Birth to Five seeking to boost local early childhood services

A new infrastructure attempts to meet the needs of Illinois early childhood at a local level.

Birth to Five Illinois is a statewide early childhood infrastructure aimed at bringing the voices of communities, families and providers to the forefront of local and state policy making.

The group was formed in February 2022 by the state and the Illinois Network of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies after the Illinois Commission on Equitable Early Childhood Education and Care Funding recommended creating a formal pathway to receive contributions from the community.

Birth to Five Illinois has more than 56 regions, two of which cover most of west-central Illinois. Each region has formed two councils – one for community members who have a personal or professional interest in serving young children and their families, the other a family council through which parents and other caregivers share ideas about their needs and how to address them can improve programs.

Region 1 councils – which cover Adams, Brown, Cass, Morgan, Pike and Scott counties – are chaired by Bridget English, a former educator and case manager. 40 Region Councils – covering Calhoun, Greene, Jersey and Macoupin counties are run by Keppen Clanton, a former school administrator and science teacher.

English said nothing like Birth to Five had been done before.

“We often have very well-meaning people sitting centrally in Springfield or Chicago making decisions for the rest of the state,” she said, “and we know that often they don’t have all the information available. It’s our job to gather this information and make sure it gets to the right people so they can make decisions based on local needs.”

The Action Council analyzes region-specific data for children up to age 5, while the Family Council looks at the information from a “family perspective” and sees whether it is consistent with their experiences, Clanton said.

Birth to Five’s current near-term goal is to conduct a survey that analyzes the demographic, programmatic, workforce and facility landscape in all of its regions and examines what early childhood services need in each location, English said. The analysis is based on insights from each region’s councils, Clanton said.

The survey is expected to be completed in June and sent to the governor’s Office of Early Education, lawmakers and local stakeholders shortly thereafter, English and Clanton said. Each region will then make some key recommendations for their districts based on the results of the survey.

“Once we complete the scans, we will issue those recommendations,” English said, “and then we will work to help regions achieve those recommendations.”

Region 1 has pockets of many immigrants who need expanded language support, English said. Birth to Five is also only publicly funded in the region to support 5% of its children aged up to 3, she said. The region’s top four needs so far are language, specialized services, transport and labour.

“There’s a nationwide teacher shortage,” English said. “Early Childhood is no exception. We will look at how we can drive growth in the pipeline for these specific early childhood positions.”

Region 40 had 5,000 children ages 5 and younger but only 2,000 available places in publicly funded programs and childcare services, with some counties having no childcare available at all, Clanton said. Early intervention services are also in short supply in the region, she said, and the interventionists that exist there are being thinned out.

The portion of the state between Interstate 72 near Jacksonville and Springfield and Interstate 70 south of Alton has been described by some as a “wasteland,” Clanton said.

“We don’t have collaborations, not just in early childhood, but we don’t have collaborations with big companies,” she said. “We don’t have any technology partnerships. We have become a kind of wasteland and our region is suffering as a result.”

At the statewide level, “systems kind of collapsed after the lockdown,” leaving only a quarter of children about to enter kindergarten prepared for it, English said.

English and Clanton agreed that children born in or after March 2020 are experiencing noticeable delays in getting to school, some as fundamental as the inability to sit still on the floor cross-legged for very long.

Birth to Five will seek to address kindergarten readiness as one of its goals, English said. Other issues to be addressed are health, nutrition and housing insecurity, but there is not enough space in the current survey to address these, she said.

One way communities can help address the needs of their children is through early childhood collaborations, where people who work in early childhood education and care come together to share ideas, English said. In Region 1, there was only one collaboration in Adams County, although English said there is interest in forming such collaborations in Brown and Cass counties. There was also discussion about implementing an integrated intake and referral system that would allow families to share their stories once and be referred to different forms of help needed, English said.

Region 40 does not currently have early childhood education collaborations, although collaborations with higher education institutions have been discussed, Clanton said.

Funding for early childhood programs is “everywhere”, with many groups involved, English said, noting that some programmes, particularly in rural areas, are “extremely independent” because they have been left alone for so long and now fear that Birth to Five will accept funds from them.

“They’re a bit alien to that kind of collaboration,” she said, “although we find they’re completely receptive to the model once we have them on board.”

Birth to Five has also struggled to build quality personal relationships because the regions are so large, English said. Language barriers are also an issue, she said. Meanwhile, the day doesn’t have enough time to do everything that needs to be done, Clanton said.

“It’s a lot of work in a short amount of time to make this what it needs to be,” she said.

Once the nationwide survey is complete, the Birth to Five councils will remain in place, although there will be more work to be done once it is complete. English said that due to the incomplete scan, plans for her region remained in flux.

“I have some ideas about what the region needs,” English said, “but we still have three or four months to do this scan to find out what the most pressing needs are.” You could come back in a month and my answer could be different. That is exactly where we are right now.”

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