This month, we hosted our 22nd Annual Luncheon at the Westin River North, where we welcomed hundreds of supporters to discuss the life-changing impacts of the first five years of a child’s life. Through powerful conversations and presentations with experts in the field, parents, teachers and Start Early staff, we discussed the need for all children, regardless of their background, to have equitable access to the quality health care, early education and intervention services they need to thrive, from before birth continuing through early childhood.

If you were unable to join us, you can watch a recording of the full program below.

This year’s Luncheon theme Start Today. Change Tomorrow is a powerful reminder of the comprehensive and life-changing impacts of early learning and care on the young learners of today and their futures.

For more than four decades, Start Early has led efforts to close the opportunity gap with a laser focus on the earliest years. There is an enormous transformation that happens in the first 1,000 days of life setting the stage for a baby’s cognitive, social and emotional development.  A child’s brain is growing at an astonishing rate and changing in shape and size in response to the world around them. These early years are critical and lay the foundation to build resilience, agency and hope so all children can realize their full potential.

In our pursuit of sustainable change, Start Early champions equity and embraces innovation to address complex early childhood issues that many families face today – meaningful policy to improve access for children with disabilities, comprehensive supports for children and families who are unhoused and quality health care for parental and maternal mental health – to pave the way for a more equitable and just future.

We are grateful for the tremendous support and generosity of our donors and event sponsors who helped us raise $1.07 million. Every dollar raised helps our young families and sets the stage for them to thrive. You can still show your support by making a donation today.

I want to extend my heartfelt thanks to our Luncheon Chair James Reynolds, Jr., a leader in Chicago’s business and philanthropic community who shares in our belief that investments in high-quality early education can strengthen families and break the cycle of poverty.

When we come together and invest in early childhood education, we can transform the lives of our future generation.

Our children—and our future—will thank you.

2024 Annual Luncheon Sponsors

A special thank you to our corporate and individual sponsors whose commitment to our mission is helping more children reach their full potential.



The Hasten Foundation
Helen Zell



BMO logo DRW logo

Nancy & Steve Crown | The Crown Family
Diana & Bruce Rauner



Joyce Foundation logo Oberhelman Foundation & Cullinan Properties, 2023 Annual Luncheon Sponsor
Peoples Gas, 2023 Annual Luncheon Sponsor Related Midwest, 2023 Annual Luncheon Sponsor

Tom Gimbel
Cari & Michael J. Sacks
Diana & Michael Sands



Allstate Insurance Company
Noelle C. Brock, Brock Family Foundation
Kerri & Matthew Bruderman
Buffett Early Childhood Fund
Dave & Jane Casper
CME Group Foundation
Mary & Terry Dillon
Marilyn & Larry Fields
GCM Grosvenor
Cabray Haines & David Kiley
Harris Family Foundation
The Malkin Family
Charles & Brunetta Matthews
Northern Trust
Port Capital LLC
Robert R. McCormick Foundation
Jeanne Rogers & Perry Sainati

Catherine Siegel
Linda & Michael Simon
Steans Family Foundation
Sunshine Charitable Foundation
Laura Thonn & Scott Sallee
Wilson/Garling Foundation



Ellen Alberding & Kelly Welsh
Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago
Susan & Stephen Baird
Jimmy & Eleni Bousis
Sarah Bradley & Paul Metzger
John & Jacolyn Bucksbaum Family Foundation
the Chicago Bulls
Erikson Institute
Mr. & Mrs. Rodney L. Goldstein
Rachel & Devin Gross
Maxwell Gunnill
J.P. Morgan Private Bank
Learning Resources
Ron Levin/Goldman Sachs
Elaine & Donald Levinson
Sharon Oberlander
Barbara & Dan O’Keefe
Plante Moran
Isabel & Charles Polsky
Rothkopf Family Charitable Foundation
Halee Sage & David Friedman
Shah Family Trust
Cheryl & Craig Simon
Sterling Bay
Ken & Kathy Tallering
Anne & John Tuohy
YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago

Announcing Start Early’s Exclusive Partnership with ACSES

ASCES and Start Early logo lockup

Start early is pleased to announce our new partnership with ACSES, a research-based approach to equitable classrooms developed by Stephanie Curenton, Ph.D. The Assessing Classroom Sociocultural Equity Scale (ACSES) is a valid and reliable observation tool and framework for measuring and supporting equitable sociocultural interactions in early childhood classrooms.

