two children coloring togetherParents in Chicago often enroll their children ages 3-5 in community-based organizations because they love and trust their local early learning program and because the program provides more convenient hours and comprehensive, year-long services for families. With support from Crown Family Philanthropies, Start Early launched a new initiative this summer in partnership with Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and Chicago’s six federally funded Head Start grant recipients to make special education services more accessible for the city’s children ages 3-5 who are enrolled in community-based Head Start programs.

Currently in the city of Chicago, special education services are not provided in community-based settings where many children are enrolled. Instead, children attend both their community-based program and a school-based program, which involves bus rides and multiple transitions between classrooms in one day. Some parents who rely on community-based settings for early learning may forgo these services that their child needs to avoid distress and challenging behaviors that can follow the multiple transitions.

Even when children receive their special education services in a CPS classroom, those supports do not follow them to their community-based setting. This leaves children unable to fully access and participate in the classroom and it leaves teachers without the support they need to ensure the best quality educational experience. As a result, children may experience barriers to healthy development. The current system also poses long-term challenges for CPS as they work to ensure equitable access to special education and kindergarten readiness for all students.

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The goal of this project is to ensure access to inclusive special education services for all children with disabilities enrolled in community-based early childhood programs in Chicago. To this end, we are working in partnership with families and educators to develop, implement, assess, and institutionalize feasible strategies and approaches for delivering special education services to children with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) onsite in the Head Start programs in which they are enrolled.

Start Early staff are nationally recognized leaders in special education for young children. Learn more about Start Early’s recommendations for strengthening early childhood inclusion for young children with disabilities, and contact us to learn how you can support high-quality, accessible education for all young children.

The Crown family has worked for decades alongside Start Early to increase access to equitable, high-quality early education and care for all children and families in Chicago, including recent support for the launch of Every Child Ready Chicago, a public-private partnership to support access to high-quality early childhood education in the city.

Start Early remains grateful to Crown Family Philanthropies as we champion early learning and care and close the opportunity gap for our youngest learners.

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Portia Kennel at an Educare Speaking EngagementAfter a career in early childhood education spanning three decades, Portia Kennel – catalyst and one of the co-founders of the Educare Learning Network, a powerful network of birth-to-five schools that has improved access to high-quality early education across the country – is retiring from her position as Senior Advisor to the Buffett Early Childhood Fund.

Prior to her time with the Buffett Early Childhood Fund, Portia served as the Senior Vice President of Program Innovation at Start Early (formerly the Ounce of Prevention Fund). In 2000, she created the first-ever Educare school in Chicago to serve young children and their families on Chicago’s South Side. As the Executive Director of the Educare Learning Network, Portia led the expansion of the Educare model to a diverse range of communities across the country, from one school in Chicago to 25 schools nationwide.

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“Portia’s passion and commitment to serving children the last several decades have helped shape Start Early into the organization that we are today,” Diana Rauner, Start Early President and longtime colleague of Portia, shared. “Her drive, perspective and guidance continue to resonate through the halls of our offices and within the values that inform our work. I am so proud of what we created together through the Educare Learning Network, and I believe that the best is yet to come thanks to her foundational presence. The early learning community is grateful for Portia, and we wish her well in this next chapter of life.”

Portia's passion and commitment to serving children the last several decades have helped shape Start Early into the organization that we are today.

Diana Rauner, president, Start Early
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Portia is also a former Head Start Director and has significant experience in the design, implementation and management of effective, evidence-based early childhood education and family support program models. Her work is grounded in an understanding of family systems and clinical issues related to working with families in disinvested communities. She holds a master’s degree in social work from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana and is a ZERO TO THREE Fellow.

“We’re so grateful to Portia for her contribution to the early childhood field broadly, and to the Educare Learning Network specifically,” Cynthia Jackson, Executive Director of the Educare Learning Network and Senior Vice President at Start Early, said. “Twelve years ago, Portia invited me to serve as a leader of leaders in this Network. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to serve under an African American woman, mentor, teacher, visionary and colleague. Thank you, Portia – from the Network and from me personally. What an innovator you have been.”

Start Early and the Educare Learning Network congratulate Portia on a remarkable career and thank her for the groundbreaking legacy in early childhood education she started with our Network!


Portia Kennel’s Parting Remarks

What a journey this has been! Reflecting on the early days of Educare, my mentor Judy Bertacchi comes to mind. Judy was a pioneer leader in training early childhood staff how to implement and embed reflective supervision into early childhood programs. She always said how important it was to “get the birth story” of each child because it would inform the work you’d do with the family. So, today I am going to share the birth story of Educare, because I believe it will inform the future as the Network goes forward.

