With a service area that over 500,000 Texans call home, United Way of Coastal Bend (UWCB) serves a diverse community. Their families live in cities, suburban towns, and across broad rural counties. And from the high rises of Corpus Christi to the tiny villages along the Gulf of Mexico, early childhood success is a priority for UWCB.
Success by 6, a flagship UWCB program, brings together over 40 local organizations around their common educational goals. Their wide-ranging membership includes health care providers, the Junior League, and local media providers. What brings these groups together is their common vision: to ensure children in the Coastal Bend are physically, intellectually and emotionally prepared to succeed in kindergarten.
Looking for Innovation
In 2018, the United Way of Coastal Bend’s Success by 6 team headed to a national early learning conference with a mandate. Their goal was to return with three new strategies that could increase kindergarten readiness. As a part of the Corpus Christi mayor’s early learning leadership group, they were looking for innovative solutions to achieve their mission of equitable kindergarten readiness.
A member of the early learning leadership group and local early childhood education professor joined a session in which Ready4K was presenting. Intrigued by the potential of the program, she signed herself up and brought the program back to the Success by 6 team.
Donna Hurley, Vice President of Community Impact, also set herself up with a Ready4K account. “I wanted to see it from the parent side. We didn’t want to overburden the parents. This was a painless way for parents to have some activities with their kids that were natural. That could be added into daily routines & not be another ‘thing’.”
Simplified management and reporting was also a significant draw. “It’s not something that you have to manage,” said Sherry Peterson, UWCB Director of Success by 6. “I don’t have to worry about putting together the data. And I don’t have to formulate a report – I love that part.”
UWCB had available funds through a 5-year state grant for the Success by 6 program. Ready4K fit the grant goals and would give them an innovative new approach to achieving their vision.
Connecting with Families
Like the Cleveland Kids’ Book Bank, UWCB started by offering Ready4K through events and sign up opportunities at partner locations. As a coalition facilitator, the Success by 6 team provided partners with resources to register their families. This included home visitors, child development centers, and through social media streams. Like most opt-in enrollment strategies, it was a long process as they worked to reach as many families as possible.
Just before the COVID-19 crisis hit, UWCB and the Ready4K team decided to try a new strategy. The new approach would get the program into thousands of families’ hands immediately. Through a partnership with the local school district, they could enroll thousands of families in Ready4K quickly and efficiently. Together, they reached out to the Corpus Christi Independent School District (CCISD).
Iris Estrada, the early childhood coordinator for CCISD, was familiar with the Ready4K program. As a member of the Corpus Christi early childhood community, she had seen it when the Success by 6 team began exploring innovative ideas. Now that UWCB wanted to offer the program to CCISD families, Iris was also introduced to the backend data analytics. Importantly, she could see that implementation would be fast and easy.
“Once I talked to our tech team and looked at the template, it was very easy to add our families,” said Iris. “In fact, I was able to do it. Some of our processes require 2 to 3 people to get it all done, but it was really a simple process.” After planning their launch, which included announcing the program to parents, the welcome message was texted to over 1300 CCISD preschool and Kindergarten parents.
The successful launch led to an expansion, with CCISD adding another 9000 parents of 1st through 4th graders two weeks later.
CCISD Goals and Insights
For Iris, offering families Ready4K was a way to provide the newest members of the CCISD community with a resource that would “fall into their lap,” something they could use whenever they need it. As the parent of a first grader, she sees first hand how COVID-19 is a traumatic event for young children. “It was such a quick shift to remote learning, not being able to socialize with friends and have that daily routine you’d get at school. It’s trauma.”
Every quarter, Ready4K surveys parents to get direct feedback from families. The May 2020 survey confirmed that other families were experiencing the issues Iris identified. When asked what activities were most helpful, one parent responded “the ones that discuss little children and their big feelings – stress and coping mechanisms. It helps to remind me that my kindergartener is going through a lot as well, and it’s hard for her too.”
As a diverse district with families that speak many different languages, the ability to offer the program in English, Spanish, Arabic, and now Vietnamese and Chinese was really valuable. “The languages offered are definitely in our top 10.” Approximately 10% of CCISD families are currently receiving the program in a language other than English.
The approach – a text-based parenting curriculum and family engagement tool – hadn’t been on her radar until the partnership with UWCB. “Until we started using Ready4K, I thought of family engagement as a face-to-face activity. But now I have a broader view of what we can do. It can be a struggle to get parents into school. Now that I’ve seen it in action, my idea of what family engagement means has gotten bigger.”
Benefits of Partnership
The partnership between UWCB and CCISD gave both organizations an opportunity to achieve their goals more effectively and efficiently than they could have on their own. For UWCB, the process of enrolling families one-by-one was already a challenge they were ready to move beyond. After COVID hit, it was going to be extremely difficult to reach their goals. The addition of CCISD families allowed them to accelerate their engagement. “It was very satisfying to report [our enrollment numbers] back to the state,” said Sherry. “To be able to report how many families we have on the platform – we were very pleased.”
For CCISD, finding the funding for a new program is always a challenge. “Funding is so tight and it can be tied up by restrictions,” said Iris. “[Partnering with UWCB] was such a benefit, because UWCB has been so involved in our school and our region. And their support in this way and so many others has been really helpful. They’re so willing to help our families.”
As they look forward, both organizations see more opportunity for supporting families. “Ready4K Trauma-Informed really piqued our interest,” said “Donna. “We’d be really interested in that program for the next year. We hope to continue partnering to offer it to CCISD. The partnership has been instrumental in getting what we’re looking for.”
Corpus Christi photo by Rajeev Bector on Unsplash