As a child, I felt the power of a strong community that cared for its children and families. I spent my childhood in a very small town in rural Illinois where everyone looked after each other, helping care for children while parents worked or driving a family to the doctor when their car wouldn’t start.
As an adult, I’ve spent most of my professional life thinking about early childhood systems at the state level—helping state leaders figure out which programs and policies best support children’s development and learning. Living in North Carolina over the past 30 years, I’ve seen the importance of community-based early childhood initiatives (i.e., Smart Start in my state) but have been struck anew recently by the power of local leaders and community members coming together to improve the lives of young children and their families. I saw it in the work accomplished by rural community teams as part of the Transformation Zone in North Carolina’s Early Learning Challenge grant. And I heard about it from leaders in communities, big and small, at the Building our Future meeting.
This meeting was organized by Child Trends, with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the George Kaiser Family Foundation, to examine the innovative efforts of three communities to support young children’s development. Each community chose a different path to a common goal. In Tulsa, community-based coordination efforts surround and supported its Educare program (a high-quality early care and education program). In Durham, the community launched the East Durham Children’s Initiative a neighborhood-based initiative that addresses health, family support, early learning, and education. In yet another strategy, Oregon is expanding the common notion of community by demonstrating the role of state government in supporting community-based early childhood initiatives through its regionally-based Early Learning Hubs.
Following the meeting, Child Trends synthesized important themes and lessons in a just-released report. Although each of these communities are unique and approached its work differently, there are five themes that connect all their work.
- It is important to use data to document progress toward goals and to guide decisions. Leaders from these communities talked about the importance of having clear goals and outcomes, as well as of gathering data to determine whether progress is being made. Some communities had data available, whereas other communities are still developing the necessary systems to gather the data.
- The success of a community-based effort relies, in part, on the broader supports and services at a city, county, or state level. Communities (e.g., neighborhoods, cities) exist within larger ecosystems (e.g., counties, states) and can build on the existing efforts of the larger ecosystem. For instance, a neighborhood-based effort is more likely to help families of children who are at risk for later school failure to enroll in high-quality early care and education programs if there are adequate numbers of high-quality programs and child care subsidy resources in the county.
- To be successful, an initiative has to meet the needs of the community. Each community has its own strengths and challenges. What works for one community may not work for another. Thus, early childhood initiatives that are grounded in the community must include families and community leaders in their development and implementation.
- Sustaining a community-based initiative requires intentional, ongoing effort. Sustainability requires aligning the effort with broader goals of the community, city, county, region, or state. It also requires building a coalition of leaders, partners, businesses, and families to guide the work and communicate its importance. (For more information about sustaining local early childhood initiatives, see Local Systems Building Through Coalitions.)
- Success encompasses evidence-based programs, innovation, and coordination. To reach the outcomes of interest, these communities implemented evidence-based programs whenever possible, created new strategies to fill gaps when needed, and coordinated across programs. A collection of programs will not necessarily lead to success; coordination among the programs and partners is important to ensure that everyone remains focused on the shared goals and understands how their particular piece of the work affects others’ work.
The three featured communities demonstrate the power of community members coming together to change the lives of young children by strengthening the early childhood systems in their communities. Their stories and successes are important to share so that we can spread community-based early childhood initiatives that can help change the life trajectories of children. At the Building our Future meeting, Jim Marks, executive vice president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, expressed a sense of urgency that we act now. “The science is clear, and the need is great,” he said. “We may not know all we wish we knew but we need to act now. If we wait five years, we lose a generation.”