Birth to Five seeking to boost local early childhood services

A new infrastructure is trying to address Illinois’ early childhood needs at the local level.

Birth to Five Illinois is a statewide early childhood infrastructure designed to bring community, family and provider voices to the forefront of both local and state policy decisions.

The group was founded 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 the creation of a formal way to receive community input.

Birth to Five Illinois has more than 56 regions, two of which encompass most of west-central Illinois. Each region has formed two councils — one an action council for community members with a personal or professional interest in speaking up for young children and their families, the other a family council through which parents and other caretakers can share their thoughts about their needs and how to improve programs.

Region 1’s councils — which cover Adams, Brown, Cass, Morgan, Pike and Scott counties — are managed by Bridget English, a former educator and case manager. Region 40’s councils — which cover Calhoun, Greene, Jersey and Macoupin counties are managed by Keppen Clanton, a former public school administrator and science teacher.

English said nothing like what Birth to Five is doing has been done before.

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

The action council analyzes region-specific data for children ages birth to 5, while the family council looks at the information from “a family perspective” and sees if it matches up with their experiences, Clanton said.

Birth to Five’s current short-term goal is completing a survey analyzing the demographic, programmatic, workforce and facilities landscape in all of its regions, as well as looking at what early childhood services are needed in each place, English said. The analysis is being based on the findings of each region’s councils, Clanton said.

The survey is expected to be completed around June and sent shortly after to the governor’s early childhood education office, legislators and local stakeholders, English and Clanton said. Each region will then make a few key recommendations for its counties based on the survey’s findings.

“Once we finish the scans, we’ll have these recommendations coming out,” English said, “and then we’ll be working to help the regions achieve those recommendations.”

Region 1 has pockets with high immigrant populations in need of expanded language support, English said. Birth to Five also is only publicly funded enough in the region to support 5% of its children ages birth to 3, she said. The region’s top four needs so far are language, specialized services, transportation and workforce.

“There’s a nationwide teacher shortage,” English said. “Early childhood is no exception. We are going to be taking a look at how to spur growth in the pipeline for these positions specific to early childhood.”

Region 40 had 5,000 children ages birth to 5 but only 2,000 slots available in publicly funded programs and childcare services, with some counties having no childcare available whatsoever, Clanton said. Early intervention services are also in low supply in the region, she said, and the interventionists that are there are being stretched thin.

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

“We don’t have collaborations, not only in early childhood, but we don’t have big business collaborations,” she said. “We don’t have technology collaborations. We have become kind of a wasteland and our region is suffering because of that.”

On a statewide level, “the systems have kind of collapsed” post-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 entering school with noticeable delays, some as basic as being unable to sit still on the floor, cross-legged, for very long.

Birth to Five will try to address kindergarten readiness as one of its goals, English said. Other issues it is seeking to address include health, nutrition and housing insecurity, but there is not enough room in the current survey to address those, she said.

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

Region 40 does not have any early childhood collaborations going on now, although there has been talk about working with higher-education institutions, Clanton said.

Funding for early childhood programs is “all over the map,” with many groups having a hand in it, English said, noting that some programs, particularly in rural areas, are “fiercely independent” as a result of being left alone for so long. and now are concerned that Birth to Five will take funding from them.

“This kind of collaborative work is a little bit foreign to them,” she said, “although we are finding that, once we get them on board, they’re totally receptive to the model.”

Birth to Five also has struggled to build quality face-to-face relationships because of how large its regions are, English said. Language barriers are also an issue, she said. Meanwhile, there is not enough time in the day to do everything needed, Clanton said.

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

Once the statewide survey is completed, Birth to Five’s councils will remain in place, although there will be more work to be done after it is finished. English said that due to the scan being incomplete, plans for her region remained in flux.

“I have some ideas of what the region needs,” English said, “but we still have three or four more months to perform this scan to find out what the most pressing needs are. You could come back in a month and my answer could be different. This is just where we’re at right now.”

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