Building equity in early learning through partnership, collaboration
As continued reports come in of the tens of thousands, if not millions, of children going “missing” from the education system during the COVID-19 pandemic, a new multi-organization effort in Mississippi is aimed at ensuring none of the state’s youngest learners fall through the cracks.
Whether they’re enrolled in PreK or learning at home, children across the state are preparing for kindergarten at home with the Waterford Upstart Pandemic Recovery Path program thanks to a $2 million grant from the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Fund. While funding for large equity-focused projects like this one can seem to materialize and get snatched up overnight, the reality is this partnership, and ultimately this award, is the result of years of relationship and community building efforts undertaken by educators, nonprofits, and others across Mississippi.
The keys to making partnerships like this work include being ready to take advantage of opportunities when they arise, having partners who already work with the kids you want to help, and adding partners who are ready to work with families.
Here’s how all three came together in Mississippi to help thousands of children get ready for kindergarten.
Preparing to take the opportunity
New partnerships can and do spring up, but we have found that teams come together so much faster among established partners. Our work in Mississippi began several years ago. As in many states, access to high-quality preschool is hard to come by for many Mississippi children. Waterford.org has been working to close Mississippi’s opportunity gap for nearly a decade. Through the years, we’ve developed some strong relationships here. So when we decided to team up on this project, we had plenty of history.
Jackson Public Schools (JPS), for example, was already using Waterford’s early learning software. When we learned that they were only offering remote learning this fall, we knew our program could be effective because the students were already using our programs in their classrooms and the families knew who we were.
We also had a long-standing relationship with Head Start, specifically in Mississippi, where we’ve partnered on pilots and other programs in the past. For this initiative, we’re working with different local Head Start Agencies in the state to help children prepare for kindergarten. In this case, we were the partner who brought the solution that seemed to be tailor-made for the need, but it wasn’t just a coincidence. Nonprofits work in the areas where people they want to serve live. Whatever challenges your district faces, there are nonprofits in your area looking to solve them. My advice to district leaders is to start building those relationships now, so you’re ready to jump in with them when an opportunity arises.
Finding the kids
A big challenge for our organization is finding the children we’re trying to serve. We’re happy to help all children gain access to early education, but we of course want to deliver our services to the children for whom it can have the most impact. That challenge is reflected in the partners we choose.
One of the reasons we love working with Head Start, again and again, is not just because of the organization’s long history of dedication and success to early education—though it is certainly an honor to work with such a respected organization. The much simpler reason is that families have to fall below 185% of the poverty level to enroll—so Head Start is already serving the populations we want to help. The Waterford Upstart Recovery Path Program accepted families on a first-come, first-served basis, but we were able to be sure we were helping the students who need it most by partnering with organizations that were already serving those students.
We also partnered with STEMpossible and Excel by 5 to aid in recruitment across the state. If you’re a school or district administrator, finding kids in need certainly isn’t your struggle, but it may well be the only piece of the puzzle a good partner is missing.
Partnering with families
Improving equity for students doesn’t just start with the child. It has to include families as well. They all have their own challenges, experiences, and attitudes related to education. Some families may underestimate the value of education, while others may simply feel they lack the resources to properly support it. In either case, we must partner with those families to support them in supporting their students.
We focus on the families of children in our program not only because their engagement makes it more effective, but also because it prepares them for long-term engagement in their child’s education. One way we engage with and empower families is by providing them with coaches who learn about any challenges or unique circumstances the family may have. We give families lots of avenues for communication—from email to text, to phone calls and our Mentor app. We even have our family liaisons go to people’s homes sometimes, but we’re very careful about contacting families when and how they prefer.
Over the course of the program, coaches don’t just check in on how the student is doing, but ask questions about the family’s life, such as how things are going at work or whether they have childcare during the pandemic. We can’t solve all these challenges, but we can help families figure out how to best support their children when circumstances get in the way. And if they’ve learned how to stay on top of what’s going on in school, what kinds of questions to ask, and the importance of their role in the education process, they’re much better prepared to support their children through their entire academic careers.
In the end, partnerships with families are just like the partnerships that land $2 million grant projects. They bear fruit over time, and the best time to get them started is now.
LaTasha Hadley is the vice president of government relations for Waterford.org. She graduated from Head Start as a child and previously worked as a preschool teacher and early childhood director in Mississippi. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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