Guest Post by Richard A. Sussman, Ph.D.
Director, Brighter Futures Initiative
Hartford Foundation for Public Giving

(Adapted from October 2013 presentation at the Help Me Grow Eastern Region Peer to Peer Meeting)

I think one reason I was asked to write this blog is because I am, as my children would say, a fossil. I’m one of the many historical markers on the road to the tremendous accomplishment called Help Me Grow national replication.

I would like to tell the story of Help Me Grow through the development of my own work at the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving. The evolution of Help Me Grow has been strikingly similar to what the Foundation has experienced over the last 23 years in its Brighter Futures Initiative.

The parallels may provide some useful guideposts for the development of some of the critical components needed in building early childhood systems locally, statewide and nationally.

Building Brighter Futures – and an Early Childhood System

In 1990, the Board of the Hartford Foundation, the capitol region’s community foundation, observed the abysmal negative trajectory of children on the local and regional level here in Connecticut. Yet they were buoyed by new research on the importance of the early years and replicable strategies to improve early childhood, and so they invested $10 million dollars over 10 years in a special Initiative called Brighter Futures.

Brighter Futures was to focus on 4 areas thought to contribute to the improvement of child outcomes:

  • Early childhood education
  • Family Support and Parent Education
  • Healthy Growth and Development of Children
  • The Early Grades of School

We recognized that these were not the only areas that affected the trajectory of young children, but were indeed the ones where we thought we might have the greatest leverage.

The first years were exciting times, much to the credit of my former colleague Chris Hall. We spent this period funding a myriad of individual disconnected projects. Each, we believed, would address critical needs of young children and their families. When considered together, they could create a cohesive whole, but they were never really organized as such. Nonetheless, some of them were innovative and held real promise:

  • Neighborhood-based Family Centers, designed by community residents to provide parent support, training and opportunities for one-on-one and group parent-child interactions;
  • Regional Lead Treatment Center and Safe House for lead-affected children and their families;
  • Accreditation Facilitation Project to promote high-quality early childhood education environments certified by the National Association for the Education of Young Children; and
  • Transition to School Projects – neighborhood-based plans to build a clear bridge between early childhood environments and the first grades of school.

Oh, and yes, let me add a fifth:

  • ChildServ – a planning grant in 1996 to develop a blueprint for community-based developmental surveillance and service integration project that would build upon the activities of primary care providers who would ensure access to needed child development resources.

You can see the congruence between the goal of early detection and access to appropriate services with our Brighter Futures goals of early intervention.

One of the requirements of the Initiative back in the mid-90s for receipt of Brighter Futures grant funds was participation in the Brighter Futures Consortium – a network of Foundation early childhood grantees composed of individuals from the four focus areas.

At the time, I didn’t realize that the Consortium was a first attempt to create an early childhood system. No one was talking about “systems.” We were using terms like network, resource exchange, information sharing. But I do believe this work set the stage for our later vision of how a Hartford early childhood system might look and function.

The Development of ChildServ: Working in the Public Sector

By the time ChildServ was fully established in 2003, we had passed our ten-year mark and were fortunately re-funded by our Board for another ten years. Our goal now was to focus on sector-wide activities that would help children on a bigger scale, not just children affected by individual projects (say, in one child care center or one school).

We quickly recognized that a community foundation could not do sector-wide, system-changing work alone.  In reality, we needed to work with our brothers and sisters in the public sector in the struggle to identify long-term sustainability and replication plans.

This was when ChildServ changed its name to Help Me Grow. It was growing up – no longer in diapers or even onesies, but running around in denim shorts and t-shirts across the State of Connecticut, paid for by public funds!

This transition and, I dare say, major accomplishment, was one of the three or four real Brighter Futures’ success stories that demonstrated what foundation boards live for – the ultimate handoff of successful model programs to the public sector. In those years, we accomplished this not only with ChildServ, but also with the Accreditation Facilitation project, the Regional Lead Treatment Center and the embedding of home visitation within neighborhood-based Family Centers.

Thinking Big: Systems, Policy, Data

The 2000s ended with a plan to sunset Brighter Futures in 2015 and a revised focus centered on systems development, policy action, and data-driven decision-making.

Our systems focus specified that we attend to three levels of activity – local, regional and state – and that these three levels be aligned through common strategies and activities at each level. 

The focus further articulated a set of principles that include:

  • taking a holistic view of the child and understanding that children grow up in the context of families, and families within communities, and communities within larger eco-systems;
  • a systemic approach that acknowledges the important role that institutions play in providing services and the need to not only build capacity of individuals but institutions;
  • the importance of cross-sector planning and dialogue.

When I think about children in the context of families, I am reminded that recently our Lt. Governor publicly stated at an early childhood conference that Connecticut wants: “every child reading by grade three and his or her parents as well.” That’s progress.

What’s Next?

As we begin 2014, much has changed in the health and human service landscape. Early childhood is making its way into common parlance. Even Nick Kristoff, my idol, wrote in a recent Sunday New York Times op-ed about toddlers and the importance of early childhood. The current Connecticut administration is proposing new dollars for early childhood education programs to address its achievement gap and, of course, the President has it as a major component of his 2014 “Ladders” platform.

So is everything rosy? No, the outlook for America’s children still pretty scary and will be for a while. Ben Bernanke, chair of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve Bank said in April that:

  • Government resources are still largely managed in siloes and that coordinating government, philanthropy and the private sector to meet the needs of local communities requires extraordinary commitment and effective leadership.

Do we, as a country, currently have extraordinary commitment and effective leadership? I am not so sure.

Do we have the will to make it a reality? We certainly do. 

Do you play a role in it all? Absolutely!

Be aware that no single program or effort is likely on its own to have the impact we desire, so we must look at our work in juxtaposition to others, find ways to complement them, and extend all of it. 

A critical role for local Help Me Grow sites is to facilitate these larger discussions and access to resources for those working in early childhood development – just as you help individual families get information and access to resources that they need.

If the successful implementation and continuation of Help Me Grow could be seen as a card game, I would wish you a handful of aces:

  • one card for Place – in order to understand the way in which Help Me Grow can foster these larger discussions in your communities and states;
  • one card for Space – as a constant reminder that we have to make room for others if we want to be effective ourselves;
  • one card for Lace – for the transparency that is so important as you work with others;
  • and one card for Race – to never forget or underestimate the critical role race and class play in our thinking and in our actions.

And finally, I challenge you to consider how your Help Me Grow approach could be applied to adolescence, another critical frontier that could use this type of developmental surveillance and access to resources. I recently learned, however, that some of you are already there, thinking about and attempting to apply this formula to a new target population.

That’s why, I guess, my kids call me a fossil – I have old ideas.