Taking Action for Children and Families: Learning from the First 40 Communities

“The ultimate goal of a stronger, more seamless care and education continuum is to initiate and sustain a strong foundation for future success by providing effective learning opportunities across the infant-toddler years, preschool ages, and early grades in all settings.” (National Research Council, Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth through Age 8: A Unifying Foundation).[1]

“The broader lesson of our analysis is that social mobility should be tackled at a local level by improving childhood environments.” (Chetty and Hendron, The Impacts of Neighborhoods on Intergenerational Mobility)[2]

The United States is on the cusp of making a historic investment in early care and education (ECE).[3] This investment comes at a moment in time when the pandemic has exposed the fragmented and siloed nature of our early childhood systems in both urban and rural communities. Widespread racial protests have launched a national reckoning with pervasive racial inequities. Also, during the past two years, an important development has been taking place in the ECE world that can help inform our response to these challenges. Twenty-eight states across the United States have been hard at work improving state and local ECE systems, supported by $275 million of Preschool Development Grant Birth through Five (PDG B–5) funds. The aim of these efforts is to improve the quality of early childhood programs and services, including how programs and services work together in a coordinated fashion to best meet the needs of children and families. I suggest that state and local system-building efforts like those supported by PDG B–5 are essential to how we address learning loss in the aftermath of the pandemic, and how, as we expand access to ECE programs, we rebuild better, more equitable systems of care and education.

Over the past six years, my colleagues and I have collaborated with 40 communities in five states that are implementing coherent packages of coordinated strategies to improve outcomes for children and families during the first decade of children’s lives. These communities have established school-community partnerships that improve the quality of teaching and learning, coordinate comprehensive services, and deepen partnerships with families. In effect, these communities are working to create the overall community early childhood environments (through age 10) that ground-breaking research by Raj Chetty and colleagues at Harvard’s Opportunity Insights Project demonstrates is a primary driver of social mobility.[4]

One of these 40 communities, York City, Pennsylvania, is an urban environment in which 95% of students are in households with low incomes and 91% are students of color. The school district and its community partners are knitting together the supports they provide to children and families as they implement a comprehensive plan that includes school hubs that provide supports to families beginning at birth; a city-wide family engagement and parenting campaign; multiple series of school-connected play and learn group sessions for young children at different elementary schools across the city; extensive transition to kindergarten activities for children and families; ongoing joint professional learning for prekindergarten, Head Start, and kindergarten teachers; and a deep, years-long early literacy initiative based on the science of reading.

Another of these communities, Sacopee Valley, is a rural, largely white district in western Maine that serves five small towns. 60% of the student body is eligible for free and/or reduced lunch. In 2018–19, the community came together around a plan that includes a new series of play and learn groups for children ages 0–4 organized by the school district and the public library; a part-time social worker to facilitate comprehensive wrap-around supports; collaborative activities between prekindergarten and kindergarten students; opportunities for prekindergarten and kindergarten teachers to observe each other teach and work together to smooth the transition into kindergarten; the first ever outreach to community-based preschools in the area, which are now using a common student information form for all rising kindergarteners; and work in teacher professional learning communities, including for prekindergarten teachers, on using data and improving literacy and math instruction in the early grades of elementary school.

This post is the first of a 9-part series exploring what we can learn from the 40 communities we have worked with over the past several years, including York City and Sacopee Valley.* I argue that these place-based initiatives are one of the most powerful innovations at our disposal for promoting equity, improving outcomes for children, and strengthening families and communities. Spanning the early childhood—elementary school continuum, these partnerships implement effective, innovative strategies that help all children learn and thrive.

Early Childhood Fundamental Challenge #3

PDG B–5 addresses a critical need, the third of three fundamental ECE challenges the United States must tackle in order to promote equity and improve outcomes for children and families in households with low incomes and families of color. More than ever in recent years, policymakers recognize the importance of increasing access to high-quality ECE (Challenge #1) and understand that doing so sustainably and equitably requires professionalizing the early childhood workforce and improving the compensation of early childhood educators (Challenge #2). Happily, we see this increased understanding, for instance, in Elizabeth Warren’s advocacy and in the White House’s Build Back Better legislation.

The seminal National Research Council report, Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth through Age 8: A Unifying Foundation, marshalled decades of evidence to effectively frame the critical importance of these two fundamental challenges.[5] As such, it functions as an apt marker of the progress that has been made in the last six years in terms of promoting understanding of these issues. Transforming the Workforce, however, also marshalled evidence to effectively frame Challenge #3: the stark contrast between (1) the needs of children and families for high-quality community programs and services that are coordinated and aligned and thus that ensure the continuity of experiences throughout childhood and (2) the pervasive fragmentation that characterizes American ECE systems at the both the state and local levels. Again happily, it is this challenge that PDG B–5 and a wide range of similar cross-sector initiatives are attempting to address.

About the Learning from the First 40 Communities Series

PDG B–5 is part of a broad societal pattern of cross-sector collaboration for education.[6] Examples of related cross-sector initiatives include state-sponsored local early childhood collaboratives in over 20 states,[7] United Way Success by Six partnerships, Early Learning Communities, the By All Means network, a recent Office of Head Start Collaboration Demonstration Project, and perhaps most prominently, cradle-to-career collective impact initiatives such as the Harlem Children’s Zone, Promise Neighborhoods, and StriveTogether.

I have collaborated with and studied cross-sector partnerships focused on children and families for many years, and in 2017 I began a research-to-practice study funded by the Heising-Simons Foundation. I interviewed national experts to identify 18 communities that were taking comprehensive approaches to improving programs and services for children and families, interviewed leaders in these communities, and conducted site visits to six communities for a study published in 2019, All Children Learn and Thrive: Building First 10 Schools and Communities.[8] The All Children Learn and Thrive study included case studies of innovative communities as well as a proposed First 10 framework intended to serve as a guide to action for school-community partnerships focused on children and families.

The First 10 Theory of Action

Over the past several years, as we provided technical assistance to early childhood—elementary school partnerships, I have shared the First 10 approach and what I learned from communities such as Boston (MA), Omaha (NE), Multnomah County (OR), Normal (IL), Cincinnati (OH), and others with 32 urban and rural communities in Alabama, Maine, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island, work that is now expanding to Michigan. With a team of colleagues, I have also supported 8 additional communities in Rhode Island in developing and implementing comprehensive Transition to Kindergarten plans, a critical component of First 10 plans. Along with the exemplar communities described in the All Children study, the experience of these roughly 40 communities informs this series of blog posts.

Distinctive Characteristics and Initial Lessons

As noted, First 10 schools and communities develop coherent plans that span the full early childhood—elementary school continuum and focus on improving teaching and learning in classrooms, coordinating comprehensive services, and deepening partnerships with families. These plans draw on the strategies and practices pioneered by the exemplar communities in the All Children Learn and Thrive report as well as other communities implementing the First 10 approach. They build capacity to implement strategies effectively as partnerships through both school-based and community-wide structures and by managing plan implementation and using progress benchmarks to drive change. Finally, First 10 partnerships work to strengthen communities while improving outcomes for children and families by explicitly attending to developing trust, social capital among families and organizations, and a service-to-our-community orientation.

Characteristics of the First 10 Approach

Initial lessons learned from the experience of the 40 First 10 and Transition to Kindergarten communities profiled in the forthcoming posts this series include:

1. First 10 partnerships can play a powerful role as a place-based strategy advancing educational and racial equity in urban, rural, and suburban communities. Neighborhoods and communities exert influence on children and families and contribute to educational inequities and racial inequities. First 10 partnerships can help address these inequities by providing targeted resources and supports to communities that have fewer resources, increasing access to effective learning approaches, increasing access to comprehensive services, building strong relationships with families, and promoting family wellness and leadership.[9]

2. Communities can establish First 10 partnerships and begin implementing effective strategies with relatively small amounts of seed funding. In doing so, they build a platform and the capacity for ongoing collaboration. Fully addressing the challenge of improving quality and alignment will require additional funding as the movement continues to gain momentum.

3. Creating school-community partnerships that span the early childhood—elementary school continuum makes possible a range of promising strategies that would not be feasible if implemented only within early childhood programs or only within the K–12 system. These include:

  • Shared community-wide approaches to supporting families and common community-wide parenting campaigns
  • Comprehensive transition to kindergarten plans that include ongoing collaboration between ECE and kindergarten educators on teaching and learning in classrooms
  • Community-wide approaches to improving social-emotional learning, literacy, and math in early grades’ classrooms that include alignment across district, Head Start, and community-based classrooms
  • Structural innovations such as First 10 community school hubs (discussed in Post #3) and school-connected play and learn groups (Post #5)
  • The potential for even deeper collaborat ion between larger nonprofits and school districts as well as for more ambitious strategies, including home visiting system-building and communities of practice for family childcare providers and early childhood centers

The Learning from the First 40 series includes the following posts:

  1. Communities Take Action for Children and Families: Learning from the First 40 Communities (this post)
  2. Promoting Educational and Racial Equity through Cross-Sector Partnerships for Children and Families
  3. Getting Started with First 10: Community Partnerships, School Hubs, and Work Currently Underway
  4. Strategy #1: Collaborate to Improve Teaching and Learning
  5. Strategy #2: Coordinate Comprehensive Services
  6. Strategy #3: Deepen Partnerships with Families in Culturally-Responsive Ways
  7. Lead Strategically and Continuously Improve
  8. The Role of States, Regions, and Networks
  9. Conclusions and Initial Lessons

Check back in two weeks for Post #2: Promoting Educational and Racial Equity through Cross-Sector Partnerships for Children and Families.

*I am grateful to the following reviewers for their valuable feedback on this blog post series: Laura Bornfreund, Kim Elliott, Rolf Grafwallner, Isabelle Hau, Jennifer LoCasale-Crouch, Joan Lombardi, Caitlin O’Connor, and Deborah Stipek. Special thanks to Kim Elliott for her thoughtful editing support.

[1] National Research Council, Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth Through Age 8: A Unifying Foundation (Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2015), 211.

[2] Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendron, The Impacts of Neighborhoods on Intergenerational Mobility: Childhood Exposure Effects and County-Level Estimates [Executive Summary] (Cambridge, MA Harvard University, 2015), 6.

[3] ECE includes Head Start programs, state-funded prekindergarten programs, community-based preschools, and family childcare providers.

[4] “Neighborhoods Matter: Children’s lives are shaped by the neighborhood they grow up in,” Opportunity Insights, Harvard University accessed April 6, 2021, https://opportunityinsights.org/neighborhoods/.

[5] National Research Council, Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth Through Age 8: A Unifying Foundation.

[6] Jeffrey R. Henig et al., Putting collective impact in context: A review of the literature on local cross-sector collaboration to improve education (New York, NY: Teachers College, Columbia University, Department of Education Policy and Social Analysis, 2015).

[7] Gerry Cobb and Karen Ponder, The Nuts and Bolts of Building Early Childhood Systems through State/Local Initiatives (Build Initiative, 2014).

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

[9] Erin Hardy et al., Advancing Racial Equity through Neighborhood-Informed Early Childhood Policies: A Research and Policy Review (Waltham, MA: diversitydatakids.org, 2021); S.  Meek et al., Start With Equity: 14 Priorities To Dismantle Systemic Racism in Early Care and Education (The Children’s Equity Project, 2020), https://childandfamilysuccess.asu.edu/cep; “Neighborhoods Matter: Children’s lives are shaped by the neighborhood they grow up in.”

Spotlight on Closing the Achievement Gap for Young Students: Social Justice, Virtual Learning, COVID, and Beyond

(c) Burt Granofsky/EDC

Was recently surprised and honored to be included in the Education Week Spotlight. See articles on COVID-related learning loss, advice from Nell Duke, the impact of phonics on math, our national racial reckoning, and First 10.

Spotlight on Closing the Achievement Gap for Young Students

The Way Forward: Reinventing Early Childhood Education After COVID-19

Burt Granosky/EDC

COVID-19 has exposed a fundamental truth about our systems of education, health, and social services: They are fragmented and siloed, thwarting efforts to improve the quality of learning and care for children. Nowhere is this clearer than in the schools, preschools, and community programs that serve the 44% of U.S. children under 9 identified as low-income. The lack of collaboration and shared vision among these systems means that the extraordinary efforts of people who work on the frontlines are severely handicapped in meeting the needs of children and families.

As we rethink national and state education policies, and as we rebuild schooling and caregiving, we must ensure that the schools and programs that serve children and their families work together at the local level where it matters most.

For over a decade, I’ve studied the work of innovative communities nationwide where just this sort of collaboration is in full force. Preschools, elementary schools, and community health and social service organizations join forces to create and carry out a clear equity agenda that focuses on improving the quality of life for low-income children and their families and children of color and their families. Their successes provide a road map to reinventing early childhood education that begins with three core design principles:

Connect Early Years and Early Grades. When early childhood and K–12 educators collaborate, they can ensure high-quality learning for children. Yet this seldom happens. Instead, we have created two systems with very different philosophies and practices for children of similar ages. The innovative communities that I’ve studied bring early childhood programs together with elementary schools to align curricula, work on how best to teach young children, and develop common approaches to supporting families. As a result, children’s learning can proceed smoothly, consistently, and successfully.

Deepen Partnerships with Families. It’s time to move beyond “random acts of family engagement” like occasional back-to-school nights. Research shows that families play a vital role in children’s success in school, and schools and communities must make two major shifts to support families in this role. The first shift is one of mindset: begin with respect for families and their contributions, be responsive to families’ cultural traditions, invite families to participate as full partners in school affairs, and promote families’ development as leaders. These changes must be coupled with new structures to support families with comprehensive services such as family liaison positions, family resource centers, and well-thought-out partnerships with health and social service agencies.

Strengthen Communities. Harvard’s Opportunity Insights project has shown that of all government policies, investments in low-income children have the highest returns and pay for themselves. The project’s researchers have also demonstrated that the neighborhoods where children grow up have enormous impacts on children’s future social mobility. They conclude that, “The broader lesson of our analysis is that social mobility should be tackled at a local level by improving childhood environments.” Here the first two design principles come together with a third: the most powerful way to improve childhood environments is to implement comprehensive strategies across the elementary schools, early childhood programs, and health and social service agencies that serve children and families in the same community.

Translating principles into action: How does life change for children in these communities? Communities in Maine, Nebraska, Oregon, and Pennsylvania are improving home visiting, family childcare, preschool, and Head Start programs. They are finding new, more effective ways to help children acquire key literacy, math, and social-emotional skills. Families are receiving the health, mental health, and social service support they need to build on their strengths and overcome challenges. Schools, preschools, and community agencies are coordinating their work: sharing data, aligning curricula, supporting children and families through the transition to kindergarten, and leading community-wide campaigns on parenting, school attendance, and early literacy. They are sustaining this work during COVID-19. These communities are demonstrating how to create coherent systems. They are showing us the way forward to better futures for children and families.

Access to High-Quality Early Education and Racial Equity (NIEER)


Excerpt from a NIEER special report:

“The death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers has focused the nation’s attention on the unequal treatment of Black Americans. Black children experience unequal treatment beginning at an early age, which contributes to inequalities in learning and development.

By the time they enter kindergarten, Black children are on average nearly nine months behind in math and almost seven months behind in reading compared to their White non-Hispanic peers (See Figure 1). Math and reading abilities at kindergarten entry are powerful predictors of later school success, and children who enter kindergarten behind are unlikely to catch up.

High quality early childhood education (ECE) programs can help all children enter kindergarten with the foundational academic and social-emotional skills they need to succeed. However, access to high quality ECE in the U.S. is low and unequal. [Emphasis added.]”

Special Report: Access to High-Quality Early Education and Racial Equity (NIEER)

Racial Inequity and the First 10 Years: 4 Resources

LA Johnson/NPR

To start off what will be on ongoing discussion thread on first10.org, here are four resources on race and equity in the early childhood and elementary school years.

Bias Isn’t Just A Police Problem, It’s A Preschool Problem (NPR)

4 Ways Racial Inequity Harms American Schoolchildren (NPR)

Equity in Early Childhood Education (New America)

A Message From NAEYC: We Stand Together (NAEYC)

A Commitment to Racial Justice and Equity

A photo collage representing A Commitment to Racial Justice and Equity—A Message from EDC

First 10 begins with a commitment to educational and racial equity. The goal of First 10 is for all children to learn and thrive. This goal encompasses academic and social emotional learning and physical and mental health as priorities. Realizing this educational equity goal requires that communities ensure that all children have opportunities and supports to enable their success and eliminate the predictability of success or failure that currently correlates with social, economic, racial, and cultural factors.

Published on June 3 by EDC’s President and CEO, Dave Offensend:

Once again, our country is grappling with its racist reality: the continuous and systemic oppression of Black members of our communities. Spurred by a new spate of high-profile incidents involving hatred and police brutality, people across the nation and around the world have taken to the streets to protest and show their outrage. EDC joins in that outrage and stands in solidarity with everyone committed to ending racism, injustice, and inequity.

As a nation, we still have a long way to go. The problems we are facing in the United States are not new, neither are the feelings of anger, frustration, fear, and anxiety that many of us feel today. Americans cannot sit idly by as such violence and injustice continues, and EDC will not do so either.

EDC will:

  • Continue to promote equity for all people in the work we do. We know how much work still remains. We remain committed to prioritizing and enhancing efforts to end racism, injustice, and inequity as expressed in our Equity Principles.
  • Encourage self-awareness of implicit biases that foster structural and societal inequities.
  • Actively promote equity, diversity, and inclusion within EDC, at all levels of the organization, in the ways in which we recruit and promote staff at all levels of the organization, and in how we interact with and learn from one another.

We appreciate that the problem of racism in our country has existed for centuries and will not be eradicated quickly or easily. Yet, we remain committed to being part of the solution. We look forward to listening, especially to our Black colleagues within EDC and the communities we serve, and continuing to work with our partners to develop concrete actions we can take together. I am confident that if we all remain committed to this course, we can provide a better future for America.

David Offensend signature