EHS-Child Care Partnerships: The Rising Tide That Lifts All Boats

Blog Post
May 3, 2016

It’s a beautiful Tuesday afternoon in Indianapolis. At Little Dove Daycare at East Tenth United Methodist Church, two-year-olds sit in a circle with their teachers after lunch. The teachers hand each child a special doll, used only for this lesson. There are other dolls in the classroom for the children to play with, but “Baby Doll Circle Time” is different.

“Where are your baby’s knees?” one teacher asks. The toddlers all point to their doll’s knees. Then she asks them to show where their own knees are. “Can you count your baby’s toes?” asks the other teacher. Together, the class counts to ten, touching each of their doll’s tiny toes. One girl proudly announces, “I did it!”

One of the boys starts dangling his doll upside down by its feet. The teacher kindly reminds him to be gentle with the baby, and suggests that the class cuddle and rock their dolls. Next, one teacher suggests that they sing a song to their babies, asking the toddlers for requests. A boy practically jumps out of his seat with excitement when suggesting “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Together the class sings the song to their dolls, placing their babies carefully in their laps to free up their hands for the song’s hand motions.

Baby Doll Circle Time is designed to develop children’s social-emotional skills, such as self-regulation and empathy, as well as their language skills, numeracy, and more. Teachers bring in activities from the classroom and from the children’s homes and encourage them to recreate the experiences with their dolls. The dolls allow the toddlers to have one-on-one interactions, forming attachments and bonds, all essential components of learning in the early years.

The teachers at Little Dove Daycare learned about Baby Doll Circle Time and received the tools needed to use it in their classroom at a professional development session as part of the center’s Early Head Start-Child Care (EHS-CC) partnerships grant. Little Dove Daycare is one of three child care centers in Indianapolis working together to implement a five-year, $1,700,000 Early Head Start-Child Care partnership grant. Early Learning Indiana, a provider of and advocate for high-quality early education in Indianapolis, is the primary grantee. Early Learning Indiana selected partners that were both interested in and ready to implement the program.

Little Dove Daycare has been serving infants and toddlers for two decades, and now serves 24 of them with EHS funds. EHS serves children in families with incomes at or below 100 percent of the federal poverty level ($24,300 for a family of four in 2016) or those meeting other criteria such as being in foster care or experiencing homelessness. The beauty of the EHS-CC grant is that not only are the 24 EHS children benefitting-- all of the infants and toddlers in their classrooms are too because the program is focused on changing classroom and center practices. Throughout Indianapolis, 88 children are now enrolled in EHS between the three centers, but 136 children are experiencing higher quality care as a result.

About $150,000 to $200,000 of the grant is being used to improve the infrastructure of the buildings and playgrounds to bring them up to EHS standards. Little Dove Daycare, for example, needed new windows, doors, and floors. These upgrades benefit all children in the center. All infants and toddlers also benefit from the training and professional development now available to teachers and staff.

EHS is different from most child care because it provides comprehensive services, such as health screenings, home visiting, and disability services. One center director said that parents were reluctant about home visiting at first, but that both parents and teachers have found it valuable. The three centers meet once or twice per month to coordinate efforts and use a shared-services model. They have a curriculum director who works as a coach across centers and two family engagement specialists. Adding these roles has been hugely beneficial, according to the Director of Early Head Start Childcare Network, Christine Garza, who is leading this work. She explained, “Now that there are more people in charge, we can all do more than just fight fires all the time.”

Of course, there have been a few challenges along the way. With greater accountability comes more monitoring and paperwork for EHS programs. Some staff reported that what goes on the centers isn’t necessarily different, but that they now have to spend a significant amount more time documenting it. The centers also had to adjust their adult-child ratio for toddlers to align with the 4:1 EHS requirement.

Because each center started in a different place going into the partnership, they’ve each had to make different quality improvements to align with the EHS requirements. Some staff said that the Child Development Associate (CDA) requirement for teachers has been difficult to meet and they were thankful for the 18-month implementation period they were given to align centers with EHS standards.

EHS-CC has meant significant changes for these three programs, but those leading the implementation efforts feel that the work is worthwhile. According to Ted Maple, President and CEO of Early Learning Indiana, “The way providers approach standards and quality has gone to the next level with Head Start.” The partnership is expanding access to high-quality care, which is in very high demand in Indianapolis. There are currently 30,000 families on the state waiting list for federal child care subsidies.

Early Learning Indiana is just one of over 230 EHS-CC grantees throughout the country. EHS has traditionally been an underfunded program, only reaching about four percent of eligible children in 2013. The partnerships allowed EHS to reach 32,000 more infants and toddlers over the last year. While Early Learning Indiana’s grant is relatively small, it’s making a big difference in the lives of some infants and toddlers in Indianapolis."