A lot of communities say they support families and young children. But Dayton and Montgomery County, OH, can point to much that they’re doing and, importantly, institutionalizing to ensure our youngest children get off to a great start.

For over a decade, local leaders, local governments, school districts, foundations, and businesses have kept pushing themselves, our systems, and even voters to invest in children early. Starting at kindergarten is too late if the goal is to build children’s brains and set them up for school and career success. Today, Preschool Promise is important proof of the Dayton community’s commitment to that truth.

Read the history of Preschool Promise here and see the 2015 report that catapulted us from pilot projects to a community mainstay. And below are three things we’ve learned along the way.

1. Investing in making quality preschool accessible involves more than just offering tuition assistance. Helping families pay for high-quality preschool is important. But it’s not the only thing that’s critical. Among the most urgent need is finding a way to give early educators the salaries they deserve. Children won’t thrive in early learning programs without highly trained and well-paid teachers.

At Preschool Promise, we’ve organized a pilot to subsidize the wages of early education staff in one of our Dayton neighborhoods and will be tracking the results. But we still have to figure out how to build a better funding system. A pilot here and there won’t get the job done. The field—and our families and their children—are counting on us to keep up the fight.

We also are committed to creating expansive, quality professional development offerings that are critical to promoting quality teaching and programming. Our trainings are widely popular, and we pay stipends to teachers for attending. They deserve that—and so much more!

2. Equity is everything. We consider every decision through an equity lens. National and our own local data shows that Black and brown children are the least well-served by institutions. With this stubborn reality in mind, we’ve grown Preschool Promise by starting first in communities with the largest concentrations of families experiencing poverty.

Our professional development efforts also are intentionally focused on helping teachers confront their biases and giving them strategies and tools to especially prioritize Black boys in their classrooms.

Just recently, we convened a committee of 15 Black men, who spent a year developing recommendations on how to transform preschool for Black boys. They gave us great ideas that we’re in the process of implementing.

3. Early childhood education starts at birth. When Preschool Promise began, our focus was on increasing the number of 4-year-old children attending quality preschools. While preschool is powerful, it alone cannot solve all the systemic problems that lead to so many children starting school behind—thereby likely disadvantaging them for life.

Science tells us that the brain develops most rapidly in the years from birth to age 3. The experiences children have in child care as infants and toddlers can set them up for success in preschool. Families make choices about where to send their children for child care long before preschool.

One of the challenges in our country is that we separate education into artificial silos—preschool, K-12, etc. This segmentation does children and families a disservice. Instead, we need a comprehensive system of education and care from birth through college and career readiness.

All children, no matter their income, race/ethnicity, gender, or ZIP code deserve a high-quality education starting at birth. Our federal and state funding systems have not caught up with the exploding and compelling brain science and research. As we leverage local funding, we must think more holistically and create a strong system starting at birth, not at preschool.

As we move in that direction, partnerships are essential—especially with local governments and school districts. In our community, Montgomery County has been a steadfast believer of supporting young children even before Preschool Promise was imagined. And, in 2016, the City of Dayton put a 0.25% income tax increase on the ballot, a portion of which is dedicated to funding Preschool Promise.

While we continue to hope for significant support from the federal government, state and local partners see the impact of early learning up close. And many aren’t waiting on Washington. They (and national and local funders) can be quick to support genuine innovation and experimentation.

What makes me so hopeful is the growing support from certain elected officials for supporting early intervention and prevention. But there are daunting challenges ahead. Our early childhood education systems are woefully underfunded, and until we invest when it matters most—in the earliest years, starting at birth—we will never realize the full potential of every young child in our country. We can’t waste another day to get this right.

Robyn Lightcap is executive director of Dayton-Montgomery County Preschool Promise.