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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Advances in brain research show that children are born learning, and that their first three years of life in particular are important indicators for the success they can have later in school and in life. Early experiences that are language-rich and nurturing promote healthy brain development. So finding a high-quality early learning setting is essential for parents who work and seek child care.

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Once you’ve found a quality setting—from a center-based program to home child care to a relative’s house—here’s some advice from our expert Teresa Bennett a family support specialist at Educare Chicago, a program of Start Early, on how you can prepare your child for their first day of day care.

  • Visit the Child Care Center
    To help your child get to know the new environment, visit the child care center with your child before the first day. You and your child can meet the caregiver. Take photos of the route to the center, the center entrance and the room where your child will spend the day. You can assemble the photos as a book, which you can use to talk to your child at home about what their day will be like and where they will go.
  • Talk to Your Child
    To help prepare your infant or toddler to go to out-of-home care, explain using language and concepts they will understand about where they’ll be going and what they’ll be doing. Talk about how they will meet new children and participate in fun activities. Always mention that you’ll be back at the end of the day to take them home.
  • Build a Relationship With the Caregiver
    Your young child may not be able to talk, but they can observe your actions. They’ll form their opinion of the caregiver based on your reactions. Make time each day to talk to the caregiver and begin building a strong relationship. Caregivers at quality early learning programs see parents as partners and will want to develop a strong relationship with you, your child’s first and most important teacher.
  • Share Information About Your Child
    Talk to the caregiver about your child’s cues, likes, dislikes and temperament. How do they like to be fed, soothed and put to sleep? Your tips will help the caregiver know how to best care for your child without having to guess which methods to try. You can also explain what developmental skills you’d like your child to learn. Ask for daily updates about your child’s progress from the caregiver.
  • Create a Morning Routine
    Routines help children feel in control of their surroundings, which eases anxiety. Create a morning routine so your infant or toddler knows what to expect before going to the child care center. Find out if the center provides breakfast so you know whether or not your child needs to eat at home.
  • Develop a Goodbye Ritual
    Create a goodbye ritual so that your infant or toddler starts to feel comfortable with their caregiver when you leave. Your ritual could be a hug, a high five or interacting together with a toy before you leave. Whatever activity you choose, make sure you take time to talk to your child about what’s happening and don’t rush the process. Once your child becomes used to the goodbye ritual, they’ll be better able to regulate their emotions so that they can calm themself more easily when you go. Learn more about separation anxiety.
  • Bring a Transitional Object
    Your child may feel more at ease in a new environment with an object that reminds them of home. This could be a photo of your family that’s laminated or a stuffed animal that your child enjoys. The child can hold the object during the day as a reminder that this new environment is temporary and that you will come back to take them home.
  • Ask What You Can Do at Home
    To extend your child’s learning, ask the caregiver what school readiness skills the children will be working on during the day and what related activities you can do at home. The reverse is also true: share information about what activities you are doing at home that your child is interested in and ask if the teacher can do something similar in class.
  • Complete Any Medical Requirements
    Find out from the school or center what doctor or dentist appointments must be completed or scheduled before the first day.
  • Bring a Change of Clothes
    It’s a good idea to bring a change of clothes for your infant or toddler in case they encounters any water, finger paint, etc. Also ask the center if you need to bring diapers or formula for your child.
  • Share Your Contact Information
    Let the caregiver know if it’s best to reach you by phone or email and share that contact information.

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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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Can you believe it’s almost time for your child’s first day of kindergarten? This can be exciting and overwhelming for many parents and children. To help you prepare, we asked a Start Early expert for advice for parents. Lisa LaRue a teacher at Educare Chicago, a program of Start Early, shared her tips to help you and your child have a successful school year.

The start of kindergarten can be exciting, stressful, intimidating and scary at the same time. As a parent, you can help ease some of your child’s worries and fears by having conversations around their feelings. By learning as much as you can about the kindergarten experience, you’ll be able to better explain the transition to your child and they’ll understand how fun kindergarten will be!

