When the state of Oklahoma created what would become the Oklahoma Early Childhood Program (OECP) for low-income families across the state, Tulsa's existing Community Action Project of Tulsa County (CAP Tulsa) quickly responded with a proposal that would match public funds with private donations. The combination of public allocations and private dollars (which now averages between $20-30 million per year) created community-based early childhood partnerships across the state, including partnerships with tribal agencies.
After being chosen to implement the state program, CAP Tulsa has spent 13 years helping Oklahoma families access high-quality early childhood care and education programs that prepare infants and toddlers for kindergarten. Additionally, CAP Tulsa offers parents living in and around Tulsa a chance to enroll in free workforce training to gain certifications in the high-paying and rapidly growing healthcare field – a two-generation approach that helps stabilize families both financially and emotionally.
Oklahoma’s state legislature created the Early Childhood Program in 2006 in order to improve both the quality and the capacity of early care and education for children birth through age three, as well as equip parents with necessary training and support. By 2018, the OECP was partnering with 10 providers in 237 classrooms, serving a total of 2,830 children. The partners include child care centers, school districts, tribal and community agencies, and local Head Start and Early Head Start programs.
Perhaps one of the most unique parts of Oklahoma’s program is the requirement for partners to provide a trained “Family Support Specialist” who meets with parents to link them to family support and help them develop and reach personal goals. The specialists refer parents to emergency assistance and counseling programs, if necessary, and to opportunities for employment services and training. This two-generation approach is a powerful tool to help Oklahoma fight the cycle of poverty that often prevents children from succeeding later in life.
The training for OECP caregivers was created by West Ed Center for Child and Family Studies and the California Department of Education. Their Program for Infant and Toddler Care (PITC) is one of the most widely used training systems in the U.S. “It was the model we believed in and had been using,” said Michelle Boatright, Chief Program Officer at CAP Tulsa. “It’s very much about relationship-based caregiving and taking the child’s lead, in the least restrictive environment. It was spot-on as far as the youngest children go. It takes into account individual differences as well as group care, and it’s aligned with Head Start philosophy.”
According to Kristina Ellis, Director of Health and Collaborative Services for CAP Tulsa, much of OECP’s funding goes toward improving classroom environments. Providers must submit an annual application that includes a budget and a plan for meeting curriculum quality levels and state requirements. Those requirements mean that all providers must be licensed and meet specified program requirements, which are based on national Early Head Start performance standards. Classroom staff must also meet degree and training requirements. Furthermore, participating programs must use approved technology systems for curriculum, assessment, and data collection. The University of Oklahoma-Early Childhood Education Institute performs assessments through classroom observation, and then provides data analysis and feedback.
OECP classrooms have shown positive results. The most recent 2018 report found participating programs scored very high in emotional support and classroom organization, and were above average in instructional support. To measure these outcomes, researchers use environment rating scales to evaluate the quality of the early years environment. Infant and toddler programs received an ITERS observation and scored overall in the “good” range. Three-year-old programs received an ECERS observation and also scored within the “good” range overall.
According to Boatright, the OECP program showed results very early, and the experience developed by program leadership led to adjustments and improvements over the years. “What’s been great about having the data from the university is that they give it back to us with comments in a way that our professional development specialists can go out and give classrooms information about why they’re doing well and where there may be opportunities for improvement.”
For example, the legislation initially required one teacher with a bachelor’s degree per classroom, but that proved almost impossible in rural areas. Through assistance from the Oklahoma State Department of Education, the requirement was adjusted to require one lead teacher with at least an associate’s degree. The State Department of Education was also open to adjusting the weeks of operation required each year to allow for additional professional development days.
The wrap-around service element of the OECP is key to empowering parents and utilizing the two-generation approach, particularly in Tulsa County. CAP Tulsa has been able to meet and exceed the state’s family support requirements through various offerings and services for parents and caregivers. After a small pilot in 2009, the agency received two five-year Health Profession Opportunity Grant (HPOG) awards to establish a unique and highly acclaimed career-training program for local parents called CareerAdvance®. The program helps Tulsa parents obtain certifications in the healthcare field, including Certified Nursing Assistant, Phlebotomy, Medical Assistant, and Licensed Practical Nurse. Participating parents receive free tuition, as well as other wraparound services from partnering education programs for nursing, health information technology, and medical assisting. In-kind assistance such as child care, bus passes, and gas cards also help parents balance the needs of their families.
Between 2011 and 2015, the program served 150 parents, of whom 61% received healthcare-applicable certification. Furthermore, the children who were enrolled in CAP Tulsa’s early care and education programs (whether or not their parents enrolled in CareerAdvance®) performed better academically than the national Early Head Start average.
The state legislature must annually approve OECP’s funding, which has fluctuated over the years. The initial legislation required $10 million from the state to be matched by $5 million from philanthropy. By the second year, private donations were already at $15 million, and in 2018 the ratio was $12 million state to $18 million private. “There’s been a great deal of support from the communities,” Boatright noted. “The George Kaiser Family Foundation provides the largest share of the private match, and other funders in the participating communities have stepped up and provided funding over time. The communities are very appreciative of that.”
Ellis advises others who are considering applying for public funding for infants and toddlers to have a specific plan in place before approaching policymakers. “The state had general guidelines, but we had to propose the specifics,” she said. “We had to put into place the health referrals and services and the community partnerships that would need to be built. We were also fortunate to have a private funder involved very early on who is deeply committed to early childhood education. Having reliable private funding in place helps to ensure an annual state funding commitment.”
She noted that collaboration with and among partners, and respect for those partners, is also important: “Listening to our partners, contractors, and providers made it much more of a collaboration, and we found opportunities for the partners to collaborate with each other as well. We told them we didn’t want to change what they were doing, we just wanted to assist with enhancing what they were already doing.”
In fact, CAP Tulsa has been so successful at forging partnerships, Ellis added, that when the national Head Start organization was looking to create child care partnerships, they reached out to CAP Tulsa among others for advice on how to get that started. “They knew we had looked to Head Start as a foundation and worked with providers to bring up quality, and that’s the same idea they’re using at the national level.”
Oklahoma Early Childhood Program website. https://okecp.org/
West Ed Center for Family Studies website. https://www.wested.org/program/center-for-child-family-studies/
“OECP Annual Report, 2017-2018,” Oklahoma Early Childhood Program. https://okecp.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/OECP-Annual-Report-2018.pdf
“What Are the Effects of a Two-Generation Human Capital Program on Low-Income Parents’ Education, Employment and Psychological Well-Being”, Aspen Institute, Two Generation Programs Brief #1, February 2019. https://ascend.aspeninstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/CAP-Tulsa-impact-analysis_Brief-1_2019.pdf
“CareerAdvance© Works for Tulsa Parents, Families, and Children,” CAP Tulsa brochure, January 14, 2019. https://www.captulsa.org/uploaded_assets/pdf/CAP-FLS-Findings-Graphic_-01-14-19-FINAL-1.pdf
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