“Voices from the Field” Interview with Melody Arabo

Melody Arabo

Melody Arabo

Melody Arabo is the 2017–18 Teaching Ambassador Fellow for the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and was honored to serve as the 2015 Michigan Teacher of the Year. She has been a third grade teacher at Keith Elementary in the Walled Lake Consolidated School District since 2002. She has a bachelor’s in elementary education and a master’s in teaching and curriculum, both from Michigan State University. Melody is a wife, mother of three, speaker and presenter, author, and bullying-prevention advocate.


ED: How did you begin your career in education?

Melody: I never planned to be a teacher. I was planning to go into marketing and advertising. I had big plans to live in a city and take a train to work. When I was 19, I found out about a paraprofessional job at a local elementary school. They were looking for someone who spoke Chaldean, which I do, so I applied and was very lucky to get the job. It changed my career trajectory. I loved the school and the principal, and really loved the kids. I quickly realized what a positive impact you can have so quickly on young learners. I enrolled in an associate’s degree program at our community college focused on elementary education and then moved to Michigan State University to complete my bachelor’s (and eventually my master’s) degree in teaching and curriculum.

As a paraprofessional, I worked with kids in kindergarten through second grade, which I enjoyed. But during my year-long student teaching internship, I ended up in a third grade class. I realized I loved kids in third grade. They are independent enough to tie their own shoes and blow their own nose, but are still young enough that we can shape their learning, curiosity, and engagement. After student teaching I landed a job as a third grade teacher in the same district where I started as a paraprofessional, and have been teaching there since 2002.

ED: How did you become interested in the School Ambassador Fellowship program here at ED?

Melody: In 2015, I was honored to be the Michigan Teacher of the Year and spent the year working outside of the classroom. My biggest take away from that experience is that the educator voice is really lacking in critical policy discussions. I wanted to figure out how I could help increase teacher leadership and expand the role of the teacher voice in policy making. When I heard about the School Ambassador Fellowship program it seemed like a perfect next step, so I applied. The program enables outstanding teachers, principals, and other school leaders to bring their school and classroom expertise to the Department and exposes them to the heart of the national dialogue about education. In turn, school ambassador fellows are better equipped to facilitate the learning and input of other educators and community members.

In 2016, I was a part-time fellow for one year. This meant that I still had my classroom in Michigan and engaged and worked with ED remotely. It was an intense year, because I was staying involved at the classroom-level while being engaged in state- and federal-level activities. I am now the lead fellow here in DC and a big part of my work is with the part-time campus fellows, located around the country, who are still working in classrooms and schools. We have a fantastic group of 2017–18 fellows and my role is largely to support and connect them to work going on here at ED. I also have the goal of strengthening ED’s outreach to, and engagement with, educators. To accomplish this, we have been hosting monthly conversations on important educational issues to engage educators in the field. For example, one of our recent monthly topics was STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), particularly how teachers are incorporating STEM in the classroom. For each conversation, we pose a question about the topic via Twitter to generate conversations among educators, encouraging them to share examples of innovation. We then collect their input and feedback, and develop a toolkit of resources around that topic. Additionally, we are tapping into teachers by asking them to write for ED’s Homeroom Blog on each of the monthly topics. I also work with our fellows to promote and encourage teachers to sign up for ED’s monthly newsletter developed for teachers, The Teachers Edition. We have involved each of the fellows in Teach to Lead, an initiative that expands leadership opportunities for teachers and further develops their ideas.

ED: What are some of the challenges you have experienced as a teacher and what strategies have you tried to overcome them? 

Melody: I am a general education teacher, but I am also a parent of children with special needs. Through struggling to navigate special education as a parent, I have realized that I am ill prepared to teach children with disabilities and see there is a huge need to bring the special education and general education worlds together. We really need to rethink teacher training; general education teachers need more training on how to teach children with disabilities and to work with special educators. I realize now that if I had known more about some of the best practices in special education, such as positive behavioral intervention and supports (PBIS); how to do functional behavior assessments (FBA) and behavior plans; universal design for learning (UDL); and response to intervention (RTI), I could have had a more positive impact on not only students with disabilities in my class, but could have better met the needs of all of my students.

In my experience, co-teaching isn’t used widely. Children with disabilities are often pulled out of classrooms for their special services and I think that because of this we are missing an important opportunity to bring special educators and general educators together. After my twins began having challenges, I became more active in the disability community and realized how limited my experiences had been in a classroom. I never had a student with autism, cerebral palsy, or other more noticeable disabilities. As a parent, I’ve realized how important it is for children with disabilities to be included in general education classrooms and schools. As a teacher, I’d really like to learn different strategies and different techniques that would benefit all of the students in my class. I think we can do this by better connecting the professionals; it is a disservice to children to have those two worlds—special education and general education—segregated.

ED: What suggestions do you have for improving the quality of early learning and education?

