When it comes to improving the lives of children, it’s natural to look for ways to meet their immediate needs — from basic material needs such as food and clothing to books, toys, and other items that are both fun and beneficial to their learning and development.
What’s more challenging to tackle are the systemic reasons why some children do not have access to these resources and what can be done to ensure all children have a strong start to life, even before they are born.
Excel by Eight [E8] is an initiative that partners with families and communities to improve health and education outcomes for Arkansas children prenatal to age eight. Established in 2011 as the Arkansas Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, its mission was to ensure all children read at grade level by the end of third grade. With the support of more than 30 partner organizations, Arkansas Campaign for Grade-Level Reading received national recognition for its work to help improve parent and community engagement, school readiness, classroom instruction, attendance and summer learning.
Despite these successes, there was more progress to be made.
Executive director Angela Duran began her role with the Arkansas Campaign for Grade-Level Reading in 2011. She oversaw its transition to Excel by Eight in 2019.
“We realized that we needed to broaden our efforts to ensure all children meet their full educational and health potential,” she said.
The Resource Grid
To visualize its broader focus, Excel by Eight has developed a resource grid to identify all the areas that must be addressed so that children have what they need to thrive.
“We liken it to a power grid,” Duran explained. “Some parts may be incomplete or malfunctioning, or the connections may be frayed or broken altogether. An unreliable or patchy flow of resources can result in a range of developmental delays, with long-lasting consequences for children’s health and well-being.
“What we want to do is make sure families and communities are equally plugged in and have full grids with all of the connections working.”
The resource grid is arranged into four categories — family, community, education and health — and includes home visiting; parenting resources; safe and affordable housing; physical, mental, and oral health; early care and education; and much more.
Across Arkansas, there are already programs and practices designed to help children, starting from birth, achieve their full educational and health potential. Duran said that unfortunately, the grid of resources families need is often unevenly distributed, making it difficult for them to access these critical family, community, education, and health supports.
“Our role at Excel by Eight is to transform our state’s systems so families and communities can overcome barriers that prevent children from achieving their full potential,” she said.
Excel by Eight consists of a team of policy makers, healthcare professionals, educators, nonprofit leaders, and community developers committed to increasing children’s health and education outcomes in three primary ways. This “three-legged stool” encompasses partnering with and investing in local communities, impacting public policy at the state level, and building public support around the importance of the earliest years of a child’s life.
Excel by Eight communities are local models for change. E8 currently works in six Arkansas communities: Conway County, Independence County, Jefferson County, Little Rock, Sevier County and Union County.
“Building and supporting local models for change allows E8 to highlight community successes and identify policy barriers that can be addressed at the state level,” said Duran. “While every E8 community is at a different stage in their planning and implementation, each local steering committee has assessed available resources and gathered input from residents as part of the process.”
In October, Excel by Eight brought its communities together in Batesville for its semiannual learning community. This convening allows communities to learn from each other and share best practices.
As host community, the Independence County steering committee led a site visit to a local school district to demonstrate LENA Grow, a 10-week program intended to measure and improve adult-child interactions in early care. Public preschool centers at all four school districts in Independence County have adopted the program.
“LENA Grow is just one example of how Data Walks — which is our community input process — informed this decision to focus on oral language and literacy skills,” Duran said. “Our role is to help parents, educators, health professionals, and other community members in all of our communities identify gaps in their resource grids and develop strategies for improving child outcomes.”
The Excel by Eight Foundations Collaborative (E8F) is the policy leg of the three-legged stool. E8F has developed a policy agenda that builds on existing knowledge of how to best support families with young children. Duran said they chose the name “Foundations” for their policy work because prenatal to age three is critical for brain development and sets the foundation for a child’s health and education outcomes.
“We are investing in our youngest children because we know that’s when the brain develops fastest,” Duran said. “We are looking comprehensively at both health and education outcomes for children, starting with prenatal
A child’s experiences in the first three years are the bricks and mortar of brain development, with more than one million new neural connections forming in an infant’s brain every second. According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, responsive relationships and positive experiences build sturdy brain architecture that becomes the foundation for core social emotional intelligence, early executive functioning and self-regulation, and literacy.
While these critical skills and experiences begin at home, Duran said they can also be provided through effective programs and policies.
“It’s not only infants, toddlers, and families who benefit when we start early — it’s entire communities. When we invest in the first three years of a child’s life, we build a strong foundation for their future learning, behavior, and health and reduce the need for more expensive interventions later.”
E8 Foundations’ policy agenda can be categorized into three areas: Healthy Beginnings, Supported Families, and High Quality Child Care and Early Learning. This policy agenda builds on existing research and knowledge of how to best support families with infants and toddlers.
“We want children to have healthy beginnings, and we want families to feel supported and have access to high-quality child care and early learning experiences,” Duran said.
Because Excel by Eight does not provide direct services to children, generating public support around its goals is not always as straightforward as it can be for organizations that work directly with children. Systemic change doesn’t happen overnight, but Duran is optimistic about the
progress that has been made so far.
“We want to continuously make the connection between the community and the policy work so that people understand our vision to make Arkansas a state where all children have a strong start to reach their full potential.
“We know that it’s going to take a while to achieve our goals,” Duran said. “But we know we can do it. And we are in it together.”