Now more than ever, we see the challenges facing our early education system and workforce. Black children are more likely to be suspended and expelled compared to their peers from other racial groups1. There is also a tendency to quickly label a child’s behavior as “challenging” without taking into consideration children’s emotions, strengths, or developmental needs. This unfair discipline and mischaracterization can isolate racially, culturally and linguistically diverse learners. Meanwhile, teachers may experience burnout from managing their classrooms without sufficient resources. Without adequate support, it is challenging for teachers to center the experiences of diverse learners in their classroom and to provide intentional and positive learning environments for all students.

The Start Early and ACSES partnership will support early childhood educators at all levels with tools and strategies to address these challenges and build more equitable classrooms and education systems. Through professional learning, coaching, collaboration across peer groups, and measurement, we will prepare teachers and leaders to:

  • Adopt the ACSES approach and integrate culturally relevant and anti-bias behaviors into their practice
  • Facilitate equitable interactions with children to improve outcomes and peer relationships
  • Develop skills to provide equitable discipline, individualized instruction and culturally sustaining social emotional learning opportunities

”I believe in the capacity of our workforce to learn and grow in their knowledge and commitment to equity,” says Dr. Curenton. “ACSES is not simply about creating a classroom environment that is more welcoming of social and cultural differences, but also about creating an education system that values and supports early educators to be the best they can be. ACSES is about investing in our workforce.”

As the exclusive professional learning partner for ACSES, Start Early will collaborate with Dr. Curenton to develop and deliver comprehensive professional learning for early childhood educators and program leaders. We will co-design PL opportunities with ECE teachers and leaders to make sure they are relevant and match the daily realities of working in an ECE classroom and program.

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Barbara Cooper, Ph.D., Senior Vice President, Professional Learning will lead Start Early’s partnership with ACSES, drawing from her wealth of experience and expertise leading large systems and sectors in early childhood education.

“The workforce, and the children and families we serve, are from diverse backgrounds,” said Dr. Cooper. “We cannot serve them effectively when we employ strategies that force us to ignore the complexities of race, culture and ethnicity. In this era of ‘culture wars’, we are hopeful that this partnership will shine a bright light on the importance of deeply understanding and appreciating diversity in our classrooms.”

Start Early will launch the first opportunity for professional learning in August 2024. Through a series of accessible webinars, teachers, program leaders, and other ECE practitioners will gain a foundational understanding of sociocultural equity and relevant practices they can immediately put to use when working with children and families. This virtual series will include CEUs and be offered in English and Spanish.

Sign up to receive updates about early bird pricing, group discounts and key dates.

1Suspension: Curenton. 2022 SRCD Child Development Volume 93

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.


ACSES is a technical assistance framework rooted in equity and designed to provide an evidence-based multiple sources of data about how equitable, culturally responsive classrooms and programs along with a suite of research-based equity centered professional supports to teachers and leaders. Through Early Learning Access, training for data collectors, researchers, and program monitors is available.

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Start Early thanks the Illinois General Assembly for approving a Fiscal Year 2025 state budget that includes significant increases in funding for early care and education programs, funding that aligns with Governor JB Pritzker’s multi-year Smart Start Illinois initiative. 

The final budget, approved by the legislature this week, contains nearly $250 million in new state funding for child care, preschool and home visiting services and the Early Intervention (EI) program. It also includes money to fund first-year operations for the newly-created Illinois Department of Early Childhood. 

Despite these needed and appreciated spending increases, Start Early is very disappointed with final appropriation levels of funding for the Early Intervention (EI) program and the Early Childhood Access Consortium for Equity (ECACE) scholarship program. In particular, Start Early had been fighting for a greater increase in EI funding, and we believe the approved budget is inadequate to address the ongoing workforce crisis and historic service delays. 

Illinois FY 2025 budget will benefit children and families by providing considerable funding to several key early learning programs, and we thank Governor JB Pritzker and the General Assembly for their ongoing commitment to children and families, Start Early Vice President of Illinois Policy Ireta Gasner said. We remain deeply concerned, however, that the legislature did not appropriate additional funds beyond the governor’s proposal for Early Intervention and ECACE scholarships. Timely services for infants and toddlers with disabilities and developmental delays and a well-prepared and compensated workforce are cornerstones of an equitable early childhood system. This budget is a big step forward, but much more work is needed.”

