A new non-profit backed by several influential foundations launched this spring with the goal of improving the state’s early childhood systems.

The Denver-based organization, called Early Milestones Colorado, is meant to accelerate innovation by serving as an intermediary to the various state agencies, community organizations, and private sector groups that do early childhood work in the state.

Six funders contributed a total of $300,000 to launch Early Milestones. They include the Temple Hoyne Buell Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, the Denver Foundation, Rose Community Foundation, Chambers Family Fund, and the Cydney and Tom Marsico Family Foundation.

Jennifer Stedron, the group’s executive director, compared Early Milestones’ mission in the early childhood world to the Colorado Education Initiative’s mission in the K-12 world. The latter group collaborates closely with the Colorado Department of Education and local school districts to incubate innovative programs.

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PHOTO: Micaela Watts

Bill Jaeger, vice president for early childhood initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign, said one of the challenges of early childhood work is that it touches on many different domains, including early learning, physical health, mental health, and family support.

“That makes it incredibly difficult to work across the siloes we’ve built,” he said.

“Milestones has the opportunity to serve as this hub of information and a sort of conduit across these siloes.”

National context

Intermediary organizations like Early Milestones are relatively new. One of the country’s first in the early childhood arena was the North Carolina’s Partnership for Children, founded in 1994.

Leaders from other states soon become so interested in the partnership’s work that the group secured foundation dollars to provide technical assistance grants to states that wanted to improve their own early childhood systems. Colorado was one of the grantees.

One of the recommendations that emerged from that technical assistance process here in the early 2000s was the creation of an early childhood intermediary organization.

“I really see this type of organization as a partner with government, but it also plays a unique role in questioning the system and requiring accountability for children,” said Karen Ponder, former president of the North Carolina Partnership.

Ponder estimated that 20 states have some kind of early-childhood intermediary organization, though they differ significantly in size, scope and structure.

Elsa Holguín, president of the Early Milestones board and a senior program officer at Rose Community Foundation, said, “This whole concept of creating intermediaries is going to make more and more sense as time goes by.”

Bruce Atchison, executive director of policy and operations at the Education Commission of the States, said while some other states have or are launching similar efforts, it’s not widespread.

“I think what Colorado is doing is kind of in the forefront, in that it’s a separate (non-profit). I think that’s kind of exciting,” he said. “I think it will be a nice model for other states if they’re successful.”

Third leg of the stool

Early Milestones leaders describe the group as the critical third leg on the three-legged stool of early childhood infrastructure. In other words, without that leg the stool tips over.

While there are different versions of the stool analogy, the other two legs are often state agencies and the local early childhood councils across the state.

In Colorado, one of the key state agencies overseeing programs for young children is the Office of Early Childhood, which was created in 2012 within the Department of Human Services. Meanwhile, the top of the stool is the Early Childhood Leadership Commission, a state advisory panel established in 2010.

Holguín said the creation of those two entities, along with an influx of early childhood funding in 2012 from the federal Race to the Top grant, were promising developments, but not enough.

There needed to be a non-profit group that could work as a convener and collaborator. Not only would it bring together government, philanthropy, the business community and other early childhood stakeholders, it would serve as a place to test ideas and programs.

Since state government can’t typically experiment with promising but unproven practices, Early Milestones can help fill that gap.

Starting last fall, Holguin and other foundation leaders presented the concept to groups around the state. While some groups wanted more concrete details, she said there was near universal interest.

“Every time we met with somebody…at the end of every meeting, they would say, “Oh, and I have a project that I need you to do.”’

Three projects underway

While Early Milestones won’t have its official unveiling until later this year, Stedron and her team already have three projects underway.

First is an update of the Early Childhood Colorado Framework, which was first published in 2008. Since then, state and national developments like the Affordable Care Act and a new rating system for child care providers have come along, rendering the original version out of date.

The framework, which outlines the state’s vision and strategy for achieving a strong early childhood environment, is meant to guide the work of local, regional and state leaders.

Sheryl Shusan, manager of the Early Childhood Leadership Commission, said Early Milestones played a vital role in facilitating the revision process.

Early Milestones has also developed an expansion plan for Project LAUNCH, a federally-funded program to improve early childhood mental health. That effort came out of a push by several health and early-childhood foundations to use local philanthropy dollars to expand the program’s reach in Colorado.

Stedron said the organization’s work to help plan Project LAUNCH’s expansion is “a great example of the intermediary’s role as a thought partner…someone to help accelerate what is a really good idea.”

Third, Early Milestones is conducting a national scan of state models for educating parents about the importance of and their role in their children’s earliest years.

“It’s been thrilling to embark on some of these projects as we’re in development,” said Stedron.

Chalkbeat Colorado is a grantee of the Walton Family Foundation, the Denver Foundation and the Rose Community Foundation.