Melody: I believe one of the most important things we can do is to raise the importance of the educator’s voice in making policy decisions. Teachers need to be part of the conversation. The educator’s voice is there but typically only in the policy discussions. Educators need to also be part of the decision-making process, since they are the ones who know what’s realistic and what’s not. I also hope that more educators will become policy makers. From the parent perspective, I think family engagement is critical and we need to do a better job making information easily accessible for families. When my kids were first diagnosed with developmental delays, I mainly relied on other parents, which was wonderful because it created a support network for us. I believe we need to do more to connect families with other families when making educational decisions—families are more powerful and informed when they are connected.

My specific advice for educators interested in becoming part of important local, state, and national conversations is to start looking for leadership opportunities in your community, district, and beyond. Develop your leadership skills, brand yourself as expert in an area, and let policy makers know. For example, based on your expertise and experience you could be an Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) expert, or a STEM expert, or an expert in best practices for increasing positive social emotional and behavioral skills. Engage in social media by following other teacher leaders, ED, state-level policy makers; develop your own website and blogs; and build an audience. It is okay if your audience is small at first, but you have to put yourself out there to engage. I really like the teacherprenuers initiative, where teachers think of themselves as innovators but also take on entrepreneurial leadership outside of the classroom. I would love for this to be part of teacher training. It is really empowering for teachers that think this way and have already begun engaging outside of their classrooms. So I encourage teachers to think like a teacherprenuer. This can be as simple as having a business card or presenting at a conference, and will begin to shift their idea of what it means to be a teacher and a leader.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Melody Arabo
Posted by
Melody Arabo, 2017–18 Teaching Ambassador Fellow for the U.S. Department of Education.

“Voices from the Field” Interview with Julie Sarama & Doug Clements

Julie Sarama and Doug Clements

Julie Sarama and Doug Clements

Julie Sarama is Kennedy Endowed Chair in Innovative Learning Technologies and Professor at the University of Denver. Her research interests include developing and evaluating research-based educational software and other technologies, using learning trajectories in standards, assessment, educational technology, curriculum and professional development, developing and evaluating research-based curricula, and asking successful curricula to scale using technologies.

Douglas H. Clements is Kennedy Endowed Chair in Early Childhood Learning and Professor at the University of Denver. Previously a kindergarten teacher and preschool teacher, he has conducted research and published widely in the areas of the learning and teaching of early mathematics and computer applications in mathematics education. His most recent interests are in creating, using, and evaluating a research-based curriculum and in taking successful curricula to scale using technologies and learning trajectories.

Doug and Julie have collaborated over the past 20 years on research and implementation projects focused on improving early math development in young children.


ED: How did you begin your career in early learning and early math?

Doug: I was always interested in math and was planning on being an engineer but after I graduated, I decided to go into early education. My first job out of college was teaching kindergarten. As a teacher, math was the shining star for me. I was so interested in young kids’ thinking around math. When I went back to school to get my doctoral degree, I focused my dissertation on preschoolers’ thinking about early math. How do young kids learn math ideas and skills? How do they think about early math? What are the best ways to teach early math?

Julie’s background was in teaching high school and middle school math. In the 1990’s we became involved in a National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded project on developing a kindergarten-through-fifth-grade math curriculum. We had developed some of the technology for the kindergarten piece of the curriculum, but weren’t able to complete it since the project ran out money. Thankfully, NSF soon came out with a call for a focus on early math, and then we had the opportunity to really start our work on early math and began developing what we call our Building Blocks project.

Julie: Previous efforts around early math focused on activities or developing ideas that sounded cool but weren’t based on research. Alternatively, we focused on identifying (from the research base) the specific features that help young children in early math. In the first year of Building Blocks, we worked on identifying the early math learning trajectories for young children. Doug reads everything from everyone; he looked at studies from a variety of related fields (developmental science, cognitive science, mathematics education, early childhood education, etc.). We pulled from all of those areas to help us develop these learning trajectories. What do kids learn, when do they learn it, and what can we do to help them progress? In the end, we developed an assessment and curriculum to help teachers understand learning trajectories. Later we were very lucky to receive funding from NSF and the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute for Education Sciences for our TRIAD project. This allowed us to develop the needed professional development materials and scale-up approaches for our work. Through TRIAD we were able to help early childhood teachers across multiple sites (e.g., Boston, Buffalo, and Nashville) understand the learning trajectories and how to implement the assessment and curriculum. This was especially important given many early childhood teachers often report they went into early childhood so they wouldn’t have to teach math!

ED: How has your research improved the quality of early learning and influenced approaches to teaching early math?

Doug: Everyone can write more cute activities that might touch on basic math concepts, but with the growing consensus on the ways young children learn to understand mathematical concepts and engage in mathematical thinking, we believe that understanding the early math learning trajectories is critical for early childhood educators to teach early math.

Julie: Learning trajectories have three parts:

  1. a learning goal (i.e., target, benchmark, expectation);
  2. a developmental path along which children develop to reach that goal; and
  3. a set of activities matched to each of the levels of thinking in that path that help children develop the next higher level of thinking.

The idea behind a learning trajectory is that these are the stepping stones to get you to your goals. Each of these stepping stones represents a significant change in the way kids think; they are the developmental progressions or descriptions of kids’ behavior that give us a hint of where a kid is developmentally. The activities that follow are critical to help move children from one stepping stone to the next.

