent voice for early childhood education in the state and a nationally known advocate and researcher. 

She began working in early childhood education at a time when many argued it shouldn't exist, that young children should be at home with their mothers.

“It was a myth, and there were a lot of myths, so we had to do a little myth busting,” Raikes said. “But once you get past those clichés … Nebraskans understand the value of education. So we were able to move.”

Today, Raikes said early childhood education in Nebraska is almost immeasurably better than it was at the beginning of her career.

But she says there’s still work to do.

Early childhood programs need to be high-quality in every Nebraska community and early childhood workers need to be paid better without charging already strapped families more. And communities need to continue to work to remove barriers such as child abuse and substance abuse that can hamper the brain development of young children, she said.



Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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