Promoting Educational and Racial Equity through Cross-Sector Partnerships for Children and Families (Post #2)

The first post in this series described how the first 40 First 10 and transition to kindergarten communities are working to improve quality and alignment and address early childhood challenge #3 (i.e., local system-building). I also previewed some of the lessons this blog series will explore. In this second post, I show how First 10 partnerships are funded, how they are advancing equity by using this funding to support children and families who live in low-income households, and how some partnerships are combining First 10 with anti-racism efforts.

“The tragic fact remains true in this country: children’s outcomes are predicted by their demographic characteristics, the color of their skin, their family’s income bracket, and their home language. These inequities begin before birth and follow children into the early care and education (ECE) system, one of the first systems with which they interact. Indeed, grave inequities in children’s access to, experiences in, and outcomes during and after early learning vary drastically based on what a child looks like, where they live, what language they speak, and where they are from.”[1]

“The opportunity to finally bring about equitable change across America’s systems, including the early learning and education systems, is as ripe as it has been in a generation.”[2]

Local school-community partnerships that carry out effective strategies to improve the quality and coordination of the supports communities provide to children and families are one of the most powerful strategies we have to address the “grave inequities” referenced above. In conjunction with increasing access to high-quality ECE programs and improving workforce compensation, cross-sectoral collaboration focused on the first decade of children’s lives has significant potential to improve outcomes for children and families who live in low-income households. This includes those most affected by current and historical racism and marginalization and those living in rural areas. A recent call to action on advancing equity in ECE from the Children’s Equity Project and eight other organizations recommends the field take the following four actions (among several others), all of which can be advanced by cross-sector community partnerships: [3]  

  • Direct resources and comprehensive supports to communities that have less access to resources
  • Increase access to learning approaches that are developmentally-appropriate, child-centered, and effective
  • Expand access to comprehensive services
  • Engage families by eliciting input, building parent-teacher relationships, and promoting family wellness and leadership

Cross-sector community partnerships focused on children and families are place-based system-building strategies explicitly designed to support residents in households with low incomes and address these priorities. Like the Northside Achievement Zone in Minneapolis, these initiatives are designed to have, “a direct impact on a critical mass of students and families in a single neighborhood [or community] with the goal of tipping the entire neighborhood in a positive direction.”[4] These local initiatives can, “also serve as a model that could inform larger policy decisions in the city and state and be replicated in other locales.”[5]

A new policy report by the diversitydatakids.org project at Brandeis University explicitly makes the connection between place-based early childhood system-building strategies and racial equity. “Advancing Racial Equity through Neighborhood-Informed Early Childhood Policies: A Research and Policy Review” shows that not only do neighborhoods shape access to ECE, they can also affect children’s developmental risk. Further, according to the report’s authors, inequalities in the characteristics of neighborhoods, “systematically translate into racial inequalities, even among poor children,” meaning that children of color are more likely to grow up in neighborhoods that contribute to their developmental risk.

Based on their review of the research, the Brandeis team argues that comprehensive early childhood systems of care and learning for vulnerable children that are, “based on where [the children] live, could improve children’s opportunities for healthy development, and advance racial equity.” The authors hold up Preschool Development Grant Birth through Five (PDG B–5) as a federal grant program that supports neighborhood-informed approaches and conclude by recommending that states and communities break down silos and “support cross-agency visioning, planning and coordination to support comprehensive neighborhood early childhood systems.”[6]

The work of First 10 school-community partnerships is aligned to these calls to action from the Children’s Equity Project and diversitydatakids.org. First 10 partnerships draw on the inspiration of exemplar communities as they develop focused plans to implement three core system-building strategies across the early childhood–elementary school continuum. Below I describe how the exemplars that inspired the First 10 model (see the All Children Learn and Thrive study) and the first 40 First 10 and Transition to Kindergarten communities are using local, regional, state, and federal funds in targeted ways to support children and families in low-income households (the first Children’s Equity Project bullet above). I also describe how exemplar and First 10 communities are working to address racism explicitly and include the voices of families of color in their work. As this blog series continues, I show how First 10 partnerships address other facets of the Children’s Equity Project’s call to action: improving teaching and learning (Post #4), coordinating comprehensive services (Post #5), and deepening partnerships with families in culturally responsive ways (Post #6).

Place-Based Equity Initiatives: Funding the Exemplar Communities

As suggested by this excerpt from Multnomah County’s Sun Service System Theory of Change in Oregon, the exemplar communities that inspired First 10 are committed to advancing educational equity. In their work to improve outcomes for all children, they are focusing on significantly strengthening the quality of programs and services for children and families in low-income households and children and families of color.

The SUN Service System in Multnomah County provides a good example of a concrete manifestation of this commitment to educational equity. SUN contracts with nonprofit agencies across the county to staff 90 community schools with community school site managers (discussed further below). SUN has now mandated that over 60% of these agencies be culturally-specific organizations with the linguistic and cultural expertise to effectively support diverse families. This policy resulted in a shift in which some nonprofit agencies lost contracts that were awarded to culturally-specific agencies.[7]

Likewise, the Metro Omaha Birth-through-Third grade pilot project is supported by a half-cent levy by two counties to fund a plan that was required by the state legislature to encourage equity throughout the 11-district Metro Omaha region and focuses on under-resourced communities.[8] And Cambridge, Massachusetts has invested over $10 million over 5 years to support the implementation of its Birth-to-3rd grade plan, which is squarely focused on supporting families who are racially and ethnically diverse and live in low-income households.[9] These three examples from communities profiled in the All Children study set the stage for the following examples of how First 10 communities are directing resources and comprehensive supports to those with less access. 