Through our TRIAD project we taught early childhood teachers to understand how young children think about math; how to identify where kids are with their mathematical thinking; and then to provide instruction or activities that take the kids to the next level of mathematical thinking. We found that teachers when given this framework and the learning trajectories became excited about teaching math. When they saw their students’ growth along the learning trajectories, it was transformative. Teachers often tell us “I had no idea young children could learn this or think like this.”

ED: What are some of the challenges you have experienced in this work and what strategies have you tried to overcome them? 

Doug: The biggest challenge is the perception that math doesn’t belong in early childhood and that we don’t need to teach it yet. Another challenge is the false dichotomies that our field creates such as academics versus non-cognitive skills, or teaching math versus teaching literacy. We know we can teach math and literacy and social-emotional skills in early childhood. We know that early math skills are fundamental to children’s overall learning. Along with one of our post-doctoral researchers, Alissa Lange, we found improvements in oral language in classrooms that implemented Building Blocks. The learning is connected.

Julie: An effective strategy for overcoming the negative perception about math in early childhood is getting out there and talking about it. You really need a Doug! He travels a lot, spreading the word and accepting speaking engagements to all different kinds of groups about the work we are doing. Writing research articles isn’t enough. You also need your champions. The teachers we trained in our TRIAD project continue to implement Building Blocks without any coaching or support. We went back two years later and were shocked and delighted that they had all increased their fidelity of implementation, meaning they were implementing Building Blocks the way it was intended. Six years later, the teachers who were still teaching continued to implement Building Blocks. It is important to share their experiences.

[Check out this video report on the successful implementation of Building Blocks in Boston]

ED: What suggestions do you have for others interested in supporting early math development in young children?

Julie: When you focus on math, either alone or as part of a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) initiative, be sure to focus on the learning trajectories, not just math activities or projects, and embed math growth.

Doug: Professional development (PD) is critical and you need to start-off thinking about the PD as lasting for at least year. We know that a math day or a math workshop won’t change classroom practices, yet this is what we continue to offer to teachers. We need to be honest and start planning alternatives. Through foundation funding we developed a website with resources that support teachers to better understand learning trajectories. The website is called Learning and Teaching with Learning Trajectories (LT2), and is a great free resource for programs wanting to get started in thinking differently about early math.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Julie Sarama and Doug Clements
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Julie Sarama is Kennedy Endowed Chair in Innovative Learning Technologies and Professor at the University of Denver. Douglas H. Clements is Kennedy Endowed Chair in Early Childhood Learning and Professor at the University of Denver.

Our Highs are Higher

Carrie Woodcock and her family posing in front of a lovely rural stream

Carrie Woodcock and family

Carrie Woodcock is director of the Maine Parent Federation and a parent of 10-year-old Sami who has Down syndrome.


This summer, I attended a conference alongside doctors, nurses, physician assistants, therapists and other medical professionals, all of whom work with children with special healthcare needs and disabilities. I was there to represent parent voices as the director of the Maine Parent Federation, an OSEP-funded Parent Information Center. I am a big supporter of, and was very excited for, the keynote presenter that day, Dr. Brian Skotko.

Dr. Skotko is a genetic specialist and co-director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Down Syndrome Program. He has also gone on to facilitate the creation of many such clinical programs throughout Massachusetts. I was first introduced to him at the annual Massachusetts Down Syndrome Conference. I was so impressed with our first encounter that now, whenever I attend events at which he’s speaking, I always attend his sessions—regardless of their subject matter—and  always walk away having learned something new.

At the conference we attended this summer, Dr. Skotko discussed the impact of a Down syndrome diagnosis on the immediate family. He and his staff had conducted some of the first surveys of parents, siblings and individuals with Down syndrome. To say that I was thrilled that a physician and sibling of an individual with Down syndrome himself took this opportunity to raise awareness for family engagement, a crucial subject many times overlooked by medical professionals, was an understatement. His data were brought to life by his personal experiences, and were overwhelmingly positive. They indicated that a large majority of surveyed immediate family members love and are proud of their family member with Down syndrome.

During a question and answer period following the presentation, a professional in the front of the room challenged some of the data Dr. Skotko had presented. She brought to his attention that perhaps the data were positively skewed because parents and family members would have guilt associated with speaking negatively about their experiences and, ultimately, their own family member. Well, I am not one to hold my tongue, but I did have to pause to ensure I reigned in my “mommy” emotions and represented the parent voice in an assertive yet positive way.

In that moment, memories from my 10 years of being a mom to my precious gift rushed back. Some of the first feelings to come back to me were those that I have been ashamed to admit as a parent. For example, the diagnosis at my daughter’s birth had me thinking that I would always be a parent to a child living at home. The hours in the hospital enduring her open heart surgeries had brought me emotionally to my knees, wishing my child was healthy. I recalled the times her anxiety caused bathroom accidents in public places, which had me wishing for normalcy. Listening to friends talk about their gifted and talented children had me feeling like an outsider. I remember feeling sad because the birthday party and play date invites were few and far between, if at all. For a second I thought that maybe this woman was right; maybe I do sugar coat my family’s reality because I am too ashamed to admit otherwise.

