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Illinois Takes on the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge
In 2012, Illinois reapplied for and was awarded the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC) grant and proposed the following targets to improve its early learning and development (ELD) systems.
The state planned to:
- Develop in-person and web-based training on the newly revised Early Learning Guidelines (for children birth to three) and provide train-the-trainer sessions for staff in child care resource and referral (CCR&R) agencies, the Illinois Resource Center, the Illinois Birth to Three Institute, members of the Illinois Trainers Network, and those who provide training to Head Start and Early Head Start programs.
- Select six to eight Communities of Concentrated High Need (CCHN) to engage in a local planning process to increase the number and percentage of children with high needs enrolled in high-quality early learning and development programs. CCHN may choose from a list of strategies developed by the state, including providing scholarships to educators to obtain the Gateways to Opportunity Level 5 Infant Toddler Credential. RTT-ELC funds would support implementation of the selected strategies.
- Add a Quality Specialist to each of the 16 regional CCR&R agencies to support quality improvement in early learning and development programs.
An annual performance report completed in 2017 highlights the numerous accomplishments Illinois has completed since receiving the RTT-ELC grant in 2012. The performance report also highlights significant challenges that the state has faced throughout the process; for example, the severe fiscal issues plaguing Illinois throughout the majority of 2016 and the impact it had on the RTT-ELC performance. Since 2012, the priorities of the grant have shifted. The goals that were highlighted in the 2016 report are the following:
- Deeping the integration of state supports to create a unified framework for all early learning and development programs.
- Connecting the most-at-risk children with the supports and services they need.
- Increasing program quality: From adequate to good and from good to great.
To date, Illinois Action for Children coordinates the work of 11 Early Childhood Innovation Zones as part of the grant. Each Innovation Zone was selected based on 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. Community groups are engaged in planning. These sites are pilots for future implementation of new state strategies and policies.
Over the course of the grant, Illinois and the early childhood system experienced a myriad of challenges. For nearly half of the grant period, Illinois has been without a fully enacted state budget. Ongoing payment delays to providers have put undue strain on programs and engendered a sense of instability and vulnerability. Leadership changes, both anticipated and unexpected, have also challenged the early childhood system and tested its resiliency and adaptability. And still, the early childhood community has persisted. Programs have continued to engage in continuous quality improvement activities and strive for excellence. The number of children who are enrolled in high quality programs continues to increase, most notably among children in the Child Care Assistance Program.
To learn how other states are using RTT-ELC funds to strengthen their early childhood systems in ZERO TO THREEs paper, The Early Learning Challenge Grant Is Helping States Better Serve Infants and Toddlers.
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