Encouraged connections between communities, state and regional organizations, and school system
Prior to Discovery, the Memorial Fund's Children First initiative contributed to important changes for early education in Connecticut, including the passage of the School Readiness Act in 1997. This legislation provided preschool opportunities for 6,500 children and was a major victory.
From 1999-2005, there was little growth in the program. The level of growth that did occur was not enough to expand programs to serve all children. Further, demographic shifts meant there were pockets of poverty and new immigrant populations across the state. Though the School Readiness Act was groundbreaking, sustaining the momentum was challenging.
A key assumption underlying Discovery is that a broad base of engaged communities and collaboration among stakeholders is needed to sustain policy changes and investment in early childhood education. The policy and community grantmaking strategies had not been closely integrated in Children First and the Memorial Fund sought to align these strategies in Discovery.
These lessons informed the framework of Discovery. Through the Children First experience, the Memorial Fund recognized a need for multiple levers of change. Moreover, many stakeholders, representing different perspectives, need to be pushing on those levers to make lasting impact.
As a result, Discovery is guided by three main strategies:
- Engaging Connecticut communities, through local collaboratives, in building and implementing a local early care and education agenda
- Developing a statewide and regional network that supports the local communities and seeks state level change in policy and practice
- Fostering instructional leadership
From the first days of Discovery, the Memorial Fund conceived of an organized, coordinated network of Discovery communities, statewide partners and champions working together across the state on behalf of young children. Staff referred to this as the "50th community." However, two things were needed to advance this goal: an infrastructure for moblization and planning and established relationships between and among individual communities and statewide policy organizations.
The first several years of Discovery were focused on supporting communities and statewide policy organizations to build their own infrastructure, capacities, and relationships .
The Challenges of Supporting 49 Communities
Supporting 49 communities was not easy. For example, staff attempted to take on the role of on-site coach to communities, but quickly learned that this would not work. The role was too time intensive and their role as funder had the potential to create a barrier to open communication. The staff "fired" themselves and hired consultants to fill the role of community liaison. Liaisons acted as a resource, providing feedback, connecting communities to each other, and linking the Memorial Fund values and approach to the work in communities.
Staff also learned early on about the particular challenges of delivering technical assistance to 49 communities. Communities were starting at very different places and technical assistance needed to be flexible to meet communities' needs as they occurred at different points in time. Traveling to and attending workshops was challenging for community collaboratives with few or no full-time staff. Rather than offering many individual workshops, the offerings needed to be directly useful to the work on the ground.
Building Capacity and Relationships Takes Time and is Not Linear
In implementing this design, the Memorial Fund learned that it takes time and an intentional strategy to build capacity and develop strong and trusting relationships within and among communities, between communities and statewide organizations, and between grantees and the funder. Not all of the "pieces" of a network develop at the same pace or in the same way.
For example, in communities that had a cohesive group of stakeholders already working on these issues at the beginning of Discovery, the work might be years ahead of communities that had little or no such experience. Similarly, at the beginning of Discovery, statewide policy organizations needed time to find their individual "niches" and build the relationships required for a deep level of collaboration. The ability to collaborate at this level led to the creation of the Early Childhood Alliance.
The development of the work was not necessarily linear. Changes in environment, staff, or leadership could focus the attention of the community group or organization "inward," distracting them from collaborative goals and activities. Likewise, such a change could spark or galvanize work and create momentum.