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Check out Lisa’s checklist to help you and your little one navigate the transition to kindergarten:

  1. Meet the Teacher Before the First Day of School
    If you can, schedule a time for you and your child to meet their kindergarten teacher before the first day of school. This will give your child the chance to become comfortable with the teacher. You can also let the teacher know about your child’s preferences, temperament, strengths and weaknesses. For example, if your child had trouble with transitions in preschool, explain how you and the preschool teacher helped them overcome that challenge. The kindergarten teacher will appreciate your tips! You can also talk about your aspirations for your child and what you hope your child will learn in the upcoming year. Ask how you can be involved in the classroom. Be sure to share your contact information and let the teacher know the best way to reach you.
  2. Set a Consistent Routine Before School Starts
    A consistent morning and evening routine will help your child feel prepared for the first day of kindergarten. Young children benefit from routines because when they know what will happen next they are less prone to find changes stressful. Set a bedtime to help your child get a good night’s rest. In the morning, leave enough time for getting dressed, eating breakfast and packing backpacks. Start your routine a few weeks before kindergarten so you know how long it will take to get ready. Be sure to have a goodbye ritual like a high five, blowing a kiss or giving a hug to help your little one understand that it is time for you to leave, this will help them feel less anxious knowing that you are going to return later.
  3. Do a Dry Run
    A few days before the first day of school, do a dry run of your morning routine, including going to school. You can walk or drive to school, or walk to the bus stop with your child. Show your child the door they will walk in on the first day of school. Ask the school what the pick-up and drop-off policies are. Some schools allow parents to come into the classroom to drop their children off, and others have a different meeting point. Not only will you find out exactly how long your morning routine takes, you’ll also give your child a better sense of what the day will look like to prevent first-day-of-school anxiety. While you are in the classroom, you can discuss with your child what is the same and what is different about this classroom and their old preschool classroom. Do they have the same areas? Are there desks? What is not there? You can also ask the teacher if your child can bring in a family picture or something special to add to their cubby to feel more comfortable. You can also watch YouTube videos of kindergarten classrooms together and even role play different school scenarios at home if your child has more questions or wants to see more examples.
  4. Find Out What Skills the Teacher Expects Children to Have on Day One
    Kindergarten teachers may expect children to be able to handle their emotions, articulate their needs, listen to directions, raise their hand before talking, write their name, and recognize shapes and colors on the first day of school. Find out what the expectations are in advance and ask for tips on how to prepare your child for any skills they are still working on. If your child has mastered those skills, ask the teacher what will be done to challenge your child in the classroom.
  5. Read to Your Child
    Check out our list of recommended books below for kindergarten students. Start reading books before school starts during storytime so that your child has a better idea of what going to school will be like.

    1. Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn
    2. The King of Kindergarten by Derrick Barnes
    3. Look out Kindergarten, Here I Come by Nancy Carlson
  6. Be an Advocate
    If your child needs any special services, talk to the administration and the classroom teachers in advance to find out who provides them. Ask if the services are provided inside or outside the kindergarten classroom. If your child has an individualized education plan from preschool, find out how that plan transfers over to kindergarten.
  7. Network With Other Parents
    Talking with other parents is a great way to build a support system to help you through all the challenges of parenthood. Ask the school what supports are available for parents and what opportunities are provided for parents to meet, such as parent groups, school councils, or other committees that you can join.
  8. Prepare for Breakfast and Lunch
    Find out if your school provides breakfast and/or lunch and plan accordingly. Your child may be used to eating at certain times at home or at an early childhood center, so explain how mealtimes may be changing. If your child will be buying lunch, get a menu from the school. Find out how food preferences are honored. For instance, some schools ask for a doctor’s note for food allergies.
  9. Decrease Naptime
    Some schools may offer a resting period, but many don’t. So it’s a good idea to wean children off naps before the first day of kindergarten.
  10. Make Afterschool Plans
    If your child will be in after school care, make those arrangements as soon as possible. Find out what afterschool care options your school offers and how much it costs. Make sure your child knows what the plans are and that you pick up your child on time or early so they don’t get anxious waiting for you. Create a backup plan with other parents, who you can rely on to pick up your child if you are running late.

