Evanston Cradle to Career Highlights First Five Years, Early Childhood is High Priority

At the District 65 and 202 School Board’s joint meeting held on Feb. 23, Sheila Merry, Executive Director of the Evanston Cradle to Career initiative (EC2C), gave the School Boards an update on the work being done by EC2C, which is now five years old.

More than 40 organizations are currently partners in EC2C, including School Districts 65 and 202, the City of Evanston, Northwestern University, and many non-profit organizations and faith communities. The mission is: “By the age of 23, all Evanston young adults will be on the path to leading happy, healthy, productive, and satisfying lives.”

EC2C is built on the premise of “collective impact” – that schools, institutions, community organizations, business groups, and others can have a greater impact by working together to address complex social and educational issues than working alone.

Early Childhood Development

Ms. Merry said the EC2C has placed a strong emphasis on early childhood development. Indeed, in April 2018, EC2C’s partners adopted a bold long-term goal that 85% of the youngsters entering kindergarten in 2025 would be kindergarten ready.

The task of meeting that goal has become more daunting because in the last two years there has been a significant drop in the percentage of students who are kindergarten ready when they enter District 65. In its 2019 Achievement Report, District 65 reported that the percentage of students who are kindergarten ready has dropped by 17 percentage points since the fall of 2017. The chart below shows the downward trajectory.

Attempting to address this issue is “what’s driving a lot of the work of Cradle to Career,” said Ms. Merry. She said the organization hired a consultant to assist in developing a strategic plan to address the issue and to ensure that all of the steps taken would be based on research models and have a demonstrated long-term impact of improving kindergarten readiness.

New Baby Visits

Ms. Merry highlighted a New Baby Visit program that began in mid-January in a partnership between Evanston Hospital’s Perinatal Unit, the Chidcare Network of Evanston, Family Focus, Metropolitan Family Services, and the Joseph E. Hill Family Support Center. The program is based on a model that was used in Durham, North Carolina, and that is being replicated throughout the nation, including in Chicago, she said.

All of EC2C’s partners are “incredibly excited” about this new initiative, Ms. Merry said.

Under the model, all parents of a newborn who have been referred to Evanston Hospital’s Perinatal Unit are asked if they would like to have a home visit. Seven babies have been born with a connection to the unit since the program started, and six families agreed to the New Baby Visit, said Ms. Merry.

“While there was some concern that families would not be interested that’s not what we’re finding,” she said.

Parents receive an in-home visit from a trained family visitor to see how they are doing, to share information about the Talk, Read, Sing program, and to connect them to any needed services, including ongoing home visits.

District 65 Board member Rebecca Mendoza said she was excited about the program and asked how families were selected, adding that she would like everybody to have the opportunity to participate in the program. She added that the data presented last year showed that many children of all races were entering kindergarten not ready to learn.

Ms. Merry said, “Every child born with a connection to the Perinatal Center is referred,” and they expect the number of new baby visits to reach 200 children. She said parents are referred to the Perinatal Center by their physician “because there was some sort of higher risk factor related to the pregnancy. It could be the pregnancy itself; it could be substance abuse; it could be homelessness; it could be any number of factors.”

Ms. Merry said she would ultimately like new baby visits to be offered to all parents of newborns in Evanston, adding that the visits are universally made available in Durham, and that is the plan in Chicago.

Trauma Informed Centers

Ms. Merry said EC2C has also focused on creating “trauma informed early childhood centers.” She said children are often excluded from early childhood centers due to behavior that is the result of trauma.

Ten early childhood centers in Evanston are partners of EC2C, and 50% of the kindergartners who enter District 65 come from those centers. Staff at seven of the centers have received training in how to recognize when a child’s behavioral issues are due to trauma and how to meet the needs of that child. The balance of the centers will receive training this year. She added that staff at nine of the centers have received training in Sunshine Circles.

In addition, 83 families have received free trauma counseling, Ms. Merry said.

Carol Teske, Executive Director of Childcare Network of Evanston (CNE) said, through EC2C funding grants, the early childhood providers are able to deploy licensed mental health staff to families who are in need of trauma responsive services within 48 hours free of charge.

The Transition between Early Childhood and Kindergarten

Historically, there have been few connections between early childhood providers and kindergarten teachers. EC2C and its partners have been working to change that and to insure that children are learning the skills they need to be ready to learn when they start kindergarten and to insure that what pre-school teachers have learned about children can be transferred to kindergarten teachers, while adhering to requirements of privacy. 

Ms. Teske said, “CNE participates very deeply in EC2C’s efforts to build the strong network of families, pre-school educators, administrators, social workers, District 65 kindergarten teachers, District 65 administrators and Board members, to truly change the way we work together here in Evanston and the way we support children in our community. It is by far the most exciting time in my career here in Evanston based on all the wonderful things and positive things that are happening.”

She said they began several years ago “recognizing the need for all educators to have a shared understanding of what kindergarten readiness truly is.” She said they created a Strong Start to Kindergarten Guide for Educators, which was accepted by District 65 educators and multiple pre-school programs. 

Ms. Teske said pre-school teachers use the guide to build their young students skills, and that the guide has “helped to launch new initiatives to support innovation and projects to support children, families and educators in the class to give a strong start to all children in kindergarten.”

The group also created an Activity Guide for parents and caregivers to support building skills at home. The parents’ guide contains many activities parents can do with their children to promote their early development.

“In the past few years the early childhood community has given us the opportunity to build a strong network that is igniting shared understandings, new collaborations and creative thinking in the Evanston/Skokie early childhood space,” Ms. Teske said.

EC2C has worked to ensure that all early childhood programs (and many home-based providers) have access to the guidebook for teachers, said Ms. Merry; and EC2C partners have distributed more than 5,000 activity guides in both English and Spanish to parents.

EC2C has also help organize three annual Early Childhood/Kindergarten Summits, at which an average of 110 teachers, social workers, home visitors, home-based providers and administrators meet and have an opportunity to discuss how to effectively bridge the gap from pre-K to kindergarten.

In the last two years, pre-K teachers have completed Strong Start to kindergarten forms for about one-half of the children entering kindergarten at District 65, which are provided to kindergarten teachers. In these forms, pre-school teachers share specific strategies that could help smooth the transition for each child.

Text-a-Tip Program

Ms. Merry said the 1,134 English speaking and 370 Spanish-speaking families are participating in the text-a-tip program. Under the program, rolled out in 2016, parents sign up to receive texts or emails, which are sent out two times a week, containing a short, simple suggestion on ways parents can interact with their children, 0-3 years old, and in the process promote early brain development.

The suggestions promote the “serve-and-return” interactions between parents and their infants and young children that are critical to early brain development.

Some Other Initiatives 

The Evanston Public Library will be kicking off its developmental screening in March. Ms. Merry said parents who have some concerns about their child and who are not in an early childhood program will be able to take their child to the library to get screened and then referred for appropriate services, if that’s necessary.

Evanston Community Foundation and YWCA have created a new initiative to create equitable institutions, specifically targeting early childhood programs. They are focusing on four early childhood centers that will “be getting an intensive dose doing equity work within those institutions and then coaching on an ongoing basis. The idea is to create a model that could be used by our partners,” said Ms. Merry.

Board Reactions

District 65 Board member Rebecca Mendoza thanked Ms. Merry for “lifting up early childhood. I think it’s a very important subject in our community.”

“I really do see this as a public health issue, when we’re talking about 0-3,” she said. There is so much that happens between the time a child is born and the time they enter kindergarten.

When asked about efforts to prepare young children for kindergarten, Ms. Merry said, “I believe the new baby visits are a part of it. The visits may connect families to a medical home very early on, to connect mothers who are suffering from post-partum depression with services, or if they need housing supports. We’re hoping that if we support people in the very best way as early as humanly possible that we can begin to impact that.

“We are hoping that cumulatively over time, we are going to begin to see a move in that measure. But I do also feel that we are clearly fighting against whatever’s happening in our community that’s resulting in that moving down.”

When asked what is causing the decline, Ms. Teske said, “I think it’s a combination of things, but it’s definitely the stresses that families are living through. And just trying to make it through the day opposed to having the time and energy and intention to think about the guide book that we’ve created to do activities with your child at night. It’s definitely – from our experience at Childcare Network of Evanston – many of our families are trying to survive. Until we get under that, I think we will constantly struggle with kindergarten readiness. But home visiting and other ways to draw families in and connect them to each other as well as supports is the angle we’re trying right now.”


Other Areas That EC2C Has Been Working On

Ms. Merry summarized EC2C’s work in many other areas. She said EC2C has attempted to address summer learning loss by encouraging partner organizations who provide summer programs to devote a portion of the day to developing reading skills; it helped to support the creation and location of the Freedom School, which offers a free literacy-focused summer school; and it distributed more than 800 culturally diverse books to summer camps and other programs.  

EC2C has also formed a team that has focused on how to put systems in place to minimize the number of students graduating from ETHS without a career plan, and to help youth who do not go to college to find a career. In 2018, EC2C reached out to the Mayor and the business community to address this concern. The result was the Mayor’s Employers Advisory Council, which is working with ETHS and Oakton Community College to create new internships, apprenticeships, and other job experiences for ETHS students to living wage careers, said Ms. Merry. It includes more than 50 employers committed to creating new opportunities for youth. 

Nine partner organizations that serve youth have come together to fundamentally change the way the organizations collaborate in the interest of their clients. Patrick Keenan Devlin, Executive Director of the Moran Center, said the partner organizations have hired their clients to help develop and conduct surveys of participants and nonparticipants to learn how their organizations are viewed and how they may have systems in place that undermine their effectiveness. 

Mr. Devlin also said the nine organizations brought about 150 to 200 of their staff together in the fall of last year to meet for a day-long cross-training session in the Levy Center to talk about their programs and barriers to participating in their programs. He said they are scheduled to meet for another day-long session in the near future. Mr. Devlin said this experience has resulted in creating much stronger working relationships across organizations and generated new ideas.

EC2C has also encouraged staff and board members of its partner organizations to engage in equity training. More than 550 staff and board members have received Beyond Diversity training; more than 100 staff and board members have received SEED training; and more than 100 staff and board members have received Building Equitable Organizations training.” More than half of our partner organizations have undertaken meaningful steps toward building and implementing an equity plan,” Ms. Merry said.  

Ms. Merry said, “One of the most powerful things that I think EC2C has done is the creation of the Advocate for Action. That group has really brought resident voices in a very new way to the work that we’re doing.”

Marquise Weatherspoon, President of Advocates for Action, said, “There’s a group of eight of us. … We said we would confront the issues that [residents] felt they didn’t have a voice for and that we would come together and be their strength and backbone. “

She said the Advocates have established five goals: to promote wise investments in our community by acting as official stewards of EC2C expenditures; to expand access to basic needs by advocating for affordable housing and healthcare, living wage jobs and food security; to close the achievement gap by ensuring parents have the information they need to prepare their children to succeed in school; to build strong communities that protect and empower children to reach their life potential; and to confront racism by keeping families informed on their inalienable rights to dignity and self-respect.

In the last three years, Advocates of Action has made grants to individuals and small groups who are trying to improve their communities. A total of $19,000 has been distributed.


Engaging the Community

District 202 Board member Gretchen Livingston said she thought EC2C was at a critical juncture. She thought that to make the organization as powerful as it could be, it needed to better inform the community about the work it is doing. She said she wanted to know what EC2C was doing to connect with the community and getting all of the community engaged in its work.

Mr. Devlin said, “If Cradle to Career is to be successful, everybody needs to find their spot. … You’re absolutely right, we need to get the community members involved, to understand what we’re doing, and hopefully in that process allow the community member to find their spot.”

District 202 Board Vice President Monique Parsons said, “I would say we need to allow the community to tell us what we need to rally around. I think they’re going to rally around their issues.”

Ms. Merry said housing was an important issue to the community. Ms. Parsons said housing and education are issues. “Education has to be everybody’s,” she said.

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...