Place-Based Equity Initiatives: Funding First 10 Communities

The initial 40 First 10 and Transition to Kindergarten communities have been supported by a variety of funding sources. These sources range from a combination of philanthropic, regional, and state funds in Pennsylvania to state and federal funds in Maine, Rhode Island, Alabama, and Michigan. In all of these cases the funding has covered technical assistance from Education Development Center (EDC) as well as grants to the First 10 communities of $10,000 to $30,000 annually to cover stipends and initial First 10 activities (e.g., play and learn groups and joint PreK-Kindergarten professional learning).

The work in Pennsylvania began with a United Way Collective Impact grant to Lancaster County’s Community Action Partnership, which in turn funded five First 10 partnerships in communities with large numbers of families in households with low-incomes. Four of these communities were rural and largely white. The fifth was the largest elementary school in Lancaster City, George Washington Elementary. The demographics of George Washington’s student body are as follows: 560 students, 96% of students are eligible for free or reduced price lunch, 98% are students of color, 28% of students are English Language Learners, and 5% of students have families without homes.

Pennsylvania’s Early Learning Resource Center for Regions 9 and 10 then drew on state funds to fund eight additional First 10 communities across several counties in South Central, Pennsylvania. Again, all served significant numbers of students in households with low incomes. As the state funding ran out at the end of 2020, the Early Learning Resource Center was able to raise funds from a consortium of six county funders in York County, funding York City and a small rural community, the Northeastern school district. York City is a district of approximately 6,100 students—91% are students of color, and 95% are eligible for free or reduced price lunch. The School District of the City of York is also supporting its First 10 initiative with district funds.

Maine’s First 10 initiative was funded by the first Preschool Development Grant award from the federal government. While geared toward expanding prekindergarten access, these grants included a criterion for early childhood–elementary school alignment. With this criterion in mind, in addition to forming a state inter-agency First 10 team, Maine funded 13 First 10 partnerships in communities with significant numbers of families in households with low incomes: one in urban and economically-distressed Lewiston and 12 in rural communities. (For more information, see Building Systems in Tandem: Maine’s State and Local Initiatives to Improve Outcomes for Children.)

Rhode Island began its Transition to Kindergarten initiative using a combination of state and PDG funds. It selected primarily urban communities with large populations of racially and ethnically diverse residents who live in low-income households. Rhode Island is currently using PDG B–5 funds to support ongoing transition to kindergarten work as well as three First 10 communities in small urban cities—East Providence, Johnston, and Woonsocket—work that is expanding to Providence in 2022.

Alabama is likewise using PDG B–5 funding to support one urban (mostly Black) community and one rural (mostly White) community, both of which have large populations of residents who live in low-income households. Michigan is using PDG B–5 funds to launch several urban and rural First 10 partnerships in 2022.

Finally, in York, Pennsylvania and East Providence, Rhode Island, both cities with large numbers of households with low incomes, leaders are targeting resources to the most under-resourced families by establishing First 10 Community School Hubs (described further in the next post) in the elementary schools that serve the highest proportions of children who are eligible to receive free or reduced-price meals.

First 10, Equity, and Anti-Racism

First 10 communities and the exemplar communities that inspired them are pairing their quality and coordination work to improve outcomes for children and families by explicitly addressing racism. The projects in Multnomah County, Metro Omaha, and Cambridge have all made explicit anti-racism commitments, have established a variety of mechanisms to involve families of color in decision-making, and are targeting resources to neighborhoods that have been historically marginalized. As one example, the White principal of a participating school in Metro Omaha called all of her families of color after the George Floyd killings and associated racial protests to ask for their input on the school’s work, and now she has formed and meets regularly with an advisory group composed of families of color.

York City, PA, is also forming a family and community advisory group comprised largely of families of color to provide direction to the city’s First 10 initiatives. And York is pairing its comprehensive First 10 initiative with a robust equity agenda and cultural competence training initiative, one that the senior leadership team is engaging in deeply and regularly. The First 10 initiative in Woonsocket, RI has made bilingual teaching and learning and culturally-responsive books and materials central to its First 10 initiative.

Moving forward, to realize their potential, First 10 partnership communities serving children and families of color will need to track, publicize, and respond to disaggregated achievement results, deepen their use of culturally-responsive materials, and make effective, authentic use of family and community advisory groups and complementary anti-racism initiatives.

Next post: Getting Starting with First 10: Community Partnerships, School Hubs, and Work Currently Underway


[1] S.  Meek et al., Start With Equity: 14 Priorities To Dismantle Systemic Racism in Early Care and Education (The Children’s Equity Project, 2020), 3, https://childandfamilysuccess.asu.edu/cep.

[2] Children’s Equity Project and Bipartisan Policy Center, Start with Equity: From the Early Years to the Early Grades (Children’s Equity Project and Bipartisan Policy Center, 2020), 6.

[3] Meek et al., Start With Equity: 14 Priorities To Dismantle Systemic Racism in Early Care and Education, 5-7, 11, 16.

[4] C.J. Riehl et al., Building Impact: A Closer Look at Local Cross-Sector Collaborations for Education (New York: Columbia University Teachers College, 2019).

[5] Riehl et al., Building Impact: A Closer Look at Local Cross-Sector Collaborations for Education, 108.

[6] Erin Hardy et al., Advancing Racial Equity through Neighborhood-Informed Early Childhood Policies: A Research and Policy Review (Waltham, MA: diversitydatakids.org, 2021), 7-8.

[7] David Jacobson, All Children Learn and Thrive: Building First 10 Schools and Communities (Waltham, MA: Education Development Center, 2019), 25-29.

[8] Jacobson, All Children Learn and Thrive: Building First 10 Schools and Communities, 32-36.

[9] Jacobson, All Children Learn and Thrive: Building First 10 Schools and Communities, 69-73.

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