Start Early is excited to announce Dionne Dobbins as Vice President of Research and Evaluation. In her role, Dionne will lead the Research & Evaluation division and oversee research efforts under Start Early’s expanded Head Start grant.

“Dionne has dedicated her career to thinking about how child, family, and community outcomes can drive and influence policy efforts. She has a strong interest in using research in applied settings and reaching non-researchers by developing tools and resources relevant to their work,” says Rebecca Berlin, chief learning officer at Start Early.

Most recently, Dionne served as the Sr. Director of Research at Child Care Aware of America, where she set the research agenda for the organization and led a team of researchers in executing it. Notably, she led the production of the popular Child Care Aware of America annual report on the Price of Child Care used among many researchers, policymakers, and advocates. Dionne has led research projects for Head Start, child care, family literacy, military child mental health, and early childhood financing. She is also a former Head Start Fellow who supported the leadership team at the Office of Head Start. She holds a doctorate in applied developmental psychology from the University of Miami and did her postdoctoral work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“Dionne’s extensive systems-level, research-to-practice expertise, with a strong understanding of how to create a unified data picture from diverse sources of information will be invaluable to Start Early. We are thrilled to have Dionne join Start Early and support our efforts to produce research and evaluation data that is relatable, easy to understand, and centers equity,” Berlin concludes.

Follow Dionne on LinkedIn.

Start Early has been named the winner of a Gold Stevie® Award for Achievement in Benefits Design and Administration for its paid parental leave program. The Stevie Awards for Great Employers recognize the world’s best employers and the human resources professionals, teams, achievements and HR-related products and suppliers who help to create and drive great places to work.

The overwhelming benefits of paid leave compel Start Early to advocate for these policies nationally and inspired our organization’s leading paid leave policy. During a child’s first few weeks and months, a nurturing and supportive environment lays the foundation for their future success in school and life. Our paid parental leave program allows families to be together at this most critical time.

In 2019, the People & Culture team set a strategic goal to transform our leave program through improved employee benefits, explicitly enhancing our paid parental leave for the year 2020. Infancy is the most crucial period of brain development and it is vital that babies and their parents are supported during this time to promote bonding and healthy attachment. We knew it was time to up our game and we needed to create a parental leave package that matched our mission and supported families in the moments that matter most: the earliest years.

After a series of focus groups with former and expecting parents to discuss what was working and where we needed to improve, we rolled out our new policy in 2020, including:

  • Increasing our parental leave by more than 50% (from 12 weeks to 6 months) for both moms and dads Introducing 100% paid leave, eliminating the need for employees to use their own vacation, sick or personal hours to receive full pay
  • Expanding our paid leave eligibility to include adoption, surrogacy, or foster parenting
  • Launching an integrated family benefits platform, Cleo, to help connect families with the support they need to be their best at home and at work
  • Activating Bright Horizons, a benefit that assists employees returning from leave with finding childcare or back-up care, if needed.

Together, these award-winning benefits help our families start off on a strong path.

Start Early and other honorees were recognized during a virtual awards ceremony on November 17. Details about the Stevie Awards for Great Employers and the list of 2021 Stevie winners are available at

Start Early is pleased to announce Yvette Sanchez Fuentes as Vice President of National Policy. In her role, Yvette will lead the organization’s national strategy to advance both the Start Early and Educare Learning Network policy agendas and strengthen partnerships with peer organizations and federal agency staff.

Yvette is a nationally recognized early childhood expert and advocate for children and families who has been influential engaging groups to drive effective policy and practice change at the local, regional and national level,” says Kristin Bernhard, senior vice president of advocacy and policy at Start Early.

Yvette has dedicated her professional career to understanding how policy, research and implementation impact lifelong outcomes for young children and their families struggling with adversities, including low-income families, migrant and seasonal farm workers, immigrant communities, American Indian and Alaska Natives, and dual language learners.

Most recently, Yvette served as the Associate Secretary for the Delaware Department of Education and her extensive work in the field includes former positions as deputy chief for policy and research at Child Care Aware of America and president of the National Alliance for Hispanic Families. As the director of the federal Office of Head Start within the Department of Health and Human Services, she led the agency in shepherding in sweeping reforms including the release of the Head Start Roadmap, the creation and rollout of the Parent, Family and Community Engagement Framework, the design and implementation of the designation renewal system and launched a pilot program that allowed grantees spending flexibility for creating programs for children ages birth to 5 that led to the implementation of the Early Head Start-Child Care Partnerships (EHS-CCP). She began her career at Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo, Inc. where she managed the family child care initiative in the migrant and seasonal Head Start program.