But in the next moment, I saw Sami’s hand reaching for my mom’s face, days after open heart surgery. This was the first expression of her personality shining through. I remembered my toddler son translating her words and being so proud that he was the only one who could understand her. We celebrated her first everything and then celebrated her first everything all over again when she regained a lost skill. I recalled the way that, no matter where we are, she makes people smile, no matter what kind of day they may be having. And the oh-so-many little things in life I would have completely overlooked were it not for her.

I gathered my thoughts, raised my hand, and explained this concept to the group. In fact, the professional that asked the question was right; the challenges are hard and often. We do have doubts about our ability to parent and yes, horrifyingly enough, we will ask “why me?”

However, we celebrate and appreciate all that is positive. We do this in a way that is bigger than any outsider could know, and we do it time and time again. The impact has been so positive—my family completely changed for the better the moment Sami came into our lives. In addition to the daily joy we experience with her, all of us are dedicated to her cause, and the cause of others. My professional career has shifted from sales and marketing to assisting families with their own special loved ones. My husband, who was and still is a physical education teacher, has brought her spirit to the way he interacts with his students, including those with special needs. Lastly, but perhaps my proudest family accomplishment, is how Sami refers to her 13-year-old brother as her hero. No matter the circumstance, he shows no embarrassment towards her, only love and admiration.

I summed up my comments that afternoon, and I’ll leave the same simple thought for you here. “You see, our lows may be lower at times, but our highs are more often, and they are always so much higher. We wouldn’t dream of trading it for anything!”


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Carrie Woodcock and daughter, Sami.
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Director of the Maine Parent Federation and a parent of 10-year-old Sami who has Down syndrome.

“Voices from the Field” Interview with Lillian Durán,
 National Center on Improving Literacy

Lillian Durán standing in front of a school

Lillian Durán

Lillian Durán, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Department of Special Education and Clinical Sciences at the University of Oregon. Her research is focused on improving instructional and assessment practices with preschool-aged dual language learners (DLLs). Dr. Durán leads National Center on Improving Literacy’s (NCIL) work on creating and translating resources for DLLs, and provides expertise on the topic of recommended practices in assessment and intervention with young DLLs with and without identified disabilities. Prior to Dr. Durán’s work in higher education she worked for 9 years as an early childhood special education teacher. 


ED:  How did you begin your career in early learning and early literacy?

Lillian:  I started my career as an early childhood special education (ECSE) teacher in Prince George’s County, Maryland. I was hired without special education licensure to teach a self-contained special education preschool class that was deemed “cross-categorical,” meaning the children all had disabilities but the type of disability varied by child. Around this same time I enrolled in a master’s program at George Washington University. I eventually became licensed and graduated with a degree in ECSE.

My next job was working with an early intervention home visiting program in rural Minnesota. We worked in home settings with infants and toddlers with identified disabilities, birth to age three, and their families. Many of the families were native Spanish speakers. Through this work, I started to become very interested in young dual language learners (DLLs). I grew up in a multi-lingual house. My mother was German and father Mexican, so I grew up learning and speaking 3 different languages and always saw the value in being multi-lingual.

I was surprised at the number of Spanish speakers in rural Minnesota. Many were agricultural workers and in some of these rural districts 30–50% of the families were Latino. I started helping these rural school districts by conducting Spanish language assessments, which piqued my interest in DLL assessments and literacy. I ended up enrolling in a doctoral program and working with Scott McConnell, at the University of Minnesota, who developed the Individual Growth and Development Indicators (IGDIs) to measure preschool literacy. The focus of my doctoral work was on

  1. assessment and intervention with DLLs whose home language was Spanish and
  2. second language acquisition.

I have been an associate professor at the University of Oregon’s Special Education Department for the past two years and last year had the opportunity to join NCIL.

ED:  What efforts have you and NCIL been involved in to improve the quality of early learning and early literacy?

Lillian: NCIL’s efforts in early learning are emerging. Our first year has really focused on laying the groundwork. We have been busy:

  1. building our repository of existing resources,
  2. developing professional development materials for educators and families around evidence-based instruction, screening, and assessment for students with literacy related disabilities including dyslexia, and
  3. forming partnerships with key stakeholders and audiences.

NCIL has a number of activities planned this October to raise awareness and improve understanding of dyslexia. I was specifically brought onto the NCIL team because of my expertise in screening and progress monitoring, especially for young DLLs. I am also a co-principal investigator for a research grant, funded by ED’s Institute of Education Sciences, focused on developing a Spanish version of the IGDIs for both screening and progress monitoring. This research and expertise will be wrapped into NCIL’s body of work.

