The Illinois Early Childhood Innovation Zones serve as laboratories for the state, helping to inform which strategies are most effective in achieving the goal of ensuring all young children with high needs are engaged in high quality early learning and development programs.
Illinois Action for Children coordinates the work of 11 Early Childhood Innovation Zones as part of the grant in partnership with the Governor’s Office of Early Childhood Development.
Local system-building led by early childhood collaborations helps the Innovation Zones connect vital information to state policy makers through feedback loops to improve outcomes for young children in Illinois and their families.
Community systems development, behavior science, the Lean Start Up, and asset-based community development provide the framework for the Innovation Zone model.
In 2012, Illinois received a Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grant from the U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services to strengthen early childhood systems and kindergarten readiness for Illinois children.
The Governor’s Office of Early Childhood Development identified Innovation Zones based on several factors: level of concentrated need, presence of providers with a demonstrated interest in quality improvement, a history of collaboration among early education providers, and strong local support for early learning.
Local Innovation Zone teams developed goals and strategies in one or both of the following areas:
1. Enrolling and serving children from priority populations
The enrollment goal is measured by tracking the number of children currently enrolled from these designated populations along with changes in that number over time.
The Priority Populations, as defined by the Illinois Early Learning Council, are: homeless children, children of teen parents, children in the child welfare system, children with disabilities, children in poverty or deep poverty, and children whose families experience significant barriers based on language.
2. Quality improvement in early learning programs
The quality improvement goal is measured by tracking the number of programs rated Gold in the state’s new quality rating and improvement system, as well as the number of programs that move up from any quality level to a higher level.
The Innovation Zone Model
Behavioral economics frames Innovation Zone planning and strategies. Improved use of data and small shifts in behavior can offer solutions in decision making. Design for simplicity is a pathway to reduce mental fatigue, for example; and thus, error in decision making. These concepts are especially helpful when considering the user-experience of our early childhood system.
The Illinois Early Childhood Innovation Zones adapted methods from the Lean Startup to create a powerful way for collaborations to be innovative when faced with a complex challenge. This approach encourages entrepreneurial thinking to help build impactful solutions for systems change on a shoestring budget.
Data helps to inform what is working and what is not working and allows collaborations to check in on their progress before investing more time or resources to their project. Innovation Zones work in small batches to plan, test and improve lean versions of their strategies rather than plan and launch big, costly projects with uncertain elements of success.
Innovation Zone Successes
- The North Lawndale Innovation Zone is comprised of nearly 40 health, education, social service, and community development stakeholders. In their first year, they connected 15 homeless families from a small shelter to early learning programs and early intervention. This community achieved full enrollment in school-based early learning programs for the first time in 2015 and again in 2016.
- The Cicero Innovation Zone partnered with faith-based organizations and community centers to bring a “small taste” of early learning at pop-up locations. The team used data to locate these “pop-up preschool” sites within walking distance to the communities’ lowest income families with children 0-5. In 2016 the Innovation Zone team reported enrollment of more than 1,000 children from Priority Populations at 16 formal early learning sites.
- The Greater East St. Louis Innovation Zone team is addressing system alignment to ensure children with special needs are identified and connected to supports, including early learning programs. They have strengthened partnerships to streamline screening and enrollment to increase accessibility for more families. In two years, 553 families from priority populations have applied to early learning programs.
- Since 2013, the Pilsen and Little Village Innovation Zone has been hard at work building cross-community partnerships with early intervention, homeless shelters, the Mexican Consulate, local businesses, churches, social service organizations, early learning programs, and health clinics to build a strong referral pipeline. Of five programs reporting data in spring 2016, more than 1,200 children from priority populations enrolled.
- Since 2013, the Aurora Innovation Zone has built a shared intake Initiative in partnership with three pilot agencies: a homeless shelter, a refugee support agency, and a food pantry. Together, they identify and connect highest need children to high-quality programs, services, and resources including families from Nepal, Burma, France and Saudi Arabia. Their “one-stop” shared intake process reduces complexity for families in completing multiple application forms with multiple providers.
- The Williamson County Innovation Zone created a screening collaborative to increase the number of children receiving developmental screenings in their county. Since June 2016, more than 2,000 children have been screened.