Here are the specifics: 

  • $158.5 million (27.3%) increase for the child care system at Illinois Department of Human Services (IDHS) for Smart Start Workforce Grants, Quality Contracts, apprenticeships and Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP) caseload growth 
  • $75 million (11.1%) increase for the Early Childhood Block Grant at Illinois State Board of Education for expansion of Prevention Initiative center-based and home visiting programs, Preschool for All and Preschool for All Expansion programs 
  • $6 million (3.8%) increase for the Early Intervention (EI) program at IDHS to accommodate caseload growth, but no additional funding for provider rate increases 
  • $5 million (21.8%) increase for evidence-based home visiting programs at IDHS to expand access to services and address compensation improvements 
  • $5 million for the ECACE scholarship program, but no additional funding to ensure candidates currently receiving the scholarship can finish their programs 
  • $14.2 million in operational funding for the new Illinois Department of Early Childhood 

Record levels of service delays continue to plague the EI system – delays linked to a shrinking workforce. Without annual rate increases, providers will continue to leave the program, meaning more infants and toddlers with disabilities and developmental delays will wait for months to receive the life-changing services they are entitled to by law. 

In addition, nearly 2,500 current ECACE scholarship recipients will need further scholarship support to complete their degrees. The lack of early childhood educators has resulted in programs and classrooms closing – limiting the opportunity for families to locate effective services for their children. 

Several other important measures impacting the early care and education system – and the families and workforce who are a part of it – have been approved by the legislature this session, including: 

  • SB1 (Sen. Lightford, Rep. Canty) – authorizes the creation of the Department of Early Childhood 
  • HB4959 (Rep. Gabel, Sen. Sims) – the FY 2025 budget implementation bill, which, among other provisions, codifies into law the ECACE scholarship program 
  • HB4951 (Rep. Burke, Sen. Villanueva) – a revenue omnibus bill, which, among other provisions, establishes a permanent state Child Tax Credit for families eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit and have children under age 12 
  • HB5142 (Rep. Gabel, Sen. Collins) – requires, among other provisions, private health insurers to cover all pregnancy, postpartum and newborn care services provided by perinatal doulas or licensed certified professional midwives, including home births, home visits and support during labor. Insurance companies would need to cover home visits by board-certified lactation consultants, including the cost of recommended breast pumps, breastfeeding supplies and feeding aids. 
  • HB4491 (Rep. Faver Dias, Sen. Johnson) – allows a child care director or qualified early childhood educator to be present during the opening or closing of the child care program 
  • SB2675 (Sen. Villivalam, Rep. Croke) – expands eligibility to the Early Childhood Construction Grant (ECCG) program for not-for-profit early childhood providers that rent or lease from another not-for-profit entity

We expect the governor to sign and approve this final budget package and SB1 soon.

This suite of policy changes and funding increases was made possible by the commitment and diligent efforts of advocates across the state. Throughout the spring legislative session, parents, educators and advocates contacted state legislators thousands of times on behalf of Illinois families and those who serve them. Given there is more work ahead to address the critical gaps in funding for EI and ECACE, we and our advocacy partners look forward to working in the coming months to be sure both the administration and General Assembly understand the urgency of these problems. 

On Thursday, May 9, 2024, the Illinois House of Representatives approved Senate Bill 1 (SB1), legislation to authorize the creation of the Illinois Department of Early Childhood. An initiative of Governor JB Pritzker, the proposal, which passed the Illinois Senate last month, aims to improve access to critical early learning and care services by better aligning and coordinating programs, data and policies. SB1 is sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford and State Representative Mary Beth Canty. We anticipate the Governor will sign the bill into law sometime this summer. 

“Start Early applauds the Illinois General Assembly for approving such consequential legislation,” Ireta Gasner, Vice President of Illinois Policy at Start Early said. “The state is now committed, more than ever, to transform state government so it can provide the range of services young children and families need to thrive. We thank Governor Pritzker, Deputy Governor Martin Torres, and their team for leading this work—work that’s only just begun.” 

Once enacted, the bill will require the new Department, starting in July of 2026, to administer the Child Care Assistance Program, the Early Intervention program, evidence-based home visiting programs, as well as infant, toddler and preschool programs currently funded by the State Board of Education. It will also license and monitor child care programs. 

“Passing this bill was a team effort, though every team has its stars,” said Jonathan Doster, Start Early’s Illinois Legislative Director. “Thank you to Leader Lightford and Representative Canty for their commitment to young children and their dogged leadership as we moved this significant proposal through the legislative process.” 

Start Early looks forward to sharing with state leaders our knowledge and expertise developed over years through our work providing high-quality early childhood programming and advancing child-focused policies in Illinois, particularly as decisions about the governance and design of our early learning and care system are being made. Together, as the governor often says, we will make Illinois the best state in the nation in which to raise young children. 