In the second year of NCIL, we will focus more intentionally on early learning, particularly screening and assessment tools.  We are forming a partnership with the American Academy of Pediatrics to develop a simple tool that pediatricians can use to identify risk for reading-related disorders. We are excited to begin work with preschools, including building partnerships with existing Head Start and statewide Pre-K programs that are interested in improving early literacy screening, monitoring, and instruction. I have an early childhood background and it is my role on the NCIL team to ensure we are thinking about how to translate our work so it is appropriate for younger children and the various early learning programs they participate in. Working in an elementary school or classroom can be very different than working in an early learning program. There can be so much variability across different early learning programs—the education level and expertise of the teacher, whether or not they implement a specific curriculum, the overall quality of the program, and much more. You really need to understand the program and meet them somewhere in the middle if you want to be successful in helping them improve their instructional quality and contributions to early literacy. Our specific early learning work scope is still in development, but we are hoping to identify local Head Start and Pre-K programs to partner with and, within these programs, to establish regular early literacy screenings. We also hope to teach evidence-based intervention strategies to teachers within the programs so that once children are identified there is actually a system of targeted and systematic instruction in place to meet their identified needs.

ED:  What are some of the challenges you have experienced in this work, and what strategies have you tried to overcome them?

Lillian: One major challenge is helping practitioners and administrators understand the systematic need for universal screening. Universal screening isn’t just about identifying children who may have a developmental delay or disability; it is also about identifying the instructional needs of all children. We need to do a better job getting this message across.

Related to this is figuring out how we train and support teachers to differentiate instruction. Once you do know where the kids are functioning (e.g., in a multi-tiered system of support, once you know which tier level the kids are), what do you do? How do you differentiate instruction based on children’s instructional needs? This is the research-to-practice challenge. Through research we can identify instructional approaches to meet the needs of various children, but translating these practices into real classrooms and early learning programs isn’t always easy. We need to understand the context and build strong partnerships with programs. We need to understand what programs are currently doing to see how the research-based practices can be embedded. For example, do programs have enough staffing to support the implementation of new instructional approaches? Do programs have an existing curriculum that these practices align with?  We need more people that are focused on this challenge—getting evidence-based practices into the hands of people working with children. I believe what’s crucial to this is researchers taking time to roll up their sleeves and get into classrooms, working directly with practitioners. This allows researchers to partner with programs to work through the practical challenges that always come up.

The final challenge I’ll mention is the need to address and improve the overall quality of early learning programs. I worked with migrant Head Start programs in Utah to implement a semi-scripted curriculum focused on early literacy and language. We found that with the right support they were able to easily implement this early literacy curriculum, and then found that it changed teachers’ practice throughout the day (not just when they were implementing the curriculum). The teachers were hungry for guidance and support on how best to help their children. Again, the message here is that researchers need to become more embedded in the classroom, conducting more focused observations of how what they’ve developed could be implemented in different classrooms and programs. A researcher’s work isn’t done after developing a product or intervention; this is just the beginning. The next critical step is figuring out what support is needed for the product or intervention to actually be translated into daily practice on a large enough scale to actually make a difference.

ED:  What suggestions do you have for others interested in supporting literacy development in young DLLs?

Lillian: My first bit of advice is to understand your own attitudes toward DLLs. This can be tough, but thinking from a strengths-based model is much more effective than from a deficit model, where you primarily think of the kids as not knowing English. Bilingualism is an asset and not a deficit. If we attend to children’s home language in addition to English when it comes to assessment and intervention, we will have a better picture to understand a child’s language and literacy development. This provides tremendous information when determining whether there is a language or literacy delay or disability. Additionally, it is important to learn more about bilingual development. What may be considered a concern with regards to monolingual development may actually be typical when children are developing two or more languages. Finally, seek out bilingual resources and hire bilingual staff.  And simply hiring bilingual staff is only the first step—they need support and training in order to implement evidence-based interventions. I’ve been in many preschool programs where there is a lack of attention to what the bilingual staff are doing. They need:

  1. training about language development, assessment, and interventions and
  2. curriculum and supports in place to guide their instructional practices.

Overall, the big frame is prevention. We need to screen and monitor the progress of all young children and ensure the instructional approaches we are using with young DLLs are meaningful and effective. By intervening early, we will hopefully prevent reading problems from developing down the road. Early intervention is a cornerstone in preventing reading difficulties and I hope to make that a key focus of NCIL. A house is only as solid as the foundation.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Words of Wisdom

Note: October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month.

Jordon Bills

Jordon Bills

Jordan Bills, M.A., CCC-SLP, is a speech-language pathologist (SLP) at Washington Speech in Fairfax, Virginia. She works with children of all ages with various speech, language, and feeding disorders. She received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia and master’s degree from the George Washington University. You can read more about Jordan’s credentials and accomplishments on the Washington Speech staff page.


Why did you become a speech-language pathologist (SLP)?

In high school, I volunteered at a center for blind and visually impaired children for three summers. I worked side-by-side with the speech pathologists, occupational therapists, and physical therapists at the center. The work they did was incredible and I knew this is what I wanted to do! One child in particular had a large impact on me. He was three years old and unable to respond to his name. By the end of our summer together, he was not only turning toward others when they said his name but also responding to their greeting. I’ll never forget the feeling when I heard him say, “Hi, Jordan!” In that moment, I understood the power of communication. Communication is what connects us to one another. It’s what makes our lives so beautiful! I feel lucky to spend my days helping children communicate more effectively.

