It is almost hard to believe it’s already September, and even more hard to believe is that today we celebrate 47 years of serving the community with our early childhood and parenting education programming! Through the past 47 years, we have faced many challenges, but none like those we have faced this year. With so much uncertainty, adversity, and loss, this year has felt both fleeting and endless, almost in equal measure. But with 47 years of experience, we know we are strong and our AVANCE community has been a source of that strength and has shown great resilience and determination. In that spirit of resilience, I wanted to update you on our work and the many ways that AVANCE continues to thrive.
To celebrate AVANCE’s 47th Anniversary and kick off Hispanic Heritage Month, I will be sitting down with Melanie Mendez-Gonzales, creator of the Latina culture blog Que Means What , to discuss AVANCE and share more about our work and future direction. You can also help us celebrate our anniversary! We are looking for 47 individuals to donate $47 toward our efforts to support parents in a virtual world. We are building a parent portal where our parents can get real time access to tips and tools to help them continue to be their child’s first teacher in their first classroom – home! To help us support parents, particularly through the challenging time we are all facing, please click here.
Where we’re headed
AVANCE Inc. successfully completed strategic planning in June. A newly developed Theory of Change and 3-Year Strategic Plan culminated the months-long process, allowing us to align our priorities, programming, and support efforts to best serve our families and communities. Our strategic plan outlines four areas of focus that will guide our work over the next three years: Expanding our reach; Increasing the depth of our two-generation approach; Clarifying our brand to increase awareness and advocacy; and Establishing robust systems that support innovation and continuous quality improvement. This is as monumental an undertaking as it sounds, but our dedicated team has already made progress toward the goals we have set for the first year of our plan.
As I mentioned back in June, we were awarded a federal grant to operate Head Start and Early Head Start programs in the counties of Starr and Zapata, and we are beginning virtual service delivery this month, bringing our programming to more families across the Rio Grande Valley. Our redesigned Parent-Child Education Program (PCEP) is being launched this fall. The new curriculum not only better aligns with our Theory of Change, it provides necessary flexibility for virtual delivery. We have also adapted the content of our Families, Friends, and Neighbors (FFN) curriculum for virtual delivery within our Travis County Family Child Care Network, with classes scheduled to begin late September. We are engaging internal and external stakeholders to refine our brand, highlighting our two-generation approach, commitment to equity, and our roots within Latinx communities. And we are in the process of establishing the foundations for the systems that will support our work in key areas, including: content and learning management systems and a robust network-wide data system.
Head Start and Early Head Start in Starr and Zapata Counties
In the few short months since announcing our expansion in the Texas Rio Grande Valley, we successfully transitioned the Head Start and Early Head Start programs in Starr and Zapata Counties from the previous provider, and we actually just began the virtual delivery of programming this month.
We could not have reached this major milestone without the hard work of our team and the support of our partners. Transitioning a federally funded program of this size is normally an already complex process, but as we have seen, 2020 has not been a normal year. The ongoing pandemic and social distancing guidelines forced us to rework our plans to rely heavily on technological tools to coordinate the transition. Thankfully, we were able to draw on our recent experience pivoting to virtual program delivery.
Over the summer, we conducted telephone interviews, coordinated virtual tours of facilities, held town halls and orientation via Zoom, and provided interactive webinar training to new staff. Here are a few highlights of what we were able to achieve. By the end of August, we had:
- hired, onboarded and provided training to more than 140 new staff;
- secured leases on seven child care centers, two training centers, administrative offices, and a central kitchen;
- adapted programming for virtual delivery;
- notified all families enrolled under the previous provider and enrolled more than 200 children returning to the program this year; and
- purchased a Google Chromebook and hot spot for each enrolled family to support virtual learning while we continue to plan for the safe reopening of our centers.
Much of the Rio Grande Valley is already characterized by its rural landscape and lack of resources, including access to health care and hospitals. The challenges presented by the pandemic have only complicated the issue, which is why we are continuing to monitor the situation and maintain ongoing communication with school districts and public health officials locally. We plan to continue to deliver comprehensive services locally until it safe to open our centers to children and families.
Parent-Child Education Program (PCEP) Reimagined/Redesigned
Another of our major accomplishments this year has been the redesign of our core PCEP curriculum. The updated curriculum has been restructured to include a new framework aligned to science of early childhood development, lessons that are redesigned and include completely new content as well as new assessments and guides for various instructional models. As a result of the ongoing pandemic, the new curriculum is accompanied by a collection of additional resources to support program staff and participants, including a structured model for virtual delivery, a website for staff and parents to access content and resources, and more than 200 instructional videos.
Program staff from across the AVANCE network collaborated to develop the virtual delivery model, which was built around our parents’ preference for a combination of asynchronous (self-paced learning through videos and website resources) and synchronous learning (with instruction via live video conferencing), where parents and children can interact with the instructor and other families in real time. For asynchronous learning, we created a dedicated PCEP website that provides parents access to lessons, toy making tutorials, and activities that promote parent-child interactions and school readiness at home. Staff can also use it as a teaching tool to plan and deliver content in an engaging way. A key feature of the website is our new library of video content. A team of 39 educators from AVANCE North Texas worked with headquarters staff to produce 208 videos, including read-a-longs, songs, toy making tutorials, and lessons provided by AVANCE early childhood teachers.
Families, Friends, and Neighbors
As you may have seen in the news, child care has become a critical issue highlighted by the ongoing pandemic. In the communities we serve, the necessity for affordable child care has always been a priority, and we have been working specifically with family child care providers (also known as home child care providers) to increase the availability and the quality of care. Over the summer, we welcomed Leslie Fierro to the AVANCE team as our Family Child Care Instructor, who will oversee our Family Child Care Network (FCCN) in Travis County. One of the primary objectives of our FCCN is to provide training to child care providers through our Families, Friends, and Neighbors (FFN) curriculum, which combines training on licensing, small business administration, early childhood development, and quality certification through the State’s Texas Rising Star program. In collaboration with the United Way of Greater Austin, the AVANCE FCCN supported the administration of emergency funding for home child care providers.
We finalized the program enrollment forms, which are designed to collect information on the unique needs of home child care providers. Needs data not only helps us tailor the program to connect providers to local resources, it will also inform our ongoing work with Children at Risk, GAVA, and the United Way to develop potential systems for shared services that might benefit the broader community of home child-care providers in Austin.
We began targeted recruitment efforts to enroll home child care providers in our Travis County FCCN, and we have already enrolled 24 providers in the program, which is 50% of the target enrollment goal. Due to COVID, we have modified the FFN curriculum to be suitable for virtual delivery. We will begin virtual delivery mid-September with an introductory technology training prior to delivery of the curriculum content. We are currently in the process of addressing the digital divide, which is most prevalent among low-income people of color and is a significant obstacle for family childcare providers, the majority of whom are low-income Latinas and Black women.
These are just a few examples of the milestones we have reached so far, and without a doubt, resilience has been crucial to the progress we have made in a year characterized by uncertainty, setbacks, and pivots. The truth is that the ongoing pandemic has disproportionately affected the communities and families we serve, and underscored the longstanding disparities that have driven our work for nearly half a century. The need is great, so our work, ongoing.
What gives me hope is knowing that we are not alone, knowing that the dedication of our team to our mission and our families also extends to each other across the AVANCE network, knowing that we are bolstered by a wider community that believes in our mission. Thank you for being part of that community and for your support of our work. I look forward to sharing future updates!