Start Early is committed to advancing systems in which all children and their families have access to an uninterrupted continuum of equitable, comprehensive and responsive services from before birth through age five. Systems building is intense and challenging work because early childhood services and funding streams are fragmented, under-resourced, and historically inequitable. Start Early Consulting supports public sector leaders and advocates to ensure that early childhood systems are high-quality and aligned, resourced to be sustainable, and designed to serve children and families from historically marginalized communities.

Blue Meridian Partners recently invested in Start Early’s ability to build a sustainable consulting practice, and to provide consulting services pro bono to promote equity and quality in state and community systems. In summer 2023, we launched the Impact Initiative and put out a call for applications from public sector leaders and advocates in need of support with systems-level challenges focused on two key policy areas: home visiting and children with disabilities and developmental delays. Start Early brings deep policy and program experience and expertise in these areas and they represent services and families which are often under-served and isolated from broader early childhood systems work.

Systems leaders from across the country submitted 40 applications for support, leading to consulting engagements in a diverse set of eight states across the country: California, Colorado, Kentucky, New York, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Texas. Our Consulting team of former advocates, government leaders, program leaders, teachers and home visitors bring diverse lived and professional experiences to the initial cohort of state and local leaders to solve pressing policy and advocacy challenges.

For example, Start Early Consulting is supporting the Kentucky Early Intervention Providers Association (KEIPA), a new advocacy organization with a mission of supporting and advocating for the families they serve and the providers who serve them. KEIPA and Start Early will be partnering to create a 2024 policy agenda focused on increasing funding for critical Early Intervention services for young children and to build KEIPA’s capacity as a statewide early childhood advocacy leader in Kentucky.

Blue Meridian’s place-based, outcomes-focused approach to catalytic investments will improve the lives of children and families in these eight states and strengthen Start Early’s capacity to support additional systems leaders in the future. Learn more about Start Early Consulting on our website and please share widely with state and community leaders who could benefit from partnership with us.

Blue Meridian Partners is a pioneering philanthropic model for finding and funding scalable solutions to problems that limit economic and social mobility for America’s young people and families in poverty.

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We are excited to share our annual Start Early 2023 Year in Review, which showcases and celebrates accomplishments and growth from the last fiscal year (July 1, 2022 – June 30, 2023).

In 2023, we continued to promote equitable access to early learning programs and services that positively impact children and families.

2023 Year in Review: Promoting Equitable Access to Opportunity

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Start Early influences nearly every aspect of the early education system through our dedicated and holistic approach at local, state, and federal levels. Our emphasis on collaborating with parents and community leaders helps us provide young children with a strong, all-encompassing foundation to enable the most positive growth outcomes.

This work would not have been possible without the collaboration and efforts of our partners. With your help, Start Early will continue to work to create a sustainable early learning system that meets the needs of today’s youngest learners and the little ones of tomorrow.

With the close of Fiscal Year 2023, Start Early’s Illinois Policy team ended our inaugural, multi-year policy agenda. In launching that agenda, we wanted to try to capture the breadth of the work we do with our state and local elected officials and agencies to continuously strengthen and improve our early childhood programs, strengthen the early childhood workforce and to improve access to economic and health supports that we know are so critical for children and families to thrive. That agenda launched in the early months of not only a new governor’s term, but also a global pandemic.

Despite the strange mix of both hopefulness and uncertainty of that year, our team was focused on the kinds of change and progress we wanted to see for our state’s children and families – both now and in the years to come. Over those years, thanks to the leadership of Governor Pritzker and the members of the Illinois General Assembly, along with the tenacious advocacy of the early childhood community, we’ve seen:

  • Increased investments in early childhood programs* lifting our state commitment from just over $1 billion in FY21 to more than $1.5 billion in FY24.
  • A blueprint to re-imagine the early childhood system to ensure that families can find the services they want and need, and that those supports are available equitably across Illinois.
  • Use of federal COVID-relief funding to not only to respond to the unique needs of the pandemic, but also to lay the groundwork for changes toward the state’s long-term vision.
  • Increased attention towards better supporting the early childhood workforce for the critical work they do.
  • Efforts to ensure that our programs are able to enroll and serve families who too often face systemic barriers to participation – such as children with delays or disabilities, who are experiencing homelessness or who might come from a home where languages other than English are the primary.

Despite all of that progress, there is much work to do. We need to continue toward this new vision of our system, but recognize how many serious challenges are being experienced daily in early childhood programs – particularly to attract and retain folks into the early childhood workforce. The child care business model was already fraught before the pandemic. There is a great need for stronger federal partnership and funding to help states advance their early learning goals.