Why do you enjoy working with children with Down syndrome?

As a pediatric SLP, I have the privilege of working with children with Down syndrome across their lifespans. This is one of my favorite populations to work with because of the great potential for growth. Every milestone is celebrated, even the small ones, as each child works so hard to develop their speech and language skills. Every child with Down syndrome has unique strengths and interests, which I use to support the development of new skills. I have targeted bilabial sounds /b, p, m/ in functional phrases while playing basketball; used a child’s desire for hugs to teach expanded question forms (Can I have a hug?); and taught subject-verb-object sentences using Disney characters.

With younger children, I spend a lot of time playing on the floor. Children tend to learn best through repeated experiences with real objects and situations. Play is their vehicle for learning. As they enter elementary school, our sessions include more structured tasks focusing on the skills they need to participate fully in the classroom and to interact with friends. My goal for all of my clients with Down syndrome is for them to be able to effectively communicate with friends, family, and professionals across environments. My hope is that improved communication will allow them to experience the joys in life that come from making connections with others.

One of my favorite events is the annual Buddy Walk in Northern Virginia. Attending this event gives me the opportunity to see some of my patients outside of the therapy room. I love watching them with their families and friends participating in a community event. It reminds me of why I love what I do!

What are some tips that you have for families with children with Down syndrome?

Parents and other caregivers are the primary communication partners in a young child’s life. Therefore, parents play a critical role in helping their children develop speech and language skills. Below are some strategies for families to support communication development from birth through early elementary school.

Strategies for Birth to First Word Users

  • Focus on pre-linguistic skills. These are skills a child needs to master before words emerge. They include: joint or shared attention, social referencing (checking parents’ facial expressions to understand how to react appropriately in new situations), turn taking, pointing, sustained engagement and attention, and imitation.
  • Use language stimulation techniques in everyday activities to help your child develop his/her understanding and use of new vocabulary words. Techniques include: self-talk, parallel talk, sentence completions, choices, and communication temptations (actions you can take to set up the environment to tempt your child to communicate with you).
  • Consider a Total Communication This evidence-based approach incorporates speech, manual signs, gestures, pictures, and/or a speech-generating device to help children communicate as effectively as possible while developing verbal speech. This approach can reduce frustration and support long-term vocabulary development.
  • Familiarize yourself with the stages of play. Challenge your child to engage in symbolic and early pretend play.
  • When teaching new words, use real objects or pictures of real objects. Incorporate vocabulary learning into your daily activates.
  • Don’t forget about your child’s oral-motor and feeding skills. Children with Down syndrome are at risk for feeding difficulties. A certified speech-language pathologist can evaluate your child and develop an individualized treatment program to help him/her improve oral-motor skills for feeding.

Beyond First Words: Learning to Combine

  • Research shows children begin to combine words when they reach a single word vocabulary of around 50 words. Ensure your child has a variety of single words (e.g. nouns, verbs, pronouns, social words, adjectives) he or she can use to combine. Keep a record of the words your child uses to monitor vocabulary growth.
  • Continue to build your child’s vocabulary during play and daily routines. Teach 2-3 word combinations and encourage imitation. Children with Down syndrome benefit from repeated experiences with the same activities and vocabulary.
  • Use expansions (adding one word to what your child says) to model phrases. Do this often! It will likely take many repetitions before your child imitates your expanded phrase.
  • Try a pacing board to help your child learn to combine words. Pacing boards provide a visual and tactile cue to remind your child to use two words. They are helpful for children with Down syndrome given their strengths in visual learning. A simple pacing board can be two large dots on a piece of cardboard or thick paper. Point to the first dot and say the first word, then point to the second dot and say the second word.
  • Read often! Try books with repetitive phrases your child can learn and eventually fill in.

Early School Age

  • As your child’s vocabulary and utterance length increases, speech intelligibility often becomes a main concern. Again, a pacing board can be a useful tool. This time, your focus will be on teaching your child to speak slowly and producing each word deliberately while touching one dot on your pacing board. Speaking with a slowed rate can help improve your child’s overall intelligibility.
  • In speech therapy, your child may be working on specific speech sounds or patterns of sounds. Work closely with your child’s speech-language pathologist to continue practice at home. To increase your child’s motivation, incorporate target sounds into highly meaningful words. For example, if your child is working on the /k/ sound, “cookie” and “car” may be very motivating words. Daily practice is key!
  • Use recasts to help your child develop appropriate grammar. Grammatical recasts are when you take your child’s utterance and repeat it using adult grammar. For example, if your child says, “dog eat,” you would say, “Yes, the dog is eating.”
  • Consider AAC (augmentative and alternative communication) to supplement verbal speech. This may increase your child’s ability to be understood, participate in class, and engage socially. It may also decrease frustration.

Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

A Teacher’s Perspective on Advancing Dyslexic Education

Note: October is Learning Disabilities/Dyslexia/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Awareness Month.

