Yesterday we spent the day in Transylvania County.

We held two town halls. One was in-person at a local park (masks + social distance) and one was virtual with my laptop on the trunk of my car which we held on Main Street in Brevard.

I heard thoughts about environmental stewardship, forging an inclusive economic recovery, criminal justice reform, support for small farms, and support for teachers.

A member of the school board talked about how difficult teacher recruitment had become and how they had lost teachers to South Carolina given that they’re a border county.

I met with a former County Commissioner who has been focused for years on how to grow rural economies. He made several points: rural broadband is key, we’re not supporting working families the way we should, healthy economies need workers to have access to health care, and we can’t let rural hospitals fail if we expect rural counties to succeed.

But it was his last point that stuck with me, and he said it was the most important: leadership.

He was definite about it: “It’s only when you see an intentional approach that you get results.”

And then I saw a perfect example of exactly what he meant.

Transylvania is a small county, population 34,000. It has two towns: Brevard, population 7,800, and Rosman, population 650.

A county that small faces specific challenges — but it also has specific opportunities. Like early childhood education.

In short, if you have clear leadership and make a concerted effort, you can reach an enormous share of the young children in the county.

And that’s what they’ve done. As one example: The statewide share of eligible 4-year-olds in pre-K is 48%. In Transylvania, it’s 64% — with a great share of the remaining children being reached through alternate programs.

Their commitment to early childhood is nothing short of remarkable. And it’s widely praised outside of Transylvania, earning national recognition.

I had the chance to meet with several local leaders in the early childhood community.

Here’s what they told me:

First, despite their success, they’re not satisfied with merely sustaining what they’ve accomplished. They talked quickly about plans for new forms of outreach and collaboration with existing agencies. Where I see dramatic success, they see a good start.

Second, they’ve made a major priority of bringing families into their vision. It’s one thing to talk about the importance of “wrap-around services” — it’s something else to provide it, in a small county, and in a way that integrates with other efforts. It requires a level of collaboration between agencies that puts outcomes above everything else.

Third, their partnership with Sesame Street is definitely working. Sesame Street has an outreach arm that partners with counties in order to amplify existing early childhood programs. One of the reasons it works is that the branding of Sesame Street is so positive and so powerful that it makes engagement with families and children much more likely. Example: If you can get Grover to come to an early literacy event, watch as attendance shoots through the roof.

Their Smart Start Executive Director, Deb Tibbetts, told me: “These young kids might be a small share of our population, but they are 100% of our future.”

And because I had never seen it before, I also took a quick trip to Looking Glass Falls, which is incredible.

Today we’ll be in Durham. Will update soon.

- Jeff