Pre-to-3: Coalitions in 6 states join growing ‘Early Learning Nation’

This latest Pre-to-3 column highlights a new tool for planning communitywide initiatives focusing on school readiness. Past installments of Pre-to-3 can be found here.  

When Building Our Future began in Kenosha County, Wisconsin, in 2016, one of the first goals the nonprofit set in the area of early learning was increasing the rate of developmental screenings being conducted.

And in 2018, almost twice as many young children were screened with the Ages and Stages Questionnaire-3 compared to the previous year. Reports also showed more parents were becoming familiar with developmental milestones. 

But not every representative from the early-childhood field saw themselves as part of reaching that very specific goal, explains Lynn Debilzen, who manages birth-to-8 efforts for the organization.

“We needed to take a wider view of the early-childhood landscape,” Debilzen explains. 

Building Our Future found that opportunity by becoming one of six new sites on the map of the Early Learning Nation — a foundation- and nonprofit-backed initiative that gives communities a plan for strengthening existing early-childhood efforts and including a broad range of local partners.

The sites — also including Austin, Minnesota; Cincinnati, Ohio; Pocatello, Idaho; Walker County, Alabama; and Stanislaus County, California — are part of a new ELN cohort using a digital “progress rating tool” developed by the Center for the Study of Social Policy and the National League of Cities. 

As part of the StriveTogether network, which includes 68 sites across the country working toward “cradle-to-career” systems, the local organizations also receive technical assistance and coaching as they build their plans.

Members of the Building Our Future’s Smart Beginnings network gather for an online meeting.

Building Our Future


Working toward ‘shared goals’

The process, which lasts about four months, is based on four “building blocks”:

  • Community leadership, commitment and public will.
  • Quality services that work for young children and their families.
  • Neighborhoods where families can thrive.
  • Policies that support and are responsive to families.

Within each of those areas, the participating networks have some “action steps” to complete.

Being part of ELN is “perfect for communities that are just getting started in the work,” said Heidi Black, the director of collaborative improvement for StriveTogether. “It’s an incredible framework and structure for how … we work across sectors to support children and families.”

A health department and a school district, for example, approach issues facing young children from very different perspectives, Debilzen said. But both are able to make a commitment because they see “different organizations owning different actions.”

In Alabama, being part of the cohort is a way to expand the state’s well-regarded First Class Pre-K program into Walker County, one of five counties targeted by the Bold Goals Coalition

“This opportunity allowed us to engage local early learning advocates, direct providers, community leaders and public officials to establish a group of stakeholders working together to improve the early learning continuum in Walker County,” Elyse Peters, assistant vice president for community impact for United Way of Central Alabama, and Suzanne Snow, a school readiness coordinator with the county, wrote in a joint email.

Being part of ELN created a structure that was previously lacking, they said. A local social services agency is also applying for an Early Head Start grant to serve infants and toddlers.

Jasper City Schools Superintendent Ann Jackson, at the easel, meets with other community members of the Bold Goals Coalition, such as business and early-childhood leaders.

Bold Goals Coalition


Roughly 30 communities nationally have used the platform so far, adds Cailin O’Connor, a senior associate with the Center for the Study of Social Policy. In fact, she invites anyone to explore the tool by registering and saying they are part of the “demo community for kids.” 

But while the tool might be useful for any group, many of the steps “really require some kind of convening power, some kind of funding stream,” O’Connor adds.

In Cincinnati, using the ELN tool and planning process is a way to make a variety of already-established early learning organizations easier to navigate for families, said Heather Gerker, the manager for early learning success at the Strive Partnership.

“While Cincinnati has many local leaders seemingly prioritizing early childhood, and there are many bright spots,” Gerker said, “we have not driven these to scale, nor do we have shared strategies around shared goals.”

Then the pandemic hit

When officials issued stay-at-home orders, program leaders in Cincinnati moved from in-person to virtual meetings and shifted their attention toward coordinating their responses to needs in the community. 

“We anticipate the action plan the network creates will be much different than it had been prior to the pandemic,” Gerker said.

Representatives from early-childhood organizations in Cincinnati at their meeting in late February, before moving to virtual gatherings.

Strive Partnership


In Kenosha, Building Our Future has been holding virtual screenings of the “No Small Matter” documentary to increase awareness of research related to early-childhood learning and development. In some ways, Debilzen adds, having virtual gatherings has increased participation among individuals who might have had to drive an hour to attend an event.

“For a lot of partners, the work has changed, but it hasn’t stopped,” she said.

The network still expects to have a plan written by the end of June and is focusing on increasing “listening sessions” with parents to better understand the challenges they are facing. Members have also agreed on the measures they will use to track progress, such as the number and percentage of children living in child care “deserts,” and school readiness indicators such as persistence.

“It’s hard to engage in collective impact work if you don’t know what you’re measuring,” Debilzen said.

And in central Alabama, stay-at-home orders have led early learning advocates to try out new parent engagement strategies, such as text messaging.

As with K-12, the pandemic has also drawn attention to disparities in access to services for young children, particularly child care, O’Connor adds. 

“We don’t know how many are going to reopen. We don’t know what that is going to mean for families,” she said. “We’re going to have a real reckoning around what we value.”

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