“Yvette’s depth and breadth of experience will undoubtedly shape and catalyze the National Policy Team’s work working closely with partners to advance the Start Early Policy Agenda and the Educare 5 policy priorities. We are thrilled to have Yvette at Start Early and in supporting the Educare Learning Network in centering equity, parent and provider voice, and research evidence in policy solutions,” Bernhard concludes.

Follow Yvette on Twitter (@ysanchezfuentes) or LinkedIn.

As Congress continues to push historic reforms to early childhood education towards the finish line, Start Early president Diana Rauner joined Drew Furedi, president and CEO of Para Los Niños and Alejandra Barraza, president of HighScope Educational Research Foundation for a conversation about early childhood development moderated by Mark Oppenheim.

Throughout the engaging 30 minutes, the panel spoke to the research and evidence showing early learning and care is a smart investment in human capital, the needs of our underpaid and undervalued early childhood workforce, and how all families rely on supports to help their children be healthy and grow.

Research that shows ECE is a smart investment

Participants discussed the most recent research from Profession James Heckman and others finding quality early childhood programs create dynastic impacts that span across generations. While referencing the Perry Preschool Project, Diana mused that an investment made in 1965 that continues to bear returns in 2021 and likely into the future arguably has an infinite return on investment.

As Diana summarized, investing in early learning and care is essential to the future of our country. “The human brain is plastic and dynamic: skill begets skill. Investing at the beginning of the life is the most cost effective and efficient way to create a just society, one where every child can meet their potential, every individual can be their best, and we as a society benefit from the human capital.”

Elevating the profession through higher wages and professional development

The panel turned to how our society undervalues the expertise of our early childhood professionals and the policy decisions that make it irrational to make early childhood a career choice.

On average, child care workers make less than $14 an hour — shaping children’s brains during this critical period of brain development for less than a barista is paid to make coffee.

She concluded, “We’ve got this backwards. We’re paying college professors the most, then high school teachers, while the early childhood professionals doing the most profound developmental work are the lowest paid in the system.”

We’ve got this backwards. We’re paying college professors the most, then high school teachers, while the early childhood professionals doing the most profound developmental work are the lowest paid in the system.

Diana Rauner, President, Start Early
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All families need support

The panel also spend time talking about how every family needs foundational supports. Discussion included how families have never raised children by themselves—they’ve always relied on friends, supports and family to help them during this exciting and exhausting time.

But not every parent and caregiver has these supports, and children shouldn’t be punished. In our full-employment society, we must find a way for all children to be cared for in quality educational settings regardless of their location — be it a church basement, a child care center, an in-home provider or a preschool — so that parents can choose from developmentally appropriate, affordable and quality options.

Investing in what works

The panel ended with a great sports analogy by Drew Furedi, who shared that sports teams spend millions of dollars on scientific approaches that train and develop individual athletes. If we applied the same approach to develop each young person, we could gain so much—and we’re not talking millions of dollars per child.

We know what works. We have the answers. We just need to do it.

Funders understand it’s past time for the U.S. to create and support a quality early education system. In her latest piece for Inside Philanthropy, reporter Connie Matthiessen takes a look at the Educare Learning Network and Start Early as a model for change, including the Educare model’s focus on parent engagement, the importance of public-private partnerships and providing parents and families with comprehensive, prenatal-to-five supports.

In the piece, Jessie Rasmussen, president of the Buffett Early Childhood Fund, calls Educare “an initiative by private and public partners to do two big things: change the life trajectories for the children who come into our care, and change the way America approaches and funds high-quality early care and education. By doing what science tells us we need to do in terms of providing quality, we are narrowing and even closing the achievement gap. By working with peers across the country, we’re showing what it takes to deliver such high quality, including a well-prepared, well-compensated workforce, a reliance on data-driven practice, and care that partners with families and nurtures the healthy growth and development of every child.”