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You and your child may feel excited—or apprehensive—about the first day of preschool. This is a big transition for children, especially those going to school for the first time. Children will learn many social and emotional and academic skills in preschool that will help them throughout their school careers, so it’s important to help children feel comfortable in the classroom.

To help your child get the most out of the preschool experience, we asked a Start Early expert for some advice for parents handling this transition. Annaliese Newmeyer a teacher at Educare Chicago, a program of Start Early, shared her tips to help you and your child prepare for preschool.

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Check out Annaliese’s checklist to help you and your little one navigate this exciting time:

Before the First Day:

  • Drive or walk by your child’s new school. Seeing their school ahead of time will help familiarize them with their new space. You can show them where things are like the main door and the playlot. This will help your child feel more comfortable with the space and how things will look on their first day.
  • Meet with the teacher. Meeting your child’s teacher ahead of their first day is very helpful for both you and your little learner. At this meeting, you can help your child learn their new teacher’s name and give your child a chance to become comfortable with them. You can also take this time to ask the teacher what your child will be learning and what skills they expect children to have on day one. Then, you can set some realistic and developmentally appropriate goals for your child. For example, do you work on your child’s reading? Together you can set goals that can help your child develop early literacy skills, like being able to recognize their name and the letters in their name.
  • Celebrate this milestone. This can be the beginning of a tradition to say goodbye to Summer and hello to the school year! Maybe you and your child go get an ice cream sundae or go to a baseball game or stay up late and watch movies and eat snacks together.

On the First Day:

  • Be prepared: bring a bookbag with a change of clothes, a favorite blanket or stuffed animal for nap time, and even a picture of your family. Having something that reminds your child of home with help them feel more at ease in their new environment.
  • Make sure your child eats a good breakfast and gets some rest. Your child’s school might give them breakfast, but it might be later, and you don’t want them to be too hungry!
  • Expect the first day to be easy but it might get hard the second day or the second week when reality sets in that they must return to school every single weekday.
  • Explain to your child that this will be a hard transition for you too! You will miss them, and they will have to meet new people and have new experiences but each day will get easier.
  • Make sure you say goodbye, do not sneak away. Have the same goodbye every day; we call this a goodbye ritual. It can be a hug, a special handshake or a dance! This ritual will help your child learn what to expect when you come to class and will help ease their anxiety when you leave.

Ongoing:

  • Ask questions! Ask your child’s teacher how each day is going and what you can do to help make it better. And be sure to ask your child how their day was. At first, they might just say nothing, but as you ask them every day, their answers will become more and more descriptive.
  • Volunteer in the classroom if you can. Get to know the other kids and parents. This is your new community, your new village and you are there to support each other!

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The Partnership for Pre-K Improvement (PPI) was launched in 2016 with a vision to develop and sustain high-quality, equitable state pre-K systems. Throughout the 5-year project, we partnered with 3 states – Oregon, Tennessee, and Washington – to learn alongside state education leaders, advocates and researchers about how to systematically improve pre-K quality. Along the way, we focused in on infrastructure and the policies, data, and implementation supports pre-K programs need to succeed.

As a culmination of this project, we created a report to capture lessons learned and recommendations for state early learning agency leaders, researchers and advocates, along with a free toolkit to support pre-K systems improvement.