The idea for Educare grew out of The Beethoven Project, an initiative began by Start Early (then the Ounce of Prevention) in 1986 to bring early learning programs and other services to communities in Chicago’s Grand Boulevard neighborhood on the south side. At that time, this neighborhood was home to the Robert Taylor Homes, which was one of the largest public housing developments in the poorest census tract in the country.

When the Chicago Housing Authority began demolishing the Robert Taylor Homes in the late 1990s, many families began leaving the community as public services started to vanish. I have never seen so many thousands of families disappear what seems like overnight. But we decided we were in it for the long haul, and we stayed. It was very important to us, since so many institutions were abandoning these families, that they knew we would not abandon our commitment to them.

That’s why we started building our own early childhood education center: to serve families who were displaced by the loss of their homes and now rebuilding their community, and to create a school whose culture and environment said – and still to this day says – “You matter.” So, we partnered with the city of Chicago, the Office of Head Start, and other private funders to build our first school, Educare Chicago, which we opened in 2000.

And Educare Chicago was just the beginning! Fast forwarding two decades to now, that first school inspired the creation of the Educare Learning Network, 25 schools across the country that are models for high-quality care and education in their communities and nationwide.

I led the expansion of our Network from one school to many for three reasons: to learn from each other, to support each other and problem solve together, and because I hoped that by coming together, our collective power would have a better chance of addressing challenges in the field. What we had in common was a shared interest in showcasing quality in our communities through Educare schools, demonstrating what is possible with services for children and families, and increasing our impact as catalysts for positive change. In other words, I believed we could do more together than any of us could do alone. And in today’s world, our critical work is to continue to harness and leverage the collective power of the Educare Learning Network to transform the early childhood world.

As I now leave the Network, my first hope is that you will increase your collective impact and efforts. The Network has yet to realize its full potential. We all agree changes are needed to address the systemic issues that have plagued the early childhood system for so long: quality, access, workforce recruitment, retention, racism, compensation and more, many of which have been amplified by the pandemic.

My second hope for the future is that in addition to an ongoing focus on racial equity, the Network will prioritize efforts to ensure the systematic and sustained inclusion, participation and leadership of parents in the planning, development, decision-making, implementation and evaluation of early childhood work. That means centering and elevating the voices of parents to ensure their lived experiences inform and help address the challenges the early childhood system faces. As Glenn Martin of JustLeadershipUSA says, I believe those closest to the problem are closest to the solution. Investing in parent leaders as early childhood advocates and change agents strengthens our chances for success.

We’re all in this together: parents and families, early childhood leaders, educators, family support practitioners, childcare providers, policymakers, advocates, public and private partners, and communities. We must work together to find solutions.

I thank all of you for what I have learned from you. I thank Jessie Rasmussen and the Buffett Early Childhood Fund, Diana Rauner and Start Early for all they have done to support the continued growth and development of the Educare Learning Network. The Network would not have been possible without the partnership and support of both organizations, and of course the participation of all of you early childhood champions.

Go forth, Educare Learning Network, and cause some good trouble!

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We don’t know much about art, but we know what we like—and that’s seeing young children find ways to express themselves and spark creativity while they’re learning. Whether you have a little Picasso on your hands or you are actively looking for ways to introduce art to your child, we have tips for you!

We asked our Start Early experts for their advice for parents and caregivers on the best ways to use art to support your child’s learning and development. And the teachers of Room 114 at Educare Chicago, a program of Start Early, delivered.

Check out what Annaliese Newmeyer, Charlene Macklin, Lisa LaRue have shared when it comes to why art is so important for our youngest learners and how you can make it part of your everyday routine:

What are the benefits of introducing art to young learners?

Art is an important part of child’s development in young learners. It not only provides children with a way to express themselves and spark their creativity, but it also provides teachers with a glimpse into how a child sees the world and what is important to them. Something as small as how a child focuses on a butterfly’s wing when drawing a butterfly, or the details of their hair in a self-portrait; whatever it is, art can be a window into a child’s mind.

Going to school can be traumatic for young children, they have to say goodbye to their favorite people and spend the day following rules and sharing, so art can be a way to relax and meet a child’s social and emotional needs as a form of self-regulation. And most of all, art is fun!

Are there any specific cognitive or physical developmental abilities that art projects help support in early learners?

By holding different types of drawing materials your child is actively working on their fine motor development. Art also works a different part of your brain than science or math since there is a no wrong answer.

Breaking down art projects into steps helps develop cognitive abilities. For example, when we introduce painting, we teach the children the steps: dip- paint- clean, dip- paint- clean. We can even make it into a little song and dance to help the kids remember to dip their paint brush in the paint, paint and then clean off the brush to get a new color.

