Her center wasn't signed up for the program. Even with the dollars that came with participation, money that could help families pay for child care and staff pay for continuing education, her board of directors had said no. As a faith-based organization, they feared it would make them too much like every other center. Still, Early Achievers was calling Ellenwood to check in.
"At a time when we didn't have anyone in our corner, the coach asked us what we needed and then provided sanitizer, masks and resources," she says. Over time and with continued interactions, Ellenwood learned about a transformation in progress, a reimagining that would replace the Early Achievers rating system with something entirely different: self-directed recognition and improvement.
"This strength-based approach, focused on the uniqueness of early learning providers, whether faith-based or multi-cultural or something else, excited me," says Ellenwood. She was so impressed that even though she loved her current position as director, she eventually decided to leave and become an early learning coach. Now she works to bring others the support and momentum for growth that she needed when she was in their position.
"I also love for parents to have more options to choose what environment they want for their children," she says. "For example, I'm Native American, and there's a Salish immersion school. That makes my heart so happy that in an urban setting, not on the reservation, Native American families that live in the city have access to this unique school."
Becoming One Team
"During the pandemic, we had the opportunity to adjust and adapt quickly in partnership, to shake the sheets," says Sandy Maldonado, director of Early Learning at Child Care Aware of Washington.
"The state opened up the opportunity to innovate and talked to us about options," says Juliet Taylor, deputy director at Cultivate Learning, a University of Washington organization advancing early childhood education by bridging theory and practice.
Child Care Aware of Washington and Cultivate Learning work under contract with the Washington State Department of Children, Youth & Families (DCYF) to support providers in the Early Achievers program. In a coordinated way, Cultivate Learning collects data, supports professional development and training, maintains learning frameworks, and leads ongoing evaluation and research alongside Child Care Aware of Washington who oversees the relationship-based services (coaching, training, mental health consulting, and family services), and supports systems development and implementation.
Child Care Aware and Cultivate Learning and their respective teams of coaches, researchers and data collectors had ideas on rethinking the program. They also saw an opportunity to review and rework what might be duplicative across teams. So, when the state invited them to individually present options, they instead decided to prepare one joint proposal. “We wanted to collaboratively hold the torch for high quality, especially at a time of great ambiguity due to the pandemic,” says Taylor.
Amid the social upheaval, racial reckoning and the pandemic's inequitable impact especially felt in early child care, the joint proposal included revising Early Achievers around a racial equity framework and theory of change that put providers in the driver's seat.
When the state approved their proposal, a new collaborative journey began. "When the crisis in child care staffing hit rock bottom, we rallied together: higher education, community-based organizations, and a state department,” says Maldonado. “We committed to an equity lens and also a lens of complexity as we began testing a liberatory design approach. It has been hard work and delightful to co-create conditions for inclusion, show up as our true selves — me, as a Latino leader — and find both a collective sense of belonging and inspiring ways forward."
Not only that, but the state expanded the program to include providers caring for children up to age 12, opening the way to support more children over a more extended period.