Supported the development and implementation of comprehensive early childhood community plans
In 2008, the Memorial Fund entered into a public-private partnership with the Early Childhood Education Cabinet, the Child Health and Development Institute of Connecticut, and the Connecticut State Department of Education to support early childhood planning in 23 Discovery communities. Through this partnership, communities received intensive technical assistance, peer networking opportunities, and consultant support to convene a broad and diverse group of community stakeholders. This group of stakeholders was charged with developing a comprehensive, data-driven early childhood plan for their community.
The plans were intended to address children’s social, emotional, behavioral, and physical health and development and to strengthen early care and education and other services in the community. The plan structure provided for a statement of the community’s vision for children, an analysis of community assets and needs, identification of measurable indicators to track progress, strategies to achieve results, and a description of the community’s approach to continuous data analysis, governance and financing.
After eighteen months of work, the 23 communities submitted their plans on June 30, 2009. Later that year, the Discovery communities were invited to apply for grants to develop plans, support plan implementation, or engage in other projects. An additional 21 Discovery communities that had not yet received planning grants embarked on a community planning process.
The Economic Downturn Threatens Plan Implementation
Just as the original 23 communities moved forward from plan development to putting their plans into action, an economic downturn gripped the state and the nation. Connecticut quickly saw the effects on state resources and policymakers implemented significant, in some cases drastic, budget cuts.
This is the environment that the first cohort of planning communities faced as they moved toward the implementation of plans that called for bold and comprehensive changes. As noted in a 2011 report by the Discovery Evaluation team, there was some initial concern that the plans would be set aside to await a future period of economic stability. However, the broadening of the early childhood agenda, as well as the broadening of the stakeholder group beyond “typical early childhood people” proved to be particularly important during the economic slump. As one community collaborative member put it, “It may actually be good to have a broader agenda in tough economic times. We used to be focused only on increasing slots…that is not going to happen right now, but we can work on other aspects of our plan. We were surprised by the low-cost/no-cost things we can work on. We will use these things to stay engaged.”
Focus on Sustainability
By 2012, the Memorial Fund and its grantees had developed a body of knowledge about what works and what supports are needed for communities to develop and implement community plans. There was also a greater sense of clarity about what is being funded in communities and what was expected. The funding supported the structure and process for local decision making, but could not support the implementation of strategies.
Applications for communities ready for plan implementation funding, the highest funding level offered to Discovery community collaboratives, were evaluated on: the strength of the plan; the existence of local matching funds; and the collaborative governance structure and membership.
The match requirement, in particular, created some concern. Though communities largely understood and agreed with the Memorial Fund’s emphasis on sustainability beyond the current strategic planning period (through 2014), the more stringent definition of what would qualify as local match raised concerns. As one collaborative member said, “There was a lot of frustration with the local match. When you really think about it, though, the goal of community planning and community work is to have community own it, sustain it, develop it, buy in to it and let it grow.”
For some communities, it was less of a surprise. “We expected it. We always knew that it was a step down grant and we were going to have to wean ourselves off of them. It wasn’t a surprise. Actually, it gave us leverage to ask the Board of Education for more money,” said one community coordinator.
To address community concerns, the Memorial Fund approved the 2012 grants, with the maximum level of funding contingent on the securing of matching funds within six months. The result - all but one community secured the matching funds. Collaboratives found that when they opened up this conversation in their community there was more support than they realized. They were able to raise the funds through their local school districts, United Ways, nonprofits, town leadership, small fundraising campaigns, and corporate donations. As a collaborative member said, “It was a lot of rolling up sleeves and really making connections...It was hard, but guess what? We got it done. We did it. We get it and we are working to continue that sustaining piece. Doing that really helped us engage people in the work.” One community did a very successful “Are You Smarter than a 3rd Grader?” event with teams sponsored by local organizations, businesses, organizations, and neighborhoods.
By 2013, 40 of the 52 Discovery communities were engaged in planning or had developed a plan. The recognition of the importance of this work has led to partnerships with the State Department of Education, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Child Health and Development Institute of Connecticut, Kettering Foundation, and the Connecticut Center for School Change that have brought more resources and technical assistance to the communities around early literacy, health, prek-3rd grade alignment, and parent information.
When asked if having a community plan has changed the way the work of the collaborative is viewed and supported, one community collaborative member said, “The community plan helped us focus and bring other people into our work. Data that wasn’t otherwise available to us now is because we had these people around the table. They are very happy to come to our meetings because they are moving their initiatives forward. It keeps us and the outside agencies focused.”