EMD Story

Early Matters Dallas Story

In 2006, the board of The Dallas Foundation determined that early childhood learning was one of the most important areas of leverage for their philanthropy. In partnership with The Meadows Foundation, they embarked on a learning tour which took them to San Antonio, Houston, and Austin. After a year of learning, the group decided that they wanted to do something bigger than they could individually, and agreed to each invest as one unit: Zero to Five Funders Collaborative. They chose a place-based approach in a neglected neighborhood and an outcome of school readiness for the community’s children. The Zero to Five Funders Collaboration now includes 34 individuals, family, corporate and community foundations.

Seven years of funding later, with additional mentoring from organizations in Tulsa and Hartford, the ZFFC opened a physical location, Bachman Lake Together Family Center, that serves families with young children with a variety of programs including education, health services, and financial coaching, all aimed at increasing school readiness in this neighborhood. This collaboration was important because it galvanized much of the giving community around a single, important topic about which they had become educated.

This project required collaboration with the Dallas Independent School District because area elementary school principals were critical to neighborhood success and the ability to determine if the programs were, in fact, raising the level of school readiness. Because area principals were receptive, supportive and, most importantly, good leaders for their campuses, this collaboration offered an opportunity for the funding community to contribute to the improvement of Early Childhood Learning and practices at the District.

About 3 or 4 years into this project, retired Goldman-Sachs executive Todd Williams studied a successful cradle to career program, Strive Partnership in Cincinnati, and brought the program to Dallas. He started a collective impact project called the Commit Partnership that began doing two key critical things. The first is bringing the variety of agencies, organizations and districts to the table in a neutral setting. Because of the ZFFC, everyone was aware of the funders’ desire that more collaboration take place at the service provider level. Commit was the entity which could convene the group.

Commit also began to collect, integrate, analyze and report out data from a variety of sources to quantify the problems and challenges in objective terms. The ability to infuse the conversations between providers, districts, and funders with data enabled our community to coalesce around common goals and objectives. Additionally, beyond Dallas, data has had the impact of shaping and changing prioritizations of other local school districts: Mesquite and Fort Worth ISD, which collectively educate 120,000 students, have made 3rd grade literacy the hallmark of their strategic plans.

In 2011, a Dallas ISD trustee led the effort to move the district to full day from a mix of half day and full day Pre‑K. In 2013, the district created an executive director position focused exclusively on Pre‑K, and Alan Cohen moved from Commit to Dallas ISD to fill the role, with the goal of increasing the number of children ready for Kindergarten.

With a few key initiatives underway, Cohen also began working with the community in 2014 to develop a more comprehensive long-term plan to increase kindergarten readiness. That strategy, for the first time, articulated a focus on improving kindergarten readiness through four key levers: increasing access for families, creating demand for Pre‑K, developing quality, and a continuum of care.

This strategy could not have got off the ground without the deep support of the DISD Board of Trustees, or without the Boston Consulting Group, who invested a team to help with developing the strategy.

One of the major outcomes of this strategy was a major marketing push to increase Pre‑K enrollment, including the launch of the first Dallas County Pre‑K registration campaign, where 5 districts and more than 75 community organizations rallied together to increase Pre‑K enrollment by more than 250 percent across the county. Today, this effort goes far beyond Dallas ISD to include 16 districts aligned on a common Pre‑K registration week with the support of nearly 150 community partners.

It was also during this period that the Dallas ISD team began to grow, with an emphasis on intensive, job-embedded coaching for teachers. DISD hired its first Pre‑K Specialists, a group of coaches dedicated to partnering with Pre‑K teachers across the district to improve the quality of instruction for kids.

Only 2 years after the combined efforts of Dallas ISD and the community began, Dallas was already seeing some encouraging results. Pre‑K enrollment had grown and Kindergarten Readiness was up by 13 percentage points. Furthermore, Dallas ISD became the first district in the state to pass a policy mandating that all eligible 3 and 4 year olds would be served by 2025, a $60 million budget prioritization over ten years. The results gave us confidence that we were on the right track as a community, but looking ahead, it was clear that to continue the momentum we would need significantly more resources and support to build on these early successes.

In recognition of the importance of aligning the early years, the district added the ownership of K‑2 to the existing Pre‑K department and brought them all together under Early Learning.

In March of 2016, Derek Little joined DISD as the assistant superintendent for Early Learning. Supt. Little is now focused on building on those early successes by expanding to 3 year old pre‑K, raising enrollment by more than 1,000 children, increasing alignment from Pre-K-2nd grade, strengthening the focus on birth to eight opportunities through partnerships with community-based providers, and piloting a robust, comprehensive approach to family engagement, and improving quality.

In parallel to the great work at DISD, some other leaders of early learning in Dallas (a group of folks who’ve been around these issues in key roles for several decades) were meeting. They believed DISD’s successes could be expanded into a strategy that incorporates countywide lens.

This idea came from a visit to Houston for the launch of the Early Matters Houston initiative. Discussion ensued and a plan to copy the good work of Early Matters Houston (now a part of Good Reason Houston) was hatched. Like Houston, Dallas had a group of corporate and philanthropic leaders who were willing to take on the responsibility for leading the charge on behalf of Dallas County children. Early Matters Dallas was formed as a vehicle to coordinate the awareness and advocacy efforts and to increase funding of quality early childhood development, experiences and learning.

Early Matters Dallas, Houston, and now Austin have joined forces and are advocating at the state level with one voice when it comes to issues related to early learning. We hope to continue speaking on behalf of the 1 in 3 children in Texas who live in one of these three urban centers.