Alison Pankowski

Alison Pankowski

Alison Pankowski currently trains teachers in her New Jersey district in the Wilson Reading System and is an International Dyslexia Association (IDA) Certified Dyslexia Therapist. She is the current Vice President of the New Jersey branch of the IDA.  Mrs. Pankowski was a contributing member to the New Jersey Dyslexia Handbook, released in September 2017.


As a dyslexia specialist in my school district, I build the knowledge base of my colleagues regarding early identification, structured literacy intervention and essential accommodations for students with dyslexia.

I explain, often, that:

  • “Yes, you can identify students at risk for dyslexia as early as five years old.”
  • “Yes, teachers should provide instruction in phonemic awareness in second grade to continue to build reading skills.”
  • “No, using audiobooks is not a crutch; it provides access to grade-level text for struggling readers and levels the playing field.”

While it is true that legislative efforts in my home state of New Jersey have helped to bring these types of conversations to the local school level, there is still much work to be done to ensure that our state dyslexia laws, enacted in 2013 and 2014, are implemented effectively.

There are still many persistent misconceptions about dyslexia, and much of the implementation gap exists because professionals cannot act upon what they do not know or understand.

The truth is higher education often does not include coursework on dyslexia in teacher preparation programs, so local education agencies must either figure out how to build capacity or wait until guidance is provided.

But where would this guidance come from?

In New Jersey, I was invited to join a group of individuals tasked with creating dyslexia guidance. This group consisted of practitioners with expert knowledge in the field of dyslexia, including learning disabilities teacher consultants, speech and language pathologists, psychologists, higher education professors, assistive technology experts, parents and N.J. Department of Education representatives.

New Jersey Dyslexia Handbook

New Jersey Dyslexia Handbook

We worked together for more than 19 months to create the “New Jersey Dyslexia Handbook” with the intent to:

  • Build an understanding of dyslexia and related difficulties with written language;
  • Demonstrate how to identify and remediate students with dyslexia and other reading difficulties; and
  • Inform both educators and families in best practices to support students with dyslexia and other reading difficulties.

We met monthly to discuss how to best provide this understanding and specialized knowledge without overwhelming or alienating educators and families.

Our meetings involved thoughtful, often passionate conversations about what we had experienced or had heard from others around the state; both positive and negative, regarding how schools had chosen to implement the laws passed by the state.

Usually these discussions resulted in written revisions to chapters drafted on early screening, intervention, assessment, accommodations and assistive technology. These discussions then led to more discussions and more revisions!

As committee members with experience in the field, we met with educators and families across the state throughout the process to learn more about what guidance they were seeking and to assure them that it would be coming soon. We worked diligently to craft a resource that would provide best practices to meet the needs of their struggling readers.

The N.J. Department of Education released “The New Jersey Dyslexia Handbook: A Guide to Early Literacy Development & Reading Struggles” Sept. 25, 2017—just in time for Dyslexia Awareness Month in October.

My hope is that this handbook will be a giant step forward in closing the gap between the research on dyslexia and the implementation of best practices in the school and classroom.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Alison Pankowski
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Alison Pankowski is an International Dyslexia Association (IDA) Certified Dyslexia Therapist and is the current Vice President of the New Jersey branch of the IDA.

Things People Say

Note: October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month.

Jessica Wilson and her son, Jasper

Jessica Wilson and her son, Jasper

A guest blog by Jessica Wilson. Jessica and her son, Jasper (aka Jaz, Jazzy, the JazMaster, or Dude!), live in a cozy house of fur with two crazy dogs and two lazy cats. Their favorite activities include singing movie hits, dancing in the kitchen, snuggling and traveling the world together. Jessica is Director of Communication and Dissemination for the Center for Parent Information and Resources (CPIR) and Resources for Access, Independence and Self-Employment (RAISE) projects with the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network (SPAN) in New Jersey.


Number One. “Did you know?”

They never complete the thought, as if just looking at him implies what they’re really asking. I ache to play dumb: Know what? That he would almost never cry as a baby and be a champion sleeper? That he would love to swim but hate to play soccer? That I could love him ‘til it hurts and still get so annoyed by some of his antics? As obnoxious as my brain screams for me to be, I simply answer, “No. After losing the first one, I didn’t want to take any chances with this very wanted baby.”

The mention of my previous sorrow precludes them from saying anything directly about those tests, so I leave it at that. I resist ranting about warped concepts of perfection or the technologies the medical community pushes that are incapable of measuring the value of those born “dappled.” If I launch into my diatribe, their eyes glaze over as they nod in the faux agreement children give their parents when they just want the scolding to stop. I can always tell when they’re thinking, “I would have the test.” I couldn’t guess what they would do if it were positive.

Number Two. “My sister’s/cousin’s/brother-in-law’s/landlord’s daughter/nephew/classmate/neighbor is ‘like him’.”

What, rakishly handsome? Lucky them. A consummate flirt? Better watch out! The self-appointed town mayor, greeting every person or animal we see on the streets? Good luck getting anywhere quickly with such a gregarious kid.

