Some Discovery communities are just starting out when it comes to the idea of a Early Childhood Blueprint; others are ready to unveil their work on the project.
Wethersfield is in an exploratory phase, seeking individuals in town to participate and gauging how and if to proceed. On Nov. 30, community members including the Wethersfield School Readiness Council, town and state officials and early care and education advocates, gathered at the Pitkin Community Center to listen to officials from towns that have completed their blueprints or are close to completion on their blueprints and the process it took for them.
“What an incredible journey it was,” said Shelly Flynn, Discovery coordinator for Colchester Public Schools. “It's much more than data analysis/collection and results-based accountability. It's an opportunity for the community to develop meaning in supporting children.”
Colchester's Discovery established a workgroup that met once a month for at least 18 months. It invited all partners to the table – the public, senior citizens, town agencies, parents, early care providers and library officials and discussed how to engage the missing stakeholders. Data collection was tedious, said Flynn, and there was a lot of data not available to them, such as child obesity and well-child visit information. What was available, she said, was information on health/wellbeing, family supports and early care and education. All of that data was collected for the plan.
There was also information that Colchester Discovery wasn't aware of – that the town had a homeless population and 153 families have no transportation. If families need social services, they must got to Norwich, but there is no way to get there.
Colchester focused on what changes were possible and offered survey blasts, Expos and other ways of receiving over 1,000 responses on what the focus and priorities of the blueprint should be. Focus groups met on what was important and a draft of the blueprint began to take shape. Partners were identified and work began on a financing plan. The draft plan was posted online and feedback was solicited. After final adjustments, endorsements were sought from plan partners, including the boards of selectmen and education.
“We were done in 18 months,” said Flynn. “That's a very tight timeline. We should have taken more time. I'm glad to hear Wethersfield is [taking] two years. We haven't fully developed our financing plan, partners, etc.”
However, Flynn noted that it was an incredible opportunity to bring the community together on a common goal and that it helped establish key partnerships as a result of the plan and it increased communications between the community and the school system.
Vernon was just over 10 months into the planning process by Nov. 30, said Youth Services Director Alan Slobodien. The Vernon Community Network, formed in 2004, decided to undertake a community planning process as a result of an essential change in the Families With Service Needs law. The law change, Slobodien said, sent a clear message that juvenile courts would have little or no power to assist FWSN families, therefore, the VCN approached the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving to undertake a planning process.
“We decided we needed to bring all the heads together to figure out how to serve these kids,” said Slobodien. “[We're] finding some of our essential data points, we are wondering if they are data points that have strength...to the entire community,” he added.
Slobodien also stressed the importance of talking to the kids themselves – they'll let you what they need, he said.
“Don't eliminate any voice – every voice is important,” he said.
Some of the challenges Vernon has found include reaching certain populations. Vernon has an emerging Hispanic population, Slobodien said, and it had been hard to reach them, until reaching out to a pastor at a Hispanic church.
Slobodien also suggested hiring a consultant who understands both decision-making and results-based accountability.
In Vernon's case, funding comes from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, because this plan encompasses more than just birth to 8. It was a comprehensive birth to 18 plan.
“You may discover things you never knew existed right before your eyes,” Slobodien said.
Wethersfield officials soaked it all in as they listened to Flynn and Slobodien.
“There are 54 Discovery Communities in Connecticut given the opportunity,” said Mary Fulton, Discovery coordinator for the Wethersfield School Readiness Council. “This is a new thing for us. We need to know if the town of Wethersfield is willing to do the work,” she said.