What We Learned

  • Systems change is complex and occurs over a long period of time. Although we saw important improvements during the life of the project, substantial systems change is ongoing and occurs in cycles as states navigate governmental, political, leadership, and funding changes and challenges.
  • Practice frameworks can both advance and impede systems change work. While focusing on core elements of teaching and learning seemed that it would yield the greatest impact on quality, states were most successful when focusing on just one or two elements at a time.
  • Implementation science is useful at the systems level but does not sufficiently advance equity. While an implementation science framework was very helpful in driving improvements, equity does not automatically follow quality changes. Equity must instead be intentionally centered.
  • At the systems level, coordination, alignment, and resource-sharing across programs are necessary when striving to improve pre-K statewide. Quality and equity can only improve when pre-K is seen as a legitimate part of the broader education system.
  • Strong, trusting, and stable partnerships between advocates and researchers are key to success of improvement efforts. Specifically, relationships that are pre-existing, intentional in terms of allocating staff and resources, and provide opportunities to learn from each other, are all critical factors in building stable and successful partnerships.

Recommendations

For state systems leaders, advocates and research partners:

  • Build meaningful partnerships among systems leaders, advocates, and researchers.
  • Think beyond pre-K.
  • Recognize that implementation and infrastructure are critical missing pieces of systems change.
  • Use intentional strategies for increasing equity and elevating parent and teacher voices.
  • Prioritize data infrastructure and your state’s ability to use data for improvement.

For national and local consultants and technical assistance providers:

  • Center equity from the beginning of any project.
  • Ensure that state and local voices drive systems improvement consultation and technical assistance.
  • Throughout this work, keep in mind both long-term vision, and more pressing, daily challenges.
  • Provide flexible resources and funding.

 

Partnership for Pre-K Improvement Resources

For more on how our experiences in the Partnership for Pre-K Improvement provide critical lessons and actionable recommendations for those engaged in the complex work of improving state pre-K systems, download our new report & access the free Partnership for Pre-K Toolkit.

Looking for Additional Resources and Support for Your Quality Improvement Efforts?

Drawing from our experience on PPI and our work in states and communities across the country, the Start Early Consulting team supports partners to ensure that prenatal to five systems have the right policies, programs, and funding in place to prepare young children and their families for lifelong success. Email us for additional information.

Thank you to our partners: Cultivate Learning, Alliance for Early Success, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

By Joan Lombardi

Over the holidays, I heard the term metaverse across multiple media platforms. From TV talk shows and the news to newspaper articles, the concept was everywhere, and I wanted to understand what it means. Meta seems to have several meanings depending on how it is used – as a prefix it sometimes means transformation or transcending.  In the “tech world” the metaverse seems to be referring to some overarching system that would transcend the different parts that make up that world today.

While not totally grasping this emerging concept, these ideas are not completely new to a student of child development. We can relate to the idea of an overarching system evolving beyond its current collection of parts to create an all-encompassing approach to achieving a common goal.

We know health, learning and behavior are connected, and holistic child development requires an integration of these elements that transcends their parts; health affects learning, learning affects health, and social-emotional development affects them both. We also know development begins early, with each stage building on another. Moreover, Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory has grounded our thinking: we can’t separate the child from the well-being of the family. They both depend on supportive communities and policies.

As we enter 2022, let’s recommit our energies to creating a system that could be thought of as meta-care. This approach would go beyond a collection of isolated programs and services to an interconnected system supporting the whole developing child. In this community, the parent, childcare provider, physicians, home visitors, teachers, local librarians and housing agencies all matter for a successful start in life.

Last year, I had the opportunity to talk to several parents, providers and local leaders across the country. Each was working to build these connections to make their community “the best place to raise a child.” I recognized four common elements in these initiatives:

  • Firm beliefs in centering all actions on family and caregiver voices to improve their living and working conditions
  • Commitment to equity
  • Processes for data tracking and mapping services
  • Continuous improvement mechanisms that include ongoing partnerships across services and sectors

The country’s future depends on how we care for young children and families. In the upcoming year, our hope remains that landmark federal legislation is passed to provide the critical investments we need. When this happens, implementation will move to the states and communities and new opportunities to work together will emerge. We must renew our efforts of support to assure a robust continuum of care: from healthy births to children thriving at age three, at five and beyond.

It doesn’t matter if we use a new term like meta-care; what matters is that we intensify our pursuit of better outcomes for all children. Let’s allow the needs of families and caregivers to guide our actions, transcend old boundaries and make a system of caring a reality for the next generation.