“With Public and Private Funds, This Early Ed Program Thrives. Is It a Model for Systems Change?”

Read the Full Article

Clarissa Love headshotStart Early is pleased to announce Clarissa Love as our first Vice President of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging (DEIB). In her role, Clarissa will lead the organization’s continuing journey in becoming an anti-racist organization that creates systemic improvements in early childhood education so that equitable access for all becomes a reality.

“Clarissa is well-positioned for this critical role within our organization, bringing more than a decade of knowledge, tangible experience and demonstrated effectiveness in leading DEIB strategy,” says Michael Hoffman, Chief Operating Officer at Start Early.

Previously, Clarissa served as the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion consultant at Michigan Medicine’s Office for Health, Equity and Inclusion. In this role, she enlisted over 5,000 voices (students, staff and faculty) to develop a DEIB strategic plan that created opportunities for individual growth and development, enhanced team culture and strengthened networks to build internal and external community equity. She managed DEIB leads across Michigan Medicine to build momentum and change at the department level. During her tenure she created relevant courses to build leadership capacity and some of the topics included cultural humility and daring leadership. She also co-led the design of implicit bias, anti-racism, belonging and well-being tools that supported self-reflection and the evaluation of team and organizational practices and policies and ran a weekly community engagement program open to the Michigan Medicine community. She has also spoken nationally to bolster awareness of DEIB practices that engage the community. Her interests include organizational engagement, leadership development and uplifting voices to build change.

Start Early believes a critical component of advancing racial equity is creating an organization where the presence, voices and ideas of staff and the communities we serve are represented, heard, valued and acted upon. The organization is a proud participant of StriveTogether’s Equitable Recovery Pledge, supporting the development of more just, equitable systems that align resources to youth, families and people of color. In 2017, Start Early staff established an Advancing Racial Equity (A.R.E) Taskforce to promote racial equity internally and externally.

“I’m excited to build on this strong foundation by leveraging my experience in collaboration with our staff, Board members, families and external partners to continue to elevate Start Early as a national leader in centering parent and community voice,” Clarissa shares. “I believe DEIB will continue to be at the forefront of organizational transformation and societal change, particularly during this pivotal time.”

Learn more about Clarissa’s professional journey in her leadership bio. You can also follow her on LinkedIn.

Start Early was recently awarded a 5-year Head Start grant to provide quality early childhood programs and services to more than 2,100 children from birth through age 5 and their families in Chicago. Diana McClarien, vice president of our Early/Head Start Network and Claire Dunham, senior vice president of programs & training recently spoke with the Chicago Tribune and Chalkbeat Chicago about how our new grant will double the number of children and families we serve, as well as increase provider pay and create professional development opportunities for the early childhood workforce.

Press Coverage

Millions in federal Head Start funding is now going straight to Chicago’s neighborhoods. Here’s what it means for local families.

Article from the Chicago Tribune, July 23, 2021

Read Article

More changes coming to Chicago early learning after feds break up Head Start monopoly

Article from Chalkbeat Chicago, July 20, 2021

Read Article

Start Early is pleased to announce it has been awarded a 5-year grant by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Administration for Children and Families Office of Head Start to provide quality early childhood programs and services to more than 2,100 children from birth through age 5 and their families in Chicago.

Start Early will use this award to bring quality early learning and care opportunities to 19 new under-resourced communities in Chicago, doubling the number of young children and families it serves. We will also improve salaries of the early childhood workforce, in each program area, and create career advancement and professional development opportunities, long-standing workforce issues highlighted by the pandemic.

The grant will expand Start Early’s Healthy Parents & Babies doula and home visiting program and work with current partners, SGA Youth Services and Family Focus. It also includes partnerships with four new agencies and organizations: Asian Human Services, El Hogar del Niño, Academy for Global Citizenship and Marillac St. Vincent Family Services.

“We are thrilled to expand our presence here in our hometown and bring new partners and perspectives to our work serving families and communities in need of quality early learning and care,” said Diana Rauner, president of Start Early.

Start Early and each of its partners bring deep community relationships, unique perspectives and strategies to strengthen the early childhood field. Families will have access to a range of program options — center-based, home-based and family child care — each providing a continuum of quality early learning care from birth through age 5 and promoting school readiness. With the addition of two public charter schools to the network, parents and children can engage in a school community for an extended period, with staff participating in professional development across grade levels to support better transitions from one year to the next.

