Building a Citywide Birth—3rd System: One City’s Plan

We are aware that building a coherent system is more time consuming and less flashy than just adding more slots or more dollars to an existing system. But we have an opportunity to … build a system that coherently knits together our existing resources and thoughtfully brings in new resources to meet the needs of our youngest residents.
–Richard Rossi, City Manager, Cambridge, Massachusetts

This is about as important as it gets, frankly. Achievement gaps do not begin in the fifth grade or the third grade. They begin much earlier. The right way to reduce and eventually eliminate achievement gaps is to start early…I believe whole-heartedly that with this effort to get there, we can make that difference. It is about coherence. The adults have to come together.
–Jeff Young, Superintendent of Schools, Cambridge, MA, speaking to a joint meeting of the City Council and School Committee

On November 16, the City Council and School Committee in Cambridge, MA met to review an ambitious set of recommendations to develop a citywide Birth through Third Grade (Birth—3rd) system.  The recommendations were presented by the City Manager, the Superintendent, and the city’s Early Childhood Task Force with the aim of expanding access to early childhood services and improving quality across the organizations that serve young children and their families. These recommendations are intended to guide a significant financial investment the city will make in improving Birth—3rd services, projected at $1.3 million in the first year, $2.6 million in the second year, and potentially increasing further in subsequent years.

The recommendations of the Early Childhood Task Force include a number of key elements intended to create a well-functioning Birth—3rd system:

  • A Birth—3rd Governance Board and a Birth—3rd Director to oversee the implementation of the strategic plan, supported by three committees: (1) Access, Affordability and Quality; (2) Family Engagement; and (3) Health.
  • Commitment to develop a city-wide quality improvement initiative that encourages collaboration and alignment across family childcare, community-based preschool centers, city-run early childhood services, and the Cambridge Public schools and that focuses on key drivers of quality: standards, curriculum, formative assessment, instructional practices, learning environments, transitions, family engagement, and leadership.
  • A pilot project that will increase access to preschool while improving quality coupled with other mechanisms of increasing access such as increasing scholarship subsidies.
  • An initiative to improve the alignment and continuity of home visiting services.
  • A priority throughout the plan on increasing access to information for both providers and families in part through on online portal (FindItCambridge.org) and periodic peer exchange opportunities for key personnel that serve families throughout the city.
  • An emphasis on building strong partnerships with families by promoting best practices, encouraging family participation in decision-making, and increasing family supports.
  • Collaboration with the health community on the health needs of young children and their families through support of a recently-established Community Health Improvement Plan.

Cambridge is a diverse city. 46.6% of its public school student population has high needs, and 27.7 are economically disadvantaged. Both of these numbers are slightly higher than the state average.

In this post I write as an insider to the process. Beginning a little more than a year ago I partnered up with Linda Warren and Early Childhood Associates to provide technical assistance to Cambridge’s Early Childhood Task Force. Cambridge’s City Manager, Richard Rossi, had convened the Task Force in part in response to requests by both city councilors and school committee members to improve access to early childhood services in the city, particularly access to preschool for 4-year olds.

The Task Force met monthly and comprised a broad range of stakeholders, including parents, family childcare providers, preschool directors, an elementary school principal, a pediatrician, an early intervention specialist, and a community foundation board member. Importantly, a number of senior officials from both the city and the school department also served on the Task Force, including the City Manager and the Superintendent, the Director of the Department of Human Services, the Assistant Superintendent for Elementary Schools, the city’s finance and budget directors, the school department’s chief financial officer, and other key city and district personnel. The Task Force meetings were planned by a steering committee that also developed ideas and drafted documents for Task Force review.

The Task Force has been conscientious in designing a deliberative process that would yield a strong set of recommendations. In what follows I highlight several important features of the recommendations and share some of the process the Task Force went through in developing them.

Vision and Key Priorities

The Task Force turned an important corner after its first few meetings. At that point the Task Force had reviewed the Birth—3rd initiatives in other communities in Massachusetts and across the country and learned about the research on best practices in early childhood education. The Task Force, and especially the planning team, had also reviewed a range of useful documents and would continue doing so throughout the process. At that stage we found Washington State’s plan and Seattle’s to be particularly helpful.

The November, 2014 meeting was an opportunity to process and discuss this information in order to determine the Task Force’s initial priorities, knowing that we would refine and amend them in light of a needs assessment that was underway. With the review of research, best practices, and national examples in mind, small groups identified the priorities they thought should be reflected in Cambridge’s recommendations and posted their ideas around the room. At this meeting the Task Force was moving out of the research phase and beginning to envision what the recommendations might entail, and thus this meeting generated a good deal of excitement as the Task Force members moved around the room discussing and voting on priorities.

The results of these discussions informed the vision and guiding principles of the document (page 3), which emphasize whole child development, the idea of building on strengths, cultural competence, families as partners, and a pyramid of services: some serving all, some serving some, and some serving the few. They also included a number of specific ideas like the importance of a system for accessing information easily and increasing home visiting and mental health services.