Dr. Joan Lombardi is a national and international thought leader in early childhood. She has been a key collaborator and consultant to Start Early in a variety of ways over the years. 

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By Mina Hong and Carrie Gillispie


Amid all the disruption to in-person learning due to the pandemic, it’s time to focus on children with disabilities, which account for 1.2 million young children birth through five. Thanks to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), first enacted in 1975, inclusive early care and education (ECE) programs, where children with disabilities learn alongside children without disabilities, is integrated in the federal special education law. Inclusive education has many benefits for all children, regardless of disability status. In fact, inclusion is so essential to child development that it is integrated in federal special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Under the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) requirement, IDEA calls for young children with developmental delays and disabilities to receive special education and related services alongside typically developing peers in all settings. For young children, LRE includes school-based preschool and community-based settings like Head Start and child care; yet, far too few children with disabilities have had access to these high-quality inclusive options.

Now, Congress has the power to change that with the Build Back Better Act (BBB) and increased IDEA funding in the federal Fiscal Year 2022 (FFY2022) budget. By leveraging these federal investments, states can revolutionize ECE to be truly inclusive and equitable for our nation’s youngest learners with delays and disabilities.

BBB combined with anticipated IDEA funding increases in FFY2022 provides a historic opportunity to expand full inclusion across early childhood settings. BBB significantly invests in expanding equitable access to ECE for families who have been historically underserved — families with lower incomes, families of color, and families of young children with disabilities. Though BBB prioritizes enrollment of young children with delays and disabilities in ECE programs, additional dedicated funding in BBB to support their inclusion is not explicitly defined. Therefore, it is paramount that these expanded early learning opportunities are directed to underserved children with delays and disabilities – particularly children of color – in school and community-based settings that best meet families’ and children’s needs. The anticipated funding increase in the FFY2022 budget will further support the delivery of early intervention, special education and related services to young children under IDEA Part C and IDEA Part B 619. Together, BBB and the IDEA funding proposed in FFY2022 can support the expansion of full inclusion across high quality ECE in all settings.

Despite best efforts, Local Education Agencies (LEAs) face barriers to providing inclusive community-based services outside of school district classrooms including limited guidance, budgetary constraints, and workforce shortages. LEA leaders have expressed the need for guidance and examples of effective service delivery and staffing models to support inclusive special education and related services to all children residing in their districts across ECE settings. Unfortunately, the children who are disproportionately impacted by this are young children from families with lower income, particularly families of color. This group of children are often forced to attend both their community-based program and a school-based program to receive special education services, resulting in multiple bus rides and transitions in a single day. Some families even forego critical special education services to avoid these transitions. Additionally, the workforce crisis that has plagued the early childhood field has led to a staff shortage, which is also acutely felt by the early childhood special education field. While BBB includes provisions to boost compensation for the ECE workforce, funding is also needed to attract and retain special educators. Coupling BBB and FFY2022 funding can support LEAs and their ECE partners as they create equitable systems to ensure programs have the financial resources, workforce capacity, and clear federal guidance needed to support equitable inclusion.

Given this, it is paramount that the U.S. Senate pass the Build Back Better Act in a timely manner while Congress approves the FFY2022 budget with the IDEA Part C and Part B 619 funding increases. Once passed, the federal government should provide clear guidance on how states and communities will ensure children receive special education and related services in all settings. And states, communities, and LEAs should plan how they will collaborate to equitably support young children with disabilities in early childhood settings expanded through new federal dollars. Here’s how:

  • Clearly delineating in state plans the ways in which state and local policies and practices will operationalize equitable access and quality in ECE for young children with disabilities and developmental delays across settings. Specifically, plans should prioritize families with low incomes, dual language learners, and from other underserved populations as defined in BBB.
  • Prioritizing inclusion in mixed delivery settings, including giving all educators access to resources on high-quality inclusion practices and giving LEAs clear guidance and sufficient funding to do so. This also includes professional development and systems of support for educators to reduce the suspension and expulsion of young children with disabilities and children of color.
  • Providing equitable and accessible pathways to obtaining early childhood special education qualifications in order to strengthen the workforce; providing service scholarships and loan forgiveness programs for special education trainees to increase incentives to enter the profession; and most importantly, providing adequate compensation for the entire ECE workforce including special education teachers.
  • Collecting and publicly reporting data on district- and program-level adherence to LRE across early childhood settings and disciplinary data disaggregated by race, ethnicity, family income level, gender, dual language learner status, and disability category under IDEA.

Young children with disabilities have always faced systemic barriers to the strong start they deserve. Now is the time for Congress, states, LEAs, and communities to each do their part and collaborate, so that young children with delays and disabilities can access the equitable and inclusive services and supports they need and deserve.


With contributions by Karen Berman, Katie Fisher and Amanda Schwartz

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When a young student began drawing pictures using only black crayons, it caught the attention of veteran early childhood educator Alyia Dixon.

“Kids always gravitate to the brighter colors,” Alyia says. “But when she was scribbling, she scribbled her pictures all in black… Sometimes all black, all the way to the edge of the pages.”

Alyia, who has been teaching at Educare Chicago, a program of Start Early, for 23 years, shared her observations and concerns with the school’s family support specialists, and together, they arranged a visit to the student’s home. These sorts of discussions are critical for providing families with a multi-perspective and multi-expertise support system. This holistic approach is a core component of high-quality early childhood programs. It provides valuable supports for students and can help connect their families to important resources.

“We did a home visit and found out that her lights were out… That’s why she was drawing all in black,” Alyia explains. “After we realized that, we talked about things you could do in the dark, you know, to try to lessen the negativity behind having the lights out.”

The Educare Chicago team realized during the home visit that the family was living with relatives, and that they would be best suited for success if they had their own apartment.

The school’s family support specialists worked with the student’s mother to help her obtain her own housing and connected her with utility payment assistance programs.

At Start Early, we believe that parents are a child’s first educators, which is why we prioritize family engagement in our early learning programs. Family engagement in early education is particularly important for children and families in communities that are under-resourced, in that it helps create consistency between the home and school environments. The positive outcomes of engaged parents are powerful: increased support for children’s learning at home, empowered parents and improved family well-being.

She said, ‘We only had candles and you acted like it was nothing. That took away the sting of it… I knew then that it was going to be all right.

Alyia Dixon
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When Alyia reconnected with the family several years later, she discovered that they were still successfully living on their own.

“We were talking and she brought up how embarrassed she had been during that home visit,” Alyia says. “But, she said, ‘We only had candles and you acted like it was nothing. That took away the sting of it… I knew then that it was going to be all right.”

The supports available through our high-quality early childhood programs don’t just provide for the needs of students while they’re in the classroom; they also address challenges at home that could keep a student from thriving in pre-kindergarten and beyond.

“A lot of the circumstances we witness go way above and beyond the norms for what a teacher is supposed to encounter,” Alyia says.

That’s why high-quality early childhood programs often rely on experts that can help families connect with mental health resources, find safe housing and obtain food assistance. At Educare Chicago, family support specialists and mental health consultants work diligently with parents to ensure the needs of their entire family are being met.

Additionally, our programs connect parents of young children with their peers, creating supportive communities that benefit both adults and their kids.

“Our parents build relationships with other adults that they maintain outside of Educare Chicago. We’ve had a few parents that built relationships where they would take their kids on outings with each other,” Alyia says. “They’re building relationships and making connections that will outlast their child’s time in our program.”

For nearly 40 years, Start Early has provided doula, home visiting and Head Start programs while advocating for policies and adequate funding to make high-quality programs, like Educare Chicago, available in communities across the country. Supporting our vital work ensures that teachers like Alyia have the resources needed to serve families in powerful and life-changing ways. Give to Start Early today.

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