“Working together with our partners and families, the grant offers new opportunities to create seamless experiences for our children and families during the critical early years of their education,” said Claire Dunham, senior vice president of programs and training.

Start Early, as the grantee, will work alongside each partner to provide critical program supports, in key service and system areas, including implementation guidance, training, curricula, screening and assessment tools, data systems, monitoring and research-to-practice continuous quality improvement.

Start Early will also engage leaders, staff, and parents in a robust network of shared learning, innovation, and mutual support and work to identify and advocate for changes to the local, state, and federal policies and systems that impact the families and communities we serve.

Diana McClarien, vice president of the Early/Head Start Network at Start Early will lead the grant. Diana brings over 20 years of experience in early childhood serving as a family advocate, teacher, home visitor, education coordinator, program manager and grantee director.

About Start Early

Start Early (formerly known as the Ounce of Prevention) is a nonprofit public-private partnership advancing quality early learning and care for families with children, before birth through their earliest years, to help close the opportunity gap. For nearly 40 years, Start Early has delivered best-in-class doula, home visiting, and Early Head Start and Head Start programs. Bringing expertise in program delivery, research and evaluation, professional development, and policy and advocacy, Start Early works in partnership with communities and other experts to drive systemic change so millions more children, families and educators can thrive. 

Millions of children will enter kindergarten this fall having never experienced the routines of preschool because of the pandemic. Many will likely have trouble following directions, playing cooperatively, and self-regulating through the stresses of new group settings with strangers. Quite a few will have developmental disabilities that were not identified or treated during the pandemic lockdown, which will make them even more likely to act out. Without intervention, past research tells us we can expect far more suspensions, expulsions and referrals to special education for behavioral challenges — especially for Black boys, Latino boys and Black girls, whom research has shown are far more likely to be identified as behavior problems by teachers than white children.

In a commentary in the Chicago Tribune, Start Early president Diana Rauner writes about how an entire cohort of children, disproportionately low-income children of color, are at risk of exclusion from the opportunities of education because of the circumstances of the past year and a half. It’s on all of us, the adults in these children’s lives, to help to ensure they are not unfairly stigmatized because of events beyond their control.

Read Diana Rauner's Commentary in the Chicago Tribune

See the Full Story Here

Diana Sands headshotStart Early is pleased to announce Diana Sands, former Boeing executive and Start Early Board member of 11 years, has been appointed to lead its Board of Directors. Diana retired from the Boeing Company in 2020, where she was an executive officer and oversaw a diverse team including ethics & investigations, compliance risk management, corporate audit, security, and internal services.

“I’m honored to take on this role at such an exciting time for Start Early and a pivotal time for early learning more broadly,” Diana Sands shares. “Coming out of the pandemic and with the massive influx of federal spending, we have an unprecedented opportunity to transform early childhood and create a world where families are supported and prioritized when it matters most.”

Diana’s commitment to helping all children and families access quality early education began with her parents, who immigrated to the U.S. to attend graduate school. From her earliest years, her parents strove to provide Diana and her brother with a good education. As she has learned more about how children, families and communities benefit from quality early learning and care, her passion for the issue has only increased.

Diana succeeds outgoing Board Chair Curt Bailey, president of Related Midwest, who served from 2017-2021. Under Curt’s leadership, Start Early advanced its ambitious strategic plan to connect the early childhood field and build cohesion with colleagues and thought partners on a national scale. During his tenure the organization experienced significant growth and transformation, including our expansion to Washington State and our recent merger with the Early Learning Lab, as well as our successful rebrand from the Ounce of Prevention Fund.

“Diana is a distinguished professional and leader who brings a true passion for our youngest learners and their families,” says Diana Rauner, president of Start Early. “Start Early has always been fortunate to have the right leadership at the right time. We are grateful for Curt’s passion and vision, which has helped transform and grow our organization. As we move forward under Diana’s leadership, we are poised to continue to expand our reach and our impact in the coming years.”

Start Early’s Board of Directors is comprised of 30 champions for early learning who each bring a diverse range of experience and backgrounds together to ensure we’re taking an innovative and thoughtful approach to our work.

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