Our team was proud to lead and significantly contribute to so many advances over the past few years – and in our new multi-year agenda will lay out some of the key priorities of work yet to be done. We have a short window in the first five years to help children launch into school and life with the strongest foundation possible – opportunities are in front of us and we owe it to our youngest learners to do what we know needs to be done.

* Early Childhood Block Grant, Home Visiting, Early Intervention and the Child Care Assistance Program and the Early Childhood Construction Grant

Earlier today, Illinois Governor JB Pritzker announced the creation of a new, unified state agency focused on early childhood. This major undertaking, which will take place over several years, aims to simplify and streamline how families access critical early learning and care services – by better aligning and coordinating programs, data and policies.

Across the country, families with young children and those who care for them continue to navigate a complex, fragmented and under-resourced early care and learning system, making it challenging to meet the diverse needs of communities.

Illinois leaders and stakeholders have called for an early childhood agency that can more efficiently and equitably manage the range of services that young children and families need to thrive, and we are prepared and ready to design and implement this new governance structure with success.

For decades, Illinois has been a leader in prioritizing policies and investments that put children and families first and has built a robust early childhood system through deep public and private engagement, helping to ensure services reflect what families and providers need and value. This long history gives the current administration lessons to build upon and partnerships to harness as this new agency is designed and launched.

Start Early is excited to offer its longstanding experiences directly providing early childhood services and informing policy in Illinois as state leaders embark on this historic transformation of the governance and design of our early learning and care system.

“Today, the governor presented a unique, historic pledge to redesign and transform how we serve Illinois families with young children,” Start Early Vice President of Illinois Policy Ireta Gasner shares. “Start Early is eager to be a collaborator in this work. We know that we will have greater success when we bring the voices of the early childhood community alongside our government partners in this effort.”

As the backbone organization of Raising Illinois, a statewide public-private coalition of more than 1,400 parents, providers, advocates and policymakers working to achieve a better future for Illinois’ infants and toddlers, we have seen the power of what Illinoisans can contribute in driving transformational change. It will take the experiences of those on-the-ground in communities across the state for such a notable, positive and sustainable change to be made to our state’s early childhood infrastructure.

While the transition team works to establish the new agency, it remains critical for us to stay committed to the multi-year investments and program improvements outlined in the governor’s Smart Start plan. We must approve and implement substantial annual investments in all early childhood program to address early childhood workforce shortages and waiting lists for services, and to expand services to where families face disparities in accessing programs they need to work and for their children to thrive.

“The first five years of a child’s life are the most important for positive health and development, and our youngest Illinoisans are growing and learning right now,” Start Early President Diana Rauner states. “So, as we look toward this brighter future for how we serve Illinois families, Start Early remains steadfast in its efforts to reach more families with quality early learning experiences through transformational policies, investments and research.”

Start Early is proud to introduce Dr. Barbara J. Cooper as the Senior Vice President of Professional Learning. Dr. Cooper brings a wealth of experience and expertise in the field of education, particularly in early childhood education, and we are honored to have her on board.

In her role, Dr. Cooper will lead Start Early’s strategy to support and advance the early childhood workforce and oversee scaling the organization’s professional learning enterprise for professionals working in prenatal through PreK.

Dr. Cooper has made a remarkable impact at every stop throughout her career. In July 2020, she was appointed by Alabama Governor Kay Ivey as the Secretary of Early Childhood Education and also served as the Governor’s Birth through Grade 12 policy advisor. Starting in 2018, she played a crucial role in the administration of Alabama’s esteemed First Class Pre-K program as a part of the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education. Her contributions have significantly impacted the quality of early education in Alabama, garnering national recognition and serving as a model for others.

Dr. Cooper’s perspective will also be instrumental in advancing racial equity throughout all areas of our work as we continue our journey of being an anti-racist organization. That work will begin using the Educare Network’s recently published research agenda on advancing racial equity as a foundation. The agenda will serve as a guide and platform to bring about systemic change in early care and education — for children, families, and the workforce — so that equitable access and experiences become a reality for all. We are excited for Dr. Cooper’s leadership in spearheading Start Early’s efforts with early childhood professionals, culminating at the intersection of practice, policy, and research.

Additionally, Dr. Cooper was already familiar with Start Early’s work before joining, engaging with the Essential 0-5 Survey measurement system during her tenure in Alabama. This system functions as an assessment tool to better understand early education organizations and aid in improving their processes.

Originally from Chicago, she now resides in Montgomery, Alabama, with her husband, Walter. Together, they have three adult children and two precious grandchildren.

We are so pleased to have Barbara join the Start Early family!

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