As part of the discussion at this meeting, Greg Hagan, Chief of Pediatrics at the Cambridge Health Alliance, noted the strength of the research on prenatal care and its impact on health development. Other experts referred to research from the Harvard Center for the Developing Child on the importance of quality care from 0-3 years of age. The recommendations would need to include provisions for prenatal care, home visiting, and infant and toddler care as well as PreK—3rd initiatives. A number of Task Force members also pointed out that while the city was very fortunate to have many high-quality services and programs serving young children, quality was not universally consistent. Programs and services were often disconnected and sometimes fragmented.

These discussions anticipated three priorities that would be reinforced and confirmed by the needs assessment (page 8):

  1. Start early and attend to the entire prenatal through 3rd grade continuum.
  2. Quality is essential to improving outcomes. Expanding access without ensuring quality is short-sighted.
  3. Build a coherent mixed delivery system across the full range of service providers, including the public schools, that is coordinated and aligned.

Assessing Needs across the City

Over the following months the Task Force conducted a needs assessment that included two extensive surveys, one for preschool providers and one for other city organizations that serve young children and their families. The Task Force also conducted 11 focus groups, including ones for parents, family childcare providers, family liaisons, preschool directors, elementary school principals, kindergarten teachers, community engagement team members, early childhood council members, and others. The results of both the surveys and the focus groups were summarized in reports and then reviewed in several monthly meetings. The Task Force’s initial priorities, the results of the two surveys, and the results of the focus groups were then summarized in one compilation document which the Task Force used to identify five fundamental concerns, illustrated below with sample quotations gathered during the needs assessment:

  • Access to Information: “It takes a while to get plugged in and know about everything that exists. You have to be aggressive to find out.” —Cambridge Parent
  • Maintaining and Improving Quality. “Quality varies from program to program.”—Cambridge Family Childcare Provider
  • Aligning and Coordinating Services. “We have the entities but they are not linked together. Cambridge should make a commitment that education begins prenatally – before birth. That would create value for preschool as it would be part of a continuum of services.” —Cambridge Preschool Director
  • Addressing Critical Gaps. ”It appears as though many of the children are coming to us needing greater support than we can sometimes accommodate.”—Cambridge Preschool Teacher
  • Affordability and Access. “Waiting lists and costs are barriers.” —Community Engagement Team Outreach Worker

Goals, Objectives, and Strategies

Cambridge’s Early Childhood Task Force deliberately designed the recommendations outlined below to serve as the foundation for a strategic plan. The structure of the recommendations follows an effective approach to strategic planning often used by school districts, which Cambridge has adapted for use by a cross-sector community-wide initiative. The approach, described in Strategy in Action: How School Systems Can Support Powerful Learning and Teaching, is intended to create plans that are focused on a few overarching goals, each of which links together more specific objectives in a coherent cluster. The objectives are fleshed out with concrete strategies and measurable benchmarks.[1] The idea then is to manage and monitor the implementation of the plan in a disciplined fashion, problem-solving and adjusting dynamically in response to evidence gathered during implementation.

The Task Force’s recommendations are thus organized around five broad goals, each elaborated with more specific objectives and strategies. The members of the Task Force wanted to be positioned to turn the recommendations into a full-fledged plan by adding measurable benchmarks once they had obtained input and approval from the City Council and School Committee. The five broad goals are as follows:

Goal 1: Increase Access to and Affordability of Early Education and Care Services

Goal 2: Continuously Improve Program Quality for Birth through Third Grade Programs and Services

Goal 3: Build Partnerships to Promote Strong Family Engagement and Support

Goal 4: Coordinate with Healthcare Providers to Ensure Access to Quality Healthcare Services

Goal 5: Develop an Effective Birth through Third Grade Governance and Leadership Structure

Page 19 of the report displays a helpful summary of the plan’s Guiding Principles, Goals, and Objectives. Appendix 4 includes a proposed implementation timeline.

A Green Light and Next Steps

At the recent joint meeting of the City Council and School Committee, the city’s politicians expressed their enthusiasm for the goals of the plan and gave the City Manager and Superintendent a green light to continue the work. They noted the need for careful system-building while urging the Task Force to act with as much urgency as possible, especially with regard to expanding access to preschool. Next steps include forming the new governance body, launching the search for the Birth—3rd Director and a quality improvement specialist, and turning the recommendations into a strategic plan by adding measurable targets and benchmarks.

Implementation over the next few years will create opportunities to refine the Task Force’s initial recommendations and in effect test the utility of the overall framework. Even at this early stage, however, Cambridge’s recommendations represent one thoughtful interpretation of what building a coherent early childhood system that begins before birth and extends through third grade might look like.

[1] Strategy in Action uses different terminology for what the Task Force members chose to call goals, objectives, and strategies.

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