Collaboration sparks shared urgency for youngest kids

Making direct connections with Oak Park families

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By Cassandra West

Based inside Oak Park's Village Hall, the Collaboration for Early Childhood is the local champion for high-quality early childhood care and learning experiences. 

"We do birth to kindergarten," says Carolyn Newberry Schwartz, executive director. The Collaboration was founded in 2002 as a public/private partnership. It leverages the resources of more than 75 local agencies to promote a community-wide system of high-quality programs and services that focus on the physical, cognitive and social-emotional development during the critical first five years of life.

The collaboration provides information and support for parents, developmental screening resources, and professional development programs for early childhood providers. For the past 15 years, the collaboration has hosted an annual symposium for educators, caregivers, parents and anyone who works with young children to share with them knowledge and practical skills in promoting positive learning experiences. 

"A high-level mission" of the collaboration now is to make sure that families confronting risks such as childhood developmental delays or a parent who is unemployed or dealing with alcohol or mental health care issues get connected to programs that can help them, Schwartz says. The collaboration is also building out home-visiting programs by contracting with three agencies, Easter Seals, Hephzibah and New Moms. All three use Parents as Teachers programs.

More recently, the collaboration launched in Oak Park and River Forest a parent leadership program in partnership with Community Organizing and Family Issues (COFI), a Chicago-based nonprofit.  COFI started in 1995 in Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood to encourage parents -- primarily mothers -- to address their personal goals and dreams and recognize that parenting skills can translate to leadership skills in the larger community.

COFI has been effective in Chicago communities, finding natural leaders to engage other families, Schwartz says. The collaboration plans to hire four to five women as community ambassadors to do outreach. "We really need that parent voice that we're not getting."

Jennifer Little, who coordinates the collaboration's Early Childhood Community Ambassador program, says the idea is to get more parents involved who haven't been participating at traditional Oak Park meetings. 

All the parents who took training have children under five, says Little. In the first phase, the Self, Family & Team training covered topics like community visioning, leadership skills and qualities. The current second phase is called community outreach and action. 

Throughout the summer, ambassadors will be going door-to-door and attending community events like the Park District of Oak Park's Neighborhood Nights to talk about early learning. 

Rochelle Rideau, who ran a home daycare service for 20 years in Bellwood before moving to Oak Park, joined the ambassador program in October. After the training, she felt dreams she once had for herself come alive again, she says on a recent morning while sitting in the lobby of First United Church, where an ambassadors meeting is taking place. 

She's enthusiastic about the program and sharing early childhood information with people she knows and those she doesn't. Though soft-spoken, she says, "I'm a talker, so it's not hard for me to say, 'Hey, there's a Head Start program.' I know that I can find people, either I know or who know someone who would benefit from early childhood."

D97 kindergarten faculty survey 

District 97's kindergarten faculty recently completed a population level survey (Early Development Instrument) that describes how children are developing before they enter school.  The EDI measures a child's ability to meet age-appropriate developmental expectations in physical health, social competence, emotional maturity, language development, and communication skills.

These results will be presented at a neighborhood level on maps that also show community assets and socio-economic information. The Collaboration for Early Childhood and District 97 with the support of Erikson Institute are leading this work with a diverse group of community leaders and stakeholders. The project is part of a pilot project initiated by the Erikson institute and funded by a significant grant from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.  

The Collaboration for Early Childhood and the community will use the data to develop action plans to improve the development of young children. 

Here is a link to a sample EDI Questionnaire. https://www.erikson.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Sample-Questionnaire.pdf

SAY Connects is sponsored by the Good Heart Work Smart Foundation in partnership with Success for All Youth (SAY).

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