I suppose it’s an attempt to connect, a way to say “he’s okay” because they know someone who knows someone who… But sharing an extra chromosome doesn’t make anyone like someone else any more than two people having green eyes does. Don’t tell me these six-degrees individuals are “like” each other. They aren’t.

Number Three. “He’s so high-functioning.”

Yeah, far more than I am at 3:00 a.m. “MOMMY!” “urgh…?” “WHY ARE YOUR EYES CLOSED?!” “I’m sleeping, baby.” “WHY?!” “unnnhhh…” “READ TO ME!!!!” (seriously?)

Number Four. “Funny, you can’t see it.”

What’s there to see? His almond shaped eyes that look through me as the spark of laughter flickering within them sears my soul? His cute little hands with that long crease across his palms holding mine, petting the cat, learning to write his name, wiping away tears when he’s mad? The orthotics helping reshape his desperately flat feet?

What exactly are you looking for that will legitimize him in your eyes? Maybe I should carry the envelope with the verdict handed down by some anonymous technician. Perhaps the letter from the state when the lab automatically reported his existence to the county health department “for statistical purposes.” What can’t you see? He’s a kid, growing up loved. What else are you looking for?

Number Five. “I’m sorry.”

You should be. You’ll never hear the thoughts he speaks to me with his smiling brown eyes as he tilts his forehead to rest against mine. You’ll never drink in the heat that radiates from his head or taste his soft hair on your lips. You’ll never be awakened (again) at 3:00 a.m. by the hot air from his mouth on your face as he whispers, “Mommy, I want snuggles.” You’ll never know how it feels to celebrate every jump forward in development that other parents take for granted, but when he finally does it, it’s a very, very large molehill.

You should be sorry that you can only see back in time. This is a new era with new opportunities and new ideas about potential and worthiness. I’m only sorry it’s taken this long and that we still have so far to go.

Number Six. “That’s awesome!”

Thanks, Brian—you are the right kind of friend. May everyone with a kid “like mine” know a man like you.

Number Seven. “I don’t know how you do it.”

I’m his mother. Still confused?

Things I Say.

“I’m so proud of you.” “Boy, you’re handsome!” “Why won’t you let me cut your nails?” “TURN THAT DOWN!” “Wanna go bowling?” “Sweetheart, don’t let the dog beg like that.” “Would you please put this stuff away?” “You’re just too good to be true/Can’t take my eyes off of you.” “No, I don’t want to smell your feet.” “I love you, my sweet angel. You’re my heart and soul, my love and my life.” “You know you drive me nuts, right?”

Number One.

“I’ve loved my son since before he was ever born. What else is there to say?”


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

How Having ADHD Made Me a Better Advocate for My Daughters

Note: October is Learning Disabilities/Dyslexia/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Awareness Month.

Jessica-Gordon

Jessica Gordon

A guest blog by Jessica Gordon, a parent of children with learning and attention issues and Regional Manager for Understood at the National Center for Learning Disabilities.


“She is smart, but she just needs to apply herself.”

If you looked back at my report cards in elementary school, every single one would say that. Even after recognizing that I struggled to pay attention, my family assured me that I didn’t have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) because I was able to watch television for long periods of time.

My experience isn’t as unique as I would hope. In fact, according to The State of Learning Disabilities report from the National Center for Learning Disabilities, 78% of parents believe that any child can do well in school if he or she just tries hard enough. And 33% of educators believe that sometimes what people call a learning or attention issue is really just laziness.

For me—and probably for many kids struggling in school—that wasn’t the case. I was applying myself and doing the best I could, but I wasn’t able to focus or pay attention. My teachers were frustrated that I would score in the 90th percentile on standardized tests but fail to turn in spelling tests and math worksheets. Through trial and error, I found strategies to keep myself organized in school. But by the time I went to college, I sought an evaluation and was told that I do, in fact, have ADHD.

Thanks to advances in research and more experts exploring these issues, our understanding of ADHD has grown tremendously over the past few decades. According to Understood.org, girls are not identified with ADHD as often as boys, and they are often identified much later. The signs can look significantly different in girls and boys. For example, girls may not display the behavior challenges that boys do and might, instead, be chatty, disorganized, or emotional. And, much like me, because girls work hard to compensate for their challenges, it can often be overlooked.

Now, as a mother of three girls, nothing is more important to me than knowing my children’s strengths and challenges and advocating for what they need. When my oldest daughter was in second grade, she began to exhibit the same signs I did at that age. Recognizing those familiar signs, I knew I had to take action. I wanted her to have the same understanding of herself it took me decades to develop.

We went through with an evaluation, and my oldest daughter was diagnosed with ADHD—just like me, but much sooner. My middle daughter was also diagnosed when she reached second grade. And my youngest, who struggles with reading and writing as well as attention, is in the process of being evaluated right now.

When I was younger, I became an advocate for myself only after the system failed to recognize my struggles. But I don’t want that to happen to my children. Instead of making assumptions about what their future might look like with learning and attention issues, I make a point to consider their strengths, their interests, and their ideas about themselves. I want to ensure that my children—and all children—are on a path to understanding themselves and harnessing their strengths and talents.

Having ADHD myself and raising three children with ