Giving children a strong start in their first five years doesn’t just help children and their families. The benefits of their success radiate throughout their communities – as do the consequences when they struggle. But the many fields that help shape what happens for young children and their families during these critical years don’t always work together.

Collaborating across disciplines related to early childhood development and learning was one of the challenges posed to over 100 scholars, policy makers, advocates, philanthropists and practitioners who gathered in Orlando for the University of Florida’s Early Childhood National Summit Feb. 8-10. In the first five minutes, UF President Kent Fuchs made it clear that the summit was focused on creating actionable ideas and steps to move the field forward.

“It is crucial that our work on behalf of children is tangible, that it is scalable, and that it reaches the children who need it,” Fuchs said.

The summit, also attended by UF Provost Joseph Glover, professors from six UF colleges and the deans of UF’s College of Education, Levin College of Law, College of Medicine, and College of Public Health and Health Professions, brought together early-childhood leaders from around the country.

University of Kansas special-education professor Judith Carta, the interim director of early childhood research at KU’s Juniper Gardens Children’s Project and one of the summit’s expert panelists, lauded UF for recognizing the importance of the issue and taking action.

After a welcome from philanthropist and InterTech Group CEO Anita Zucker, a UF alumna who created the Anita Zucker Center for Excellence in Early Childhood Studies at her alma mater, the group heard from keynote speaker Jacqueline Jones of the Foundation for Child Development. After her speech, Jones, who served as the U.S. Department of Education’s first deputy assistant secretary for policy and early learning, stressed the importance of working to retain bipartisan support for early childhood initiatives.

“Where is the common ground, and how do we get to it and hold on to it?” Jones said. “We have to do that, or we’ve failed the children and families we work for.”

Jacqueline Jones

Dr. Jacqueline Jones delivers keynote address to summit attendees.

Before summit attendees broke out into workgroups, panelists with expertise in psychiatry, pediatrics, psychology, law, education and advocacy shared perspectives to inform the discussions. Their presentations illustrated just how high the stakes are during early childhood, detailing chronic medical conditions with roots in early childhood and factors that influence children’s potential before they’re even born. Then the workgroups got down to the business of the summit: creating recommendations and actions on how to move forward.

Among summit attendees were the following faculty, staff, postdoctoral associates, and doctoral students from the Anita Zucker Center for Excellence in Early Childhood Studies:


AZCEECS Staff Doctoral Students
  • Dr. Marylou Behnke
  • Dr. Maureen Conroy
  • Dr. Fonda Eyler
  • Dr. Matthew Gurka
  • Dr. Cynthia Johnson
  • Dr. Kristen Kemple
  • Dr. Herman Knopf
  • Dr. Mary McLean
  • Dr. Kimberley Megrath
  • Dr. Brian Reichow
  • Dr. Lisa Scott
  • Dr. Patricia Snyder
  • Alexis Brown
  • Amanda Shaffer
  • Christopher Gomez

Postdoctoral Associates 

  • Dr. Crystal Bishop
  • Dr. Cinda Clark
  • Dr. Joy Polignano
  • Jamie Alton
  • Michelle Crosby
  • Callie Gilchrest
  • Jennifer Harrington
  • Tracy Huang
  • JinHee Hur
  • Jennifer Jaramillo
  • Mackenzie Martin
  • Jose Martinez
  • Yaqin Li
  • Debra Prykanowski
  • Darbianne Shannon

 Also in attendance were the following graduate students and representatives:

  • College of Health and Human Performance
    • Rebeccah Mercado
    • Alexandra Lee
  • College of Public Health and Health Professions
    • Victoria Evans
  • College of Medicine
    • Pamela Londres
    • Dr. John Malta
  • College of Law
    • Jaclyn Graham
    • Lindsey Jones
  • College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
    • Dr. Ryan Barry-Anwar

By the afternoon, each workgroup had addressed three themes – discovering the keys to opening young minds, influencing the influencers to unlock children’s potential, and inspiring new initiatives for the next generation – drawing on the diverse backgrounds and expertise of participants such as New York University pediatrics professor Dr. Benard Dreyer, immediate past president of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Jennifer Harrington, Callie Gilchrest, and Deb Prykanowski

Doctoral students Jennifer Harrington, Callie Gilchrest, and Deb Prykanowski discuss their roles as summit note takers during one of the workgroup discussion sessions.

Crystal Bishop and Cinda Clark speak with UF President Dr. Fuchs

Post-doctoral associates Crystal Bishop and Cinda Clark speak with UF President Dr. Fuchs during day 2 of the summit.

Joy Polignano taking part in a round-table discussion

Dr. Joy Polignano, postdoctoral associate, taking part in a round-table discussion on post-Summit recommendations.

Brian Reichow and Howard Goldstein

Dr. Brian Reichow, Associate Professor at the Anita Zucker Center, listens intently to Summit attendee Dr. Howard Goldstein during workshop session on inspiring new initiatives.

Dr. Mary McLean leads a workgroup

Dr. Mary McLean leads a workgroup on one of three summit themes: “Discovering the Keys to Opening Young Minds.”

The summit’s transdisciplinary approach “is absolutely the only way we’ll make progress,” Dreyer said.

The day closed with talks by Glover, Zucker and early childhood advocate David Lawrence Jr., a UF alum, president of the Early Childhood Initiative Foundation and chair of the Children’s Movement of Florida. The next morning, Anita Zucker Center director Patricia Snyder, UF’s David Lawrence Jr. Endowed Chair in Early Childhood Studies, presented each workgroup’s recommendations for feedback and further development.

Patricia Snyder addresses the crowd

Dr. Patricia Snyder, Director of the Anita Zucker Center, addresses crowd of summit attendees.

The recommendations and action steps will compel us to continue to be a convener of early childhood activities and will help elevate this work to a broader level,” Snyder said.

After final input from the summit attendees and facilitators, the recommendations and action steps will be shared with the policy makers, practitioners and scholars who will shape the future of early childhood.

As Anita Zucker Center co-director Maureen Conroy put it: “We really want this summit to be the beginning, not the end.”

Maureen Conroy speaks to the crowd

Dr. Maureen Conroy, co-director of the Anita Zucker Center, offers summit attendees a bold call to action.

Story by: Alisson Clark

Photos by: Alexis Brown and Aaron Daye