Art is also very scientific and mathematical. You are asking big important questions when you want to know what happens when you mix colors or layer textures or create patterns.

What at-home projects you would recommend for infants and toddlers?

This is the best time to introduce different art materials to your child. The more experience they have with crayons, markers and paints the better they will be able to express themselves as they get older.

  • Focus on the sensory aspect and talk about texture.
  • Put words to your child’s actions, “you are touching the cold, smooth red paint. It’s red like an apple or a firetruck. The red is very vibrant on the white paper.”
  • Be playful and enjoy it. It won’t look like Pinterest, it will be messy.
  • Be prepared with wipes, paper towels and clothing that can get dirty.
  • Give your children a material and observe how they use it, what can you add to make the experience fuller or to extend their interest?
  • Use age-appropriate materials like chunky crayons, no markers, non-toxic paint, play dough, contact paper, tissue paper.

What at-home projects you would recommend for children ages 3-5?

  • Collaging
  • Cutting (an important fine motor skill)
  • Drawing pictures and describing the image
  • Telling a story about their art
  • Bookmaking
  • Junk art with material from the recycling bin

What is your favorite aspect of teaching art to early learners and why?

It’s fun because you can learn about the child through their art. You learn if they mind getting messy and how they see the world around them. One student we had was so amazing with watercolors, every time we brought out the watercolors, she would paint the most amazing pictures. She struggles in other areas in the classroom but working with the paint gave her a confidence that was then reflected throughout the classroom.

You get to watch them create; we might not understand what they are painting or drawing but they do. For example, we might see a red circle but to them it’s a volcano. They get so excited about their creations.

Art is a form of expression, so it helps us be able to see deeper into their minds and what they find important. For example, we might give children wings, a body, black and yellow stripes of paper and glue and ask them to make a bee and to see the variations in what a bee will look like is amazing! Some kids focus on the stripes or the wings or even where they will place the eyes is fascinating.

Any other tips for incorporating art into children’s learning?

  • It’s not about the product it’s about the process!
  • Give them a provocation (example: have them draw a picture of their fish).
  • Take paper and crayons everywhere you go and have your child record what they see around them.
  • Have your child tell you a story about what they create.
  • Annaliese Newmeyer, M.Ed, has been a Mentor Coach and Lead Teacher at Educare Chicago for the past 9 years. Annaliese enjoys reading children’s books and gardening with children. She feels like it is important to teach children to take care of others and heal each other through actions rather than words.
  • Charlene Macklin has been a teacher at Educare Chicago for 9 years and is currently working on her PEL license at the University of Illinois Chicago. She enjoys arts and crafts and hands-on experiences to build children’s understanding of the world around them.
  • Lisa LaRue has been a teacher for over 25 years, and at Educare Chicago for 15 years. Her motto is, “We are a Classroom Community,” and she works to establish a cooperative community through learning. She is an expert in preparing children for kindergarten.

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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?”

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Last month, families across the country began receiving the first payments under the Advance Child Tax Credit (ACTA), a part of the American Rescue Plan Act. For many families with young children, like Educare Chicago parent Cheryse Singleton-Nobles, the expanded Child Tax Credit offers integral support that increases their ability to provide a stable environment and experiences for their children to thrive.

“A lot of us are struggling. Even though the pandemic is ending, that doesn’t end the financial impacts it created,” Cheryse shares.

“We need the Child Tax Credit to survive. We need it for our families, to help our businesses grow, for school supplies, to put gas in the car. We need it so our families can keep striving and so we can raise successful young individuals."

Cheryse Singleton-Nobles
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Across the nation, even as employment is rising and strains on household budgets have eased in recent months families continue to struggle. One in three adults with children report difficulty covering usual household expenses, and one in eight report their families don’t have enough to eat. This financial strain and chronic stress can undermine young children’s sense of security, safety and joy. If prolonged, it can have a negative, long-term impact on their development.

“If it’s stressful for an adult, imagine how stressful this time has been for young children whose entire routine was disturbed,” Cheryse continues. “The Child Tax Credit puts us in a place of peace so that we can be in a better mental state to focus on doing more for our children and not worrying as much about things getting turned off or bills not being paid.”

The expanded Child Tax Credit will help directly alleviate the strain that so many families are experiencing on multiple fronts. Eligible families will receive up to $3,600 per child under age 6 and $3,000 for children ages 6 to 17, with half made available to families in advance through six monthly payments and the rest claimed when they file their tax returns.

Many organizations, including our own Educare Learning Network, are proactively reaching out to educate families on the tax filing process and helping them take full advantage of the Child Tax Credit. At Educare Chicago, “staff let us know it was coming, who to contact and offered to assist with the tax filing process,” Cheryse shares.

What does the Child Tax Credit Mean for Your Family?

Our partners at the Educare Learning Network are collecting quotes and stories about the importance of the Child Tax Credit. Tell us what the Child Tax Credit means for your family, your finances and your future.

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In addition to household essentials, Cheryse underscored the importance of the payments to help parents meet their children’s educational and developmental needs. “For instance, a family with a child with disabilities can use this money to pay for equipment and materials that aren’t covered by insurance,” she says. “With the extra money being sent, it’s like, ‘Whoa, okay, I can breathe.’”

The Child Tax Credit is one of the critical supports for working families that can and should be made permanent by the passage of the American Families Plan. Other transformative investments included in the plan would help defray the costs of child care and offer families more child care options, two issues families continue to grapple with. Two out of three working parents (63%) and nearly all low-income parents (95%) report having a hard time.

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

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

Article from Chalkbeat Chicago, July 20, 2021

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“Who am I?” From the moment babies are born, they are learning about who they are, how to express their feelings and what makes them special. Their earliest relationships with parents and caregivers help develop a sense of belonging and set the foundation for their future learning and success.

Parents and caregivers can help young children along as they grow and learn more about who they are, their feelings and how they fit into this world.

Check out Big Heart World’s Parent and Caregiver Guides for more fun ideas to support your child’s social and emotional learning in the areas of Identify & Belonging, Feelings, and Similarities & Differences.

Resources for Families

Related Resources

Chicago is a key part of Start Early’s story and identity. Since our founding in 1982, we are proud to have supported each mayoral administration in their efforts to create an exemplary early childhood system here in our hometown.

Mother embracing young childIn the fall of 2020, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot launched Every Child Ready Chicago (ECRC), a multiyear, public-private partnership to align the various prenatal-to-five systems and supports serving Chicago’s children and families under a shared vision of success and build the early childhood systems infrastructure needed for thousands more children to enter kindergarten ready to learn.

Through its work, the initiative seeks to create a strong and equitable early childhood system where all parents and children, particularly those in under-resourced communities, have access to quality services. By partnering with parents and communities, the initiative can build a forward-moving plan capable of withstanding changes in leadership throughout the city that are bound to happen.

Start Early’s Role

Our approach to improving early learning systems centers on developing strong program, advocacy and research partnerships. As a first step, Start Early supported the Mayor’s Office in bringing together a diverse group of agencies, experts, and organizations for the launch of the Early Childhood Working Group.

As the work transitions into the next phase, Start Early will continue to play a project facilitation role, working collaboratively to engage private partners and stakeholders and facilitating family and community engagement to center their voices in the work. We will also continue to contribute our policy, advocacy and systems perspective and share lessons from this important work with other cities and states across the country.

For me, advocating for Black fathers is a matter of personal, professional, and societal importance. My father’s indelible impact on my life — including my own role as an active father to my children — led me to pursue a career ensuring Black fathers are recognized as assets to their children, families, and communities. Research has highlighted the important role and contributions that Black fathers have on their families, including influences on children’s school adjustment, social competence, psychological well-being and positive racial socialization.

A father’s involvement in his child’s life from very early on has a tremendous impact on their development. Children with involved, caring fathers have stronger educational and developmental outcomes with better linguistic and cognitive capabilities. They also start school with higher academic readiness. Fathers that spend time playing with their infants and preschoolers in stimulating, engaging activities help their children learn how to regulate their feelings and behavior. I can personally attest to spending a lot of time playing with my youngest son, a toddler, as he learns to explore the world around him.

Addressing systemic racism can help fathers fill this important role and empowering them with resources. Below are ways we all can create opportunities for marginalized fathers and better position them as the assets they are in our society.

  • Change the narrative. We must change society’s misguided view of Black fathers as negligent parents and recast them as integral parts of our family and community, just as my father was for me and how I strive to be for my children. This requires presenting positive and culturally affirming narratives of Black fathers in the media — including social media— and through research studies, organizational cultures and legislation.
  • Expand home visiting and parent education programs to ensure they are father friendly, father-centered and culturally inclusive. All fathers want what is best for their children, and home visiting programs can empower fathers in their role by engaging them in program activities and supporting their involvement in their children’s lives.
  • Drive policy change that transforms the child support system into a family-building institution. Eliminating government-owed child support debt for fathers unable to pay will go a long way in enabling Black fathers to advance economically and to better provide for their children.

Supporting Black fathers in their role as a child’s first and most important teacher is an investment in our children and our communities. This Father’s Day, let’s intentionally change the narrative, advocate for local, state and federal policies that benefit Black fathers and promote positive and culturally relevant parent and home visiting programs that benefit early childhood development.

Learn more about my work and continue to follow this blog for the latest updates from Start Early.

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