How are young children and families supported in Colorado?
Colorado is one of many states working to ensure that young children experience an equitable, high quality continuum of services and supports. Liz Houston, Executive Director at the Early Childhood Council Leadership Alliance (ECCLA) provides a glimpse into how Colorado’s 34 Early Childhood Councils and community organizations work together to ensure families are connected to local resources and services. Councils have a unique role within their local communities to serve as an early childhood hub for partners, child care providers, caregivers, policymakers, and business leaders to coordinate, collaborate, and align resources.
ECCLA’s mission is to improve access to quality services and supports for young children through a statewide network of Early Childhood Council leaders and key stakeholders. As a membership association, ECCLA supports Councils by providing technical assistance and capacity building, implementing shared measurement for collective impact, advocating for policies affecting early childhood issues, leveraging statewide partnerships, and serving as the voice for Councils.
Liz is a seasoned nonprofit professional with a career encompassing resource development, advocacy, communication, and management for a variety of organizations including human services, research and policy, a major cultural institution, K-12 and higher education, and private industry.
Find an Early Childhood Council and learn more about ECCLA at www.ecclacolorado.org.
HiMama Preschool Podcast, Episode #81 – Liz Houston Proofread and revised by Andrew Hall – Feb 01, 2018
The councils actually support the providers in the local areas with the resources and with professional development and with coaching to ensure that the children and families that are being served know about the programs and services that are there locally.
Hi, I’m Ron Spreeuwenberg, co-founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things “early-childhood education”.Liz, welcome to the Preschool Podcast.
Thank you so much. I’m so happy to be here.
So Liz, you’re the executive director of the Early Childhood Council Leadership Alliance, also known as ECCLA. Let’s start off by learning a little bit more about what ECCLA is and what you do there.
Sure absolutely. ECCLA is a membership organization for Colorado’s 34 early-childhood councils. Those councils work at a local level – usually the county level – to pull together resources and supports and services for the youngest children in their communities and their families. So they’re really the table that convenes providers, early-childhood educators, school districts, county commissioners, health specialists, all kinds of folks who really provide services and supports at the local level for children. And they make sure that things are aligned, that they’re responding to local needs that there are not gaps in services, adequate funding. So they really are the convenors and the collaborators that pull together those local resources to serve children and families.
And so we are a membership organization that supports those 34 early-childhood council leaders in learning from each other, sharing best practices, writing grants, collaborating to inform state and local policy. So we’re a statewide organization that really tries to elevate early-childhood as a priority and a successful statewide system across Colorado.
Interesting. And did this come out of a need that was communicated from somewhere? How did someone come up with the idea of, “Hey, we should have an organization like ECCLA who can sort of bring everything together and make sure everything’s aligned across all these different services and functions and people that are serving this area?”
Sure, absolutely. Over the years Colorado has increasingly committed resources in order to link together early learning, health, mental health, family support and parent education so that young children and their families do have access to an equitable, high-quality continuum of services. So integral to the success was the establishment in 1998 of a pilot program to coordinate local early-childhood services. And by 2007 these pilot organizations were so successful, and they’d built the foundation needed for the establishment of what came to be the early-childhood councils. And those councils were established by the Colorado General Assembly. And so we are in statute, which is really, really great, and we have the support of the state.
And so ECCLA was initially formed as a collaboration among those council leaders, again to support each other, align efforts, share best practices. And we were established as a nonprofit organization in 2013. And we launched formally as a membership organization in 2014. So we’re fairly new, but the councils have been around for quite some time now. We celebrated the 20th anniversary of the pilots last year. And so they really are a statewide system that implements local service delivery at the local level, but obviously partnering at the state to ensure we’re aligned with statewide priorities and objectives as well.
So what you do makes a lot of sense to me, and I can certainly see the value of providing that continuum of services that you said, and I think that’s actually a really great terminology for it. To your knowledge is this something that exists in other states as well? Some states, all states? Or is this something unique to Colorado?
I think there are lots of other models in other states. I think North Carolina, I understand Maryland, Arizona, Hawaii. So I think there is a model across several states that are looking to build that continuum, as we said, of early-childhood services and supports, both at the local level and a statewide level. And we’re learning from other states and what their successes and challenges have been with respect to early-childhood systems building, because, as we all know each state is a little bit different. And things change with different administrations and different funding opportunities. But I do think there are a lot of other states who are doing this successfully, and we’re definitely looking to those models to improve here in Colorado.
Cool. Now let’s bring it down to the ground level. Let’s say I’m a parent and I’ve got a young child, let’s say that’s an early-childhood education program, and I’m requiring some services. I’m bringing my child to the childcare program but maybe he or she has other needs. How is ECCLA helping me?
Sure. So we again support those local early-childhood counsels. And so if your child is in need of perhaps some screenings to see if there are some developmental delays you could certainly connect with your early-childhood counsel and they could point you in the right direction to get those screenings, and they could help you navigate that system and make sure that you’re getting the services that you need. And if those screenings do show that your child is in need of services they really try and connect the dots and make sure that that referral actually results in the services and in providing access to that child to get what they need to get on the right path.
Right. Do the councils do anything I guess more proactively? Because how do I know, for example, that my child might need certain screenings? Is that something that my child’s early-childhood education program would communicate to the council? Or would the council provide them with certain resources to help them identify that? How does that work?
Sure. So I think what you’re getting at, the councils actually support the providers in the local areas with the resources and with professional development and with coaching to ensure that the children and families that are being served know about the programs and services that are there locally. So it’s a lot about awareness and connecting the dots and making sure that the providers in the community know where to send families, know how to access those services. Someone can guide them and help them navigate that landscape.
Got it. So awareness and education is a big part of it. And just to clarify, it sounds like they’re working with a wide array of stakeholders, from the childcare programs and educators to the parents and families themselves? Is that correct?
Sure, yes. Councils for the past five years have really focused on elevating the quality of early-childhood education and licensed care in Colorado through a federal Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge Grant. So although the licensed providers within their communities’ councils have supported with coaching, with resources, classroom materials, professional development, there’s been a really highly-focused effort to support those providers through this Challenge grant. So early-childhood education has been a big priority for Colorado over the last several years.
Yes, and I’ve heard through the grapevine as well that Colorado has really being quite progressive in terms of that. In your experience with ECCLA, what’s exciting in terms of the progress that you’ve seen in your work so far?
So I think part of it is that elevation in quality and licensed care. The councils do a lot of other things around parent education, health and mental health, and again, I think, responding to those local needs. So while Colorado is very geographically diverse, politically diverse, economically diverse, councils really, really are the boots on the ground and respond to local needs. And we are also a local control state, which is quite unique here. The county governments really are quite powerful and have a lot of sway in what happens locally. So the councils really partner with their county governments and with those local leaders to implement programs.
So I think Colorado also has an early-childhood Colorado framework, which is kind of the menu that we all read from and move toward. And so everyone is reading off of the same playbook. And so councils are really instrumental in implementing programs and services effectively in that local service delivery across the state.
Wonderful. That makes a lot of sense. Now, you’re the executive director of ECCLA. Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you’ve ended up in this position.
Sure. My background is actually in environmental conservation, but it wasn’t long before I entered the nonprofit world, specifically in development and fundraising. And so I worked at higher ed. and social services and the Denver Art Museum and in development. And that was wonderful because I got to really advocate and speak up and speak out on behalf of organizations that I was really passionate about and cared deeply about. And that actually led to the Colorado Children’s Campaign, where I had the good fortune of kind of pivoting from development to policy and advocacy.
And so there I coordinated statewide advocacy network and really had the good fortune to work with very passionate and inspiring children to advocates throughout the state. And many of them just happened to be, of course, leaders of those early-childhood councils. So that opened up the door to this position, which was a new adventure and opportunity and increased responsibility. And it’s just been an honor to work in this position as executive director and I just really think I have the best job I could imagine.
Awesome. And so one thing that we’re really passionate about at HiMama as well is leadership. And as the leader of ECCLA, and just in your role as an executive director, do you have any advice to early-childhood educators out there about leadership and their careers?
Absolutely. I do think early-childhood educators can play such an important role because there they have such an important job. I think with all of the research around brain science and the importance of early years this profession is so critical and lays such an important foundation for success, not only for kindergarten but, as we know, the foundations of many of our social issues. And so I would just really encourage providers to speak up and speak out. We know that they’re committed to their profession. We know they care about young children and families. They are on the frontlines, and their and their job is so critical.
So I would just encourage them to develop their careers to learn how to have a voice. And whether that’s going to your local policy-and-advocacy organization that speaks up on behalf of children – we’re so fortunate in Colorado to have the Colorado Children’s Campaign – where you can engage actively. You can go testify at the Capitol. You can get tools and templates to write your county commissioner. You can go speak in front of school boards, business leaders, Chambers of Commerce, just to talk about the challenges that you’re having. The importance of early-childhood, the importance of those early years, I think they are absolutely fundamental to the whole picture and to the whole process of trying to elevate early-childhood as a social priority.
Awesome. Very good advice. If I’m an early-childhood educator listening to the podcast here today… “I have lots of challenges. This is a really tough job, in addition to being early important one.” What’s one of the challenges that you see out there for early-childhood educators? And what advice would you have early-childhood educators out there to tackle that challenge or those challenges that you see in your role?
Sure. I think there are challenges with parent engagement. I’m sure parents are quite often very busy. They’re pulled in so many different directions. Many of them are working multiple jobs with multiple shifts. I think it would just be really important for providers to really meet parents where they are, to really listen and learn about both the successes and challenges parents are having with their children. Maybe using different engagement strategies based on each family’s specific needs, if they don’t already think about those five protective factors for strengthening families.
And then I would say just learn about your local resources. Again, in Colorado we’re fortunate to have councils who can share information and point families in the right direction. Connecting with the local human services agencies or early mental health consultants, resource and referral agencies… again, just being aware of all the resources that are available to you in your community around parents and trying to support parents when they’re stretched so thin. I’m sure it’s a big challenge for many providers out there.
Yeah, and it sounds like one of the themes you’re hitting on with a lot of these points is about the communication across all of these different stakeholders, right? The teachers the parents and others who work in health and mental health in the community so that everybody is aware of what is available to them and that if there is challenges or issues they can be dealt with, with the right timing and with the right people. So that’s a really good message, I think. And of course the closer teachers and parents can work together, the better that’s going to be.
So we have to wrap up here in a moment. I’m going to open the window for you to provide one more piece of advice. We’ve already gotten some great advice. But if you have one more piece of advice you can provide to educators out there, let’s focus on the educators who are just maybe starting out their careers. What advice do you have to them?
Sure. I would say I have benefited from finding a mentor throughout my career. I think most of us know that one person that’s been around the block a little while and has just that insight and wisdom to be tapped into. I would encourage providers who are just getting started to find that mentor, find that person that you can talk to bluntly and openly, who can really help you outside the rigors of all the credentialing, all the training and all the classes, but really speak to your inner passion and bring out the best in you, and someone you can confide in. I think finding a mentor is something we all should do and continue to do, no matter how long we’ve been in a profession. I think we can always benefit from other people’s experience and expertise.
Yeah, that’s great advice. And it sort of relates to a lot of your other excellent advice, too, in that there’s so many people out there that can help, and you’re never alone. And whether that’s a mentor or other people in the community who can support you with other services, you’re not alone in this and you just need to reach out to people. So that’s an awesome message to early-childhood educators out there, because as we all know it’s a challenging role, right?
Absolutely. It’s so challenging but it’s so critical. And so under-appreciated.
100 percent. Liz, I’ve learned a lot on this episode as I always do. And I think it’s really interesting model in Colorado with ECCLA. And again I really like the term of helping ensure there is a continuum of services, sort of bringing everything together and making sure everything’s aligned is very important so that we’re not working in silos. By working together we can provide the best developmental outcomes for our youngest and most precious children. Thank you so much for coming on the show today, Liz. Before we wrap up, though, I do want to make sure that you can direct people to where you guys are online so they can learn more about ECCLA and your work.
Absolutely. I appreciate that. Our website is www.ECCLAColorado.org, and you can find a wealth of information there, especially an interactive map of our councils throughout the state, and would love people to go there and learn more about it.
Very cool. Liz, thank you so much for coming on the show today.
Thank you. It’s been a pleasure. I appreciate it.