Leadership Akron’s Civic Solutions Lab examines the local and national landscape of early childhood education


 by Laura Ofobike and Kirsten Toth, Civic Solutions Lab class participant

Leadership Akron’s Civic Solutions Lab continues to work in their focus area of early childhood education. February and March program days focused on the early childhood education (ECE) landscape in Summit County and then looked more broadly the regional and national landscape.

The February Program Day was dedicated to the early childhood education (ECE) landscape in Summit County. GAR Foundation’s Early Childhood Education position paper assessing the landscape of early childhood education in Summit County provided a great foundation for rich discussion by the Lab participants. Additionally, Summit Education Initiative provided Kindergarten readiness data for Summit County, offering more analysis and grist for discussion throughout the day.

Among key observations from discussions on the research:

  • ECE is equally concerned with cognitive development and social/emotional skills that are crucial to success but aren’t adequately measured by typical standardized tests.
  • Family conditions and external factors, besides income, greatly affect early learning.
  • ECE is an investment with far-reaching economic and social returns. While early learning programs can level the playing field, they need to be of consistently high quality to be effective.

Class interest is growing to find credible sources of information about successful national and international models of ECE. Thus a session with the Akron Summit County Public Library was invaluable. They gave an electronic review of the resources available through the local and other library systems.

Given the perspective gained, a primary objective was to get a firm grasp of where things stand in our own backyard. This segment of exploration was led first by Summit County Executive Ilene Shapiro, who gave an overview of First Things First, the initiative to close systemic gaps and improve early childhood development across both education and health domains. .

Jamie Kutner, First Things First; Barb Werstler, Child Guidance and Family Solutions; and Chris Yuhasz, Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority—all of whom are intimately involved in the development and implementation of the initiative—followed up, answering numerous questions about the experiences and challenges of the multi-agency collaboration.

A visit to REACH Opportunity Center at Summit Lake rounded out the day. It offered a model of a working collaborative, where several agencies are providing at a central location resources and service incentives that enable different generations in a family to develop needed skills.

The day’s experiences offered much food for thought. For example, the finding that about half of Summit children don’t attend any preschool at all—let alone high-quality programs— raised issues of access and equity as well as questions about inconsistencies in regulations, licensing and quality ratings. Concerns about factors that inhibit early learning morphed into issues of sustaining promising projects like First Things First for the long haul when committed leaders transition out.

Along with the out-of-class readings, the presentations laid out the complexities and challenges the Lab must navigate as it seeks an avenue to make a significant difference in life outcomes for children in the county.

At the Civic Solutions Lab’s next session in March, participants began the day eager to dig in on an agenda that promised to support both more learning about a complex system, but also would involve grappling with ambiguity. Lab participants are digging deeper for clarity about the multi-faceted problems facing families, even as they find consensus with each other across a variety of perspectives in the Lab class.

The Lab heard from experts like Dr. Rebecca Dorman of Invest in Children in Cleveland who discussed the difficult financial and communication challenges facing their quest to fill all the available seats for universal Pre-K in Cuyahoga County. Dorman also raised the issue of quality, and posed to the class that we collectively  need a sense of urgency to move a significant number of preschool centers into the state’s quality rating system (Step Up To Quality) by 2020, and then to move even more into a high quality rating by 2025.

The group also received a lot of information from local providers of high-quality programs like Lab member Judith Fowler at Child Guidance on comparative programs across international borders; Kent State University’s Child Development Center, which offers a “lab school” approach using the high-quality Reggio-Emilia tradition of teaching and learning; SPARK by Greenleaf and Parents as Teachers at AMHA, two home-visiting programs; and, professional development for literacy teachers by UA’s Center for Literacy. All of these programs provide quality services to a relatively small number of the neediest families and students in our county.

Lab Facilitator Tina Uhgrin prompted the group to consider next steps on this once-per-month gathering for early childhood education solutions-finding, a tall order given the growing realization that there are no easy answers. But there is optimism that a set of clear actions will begin to emerge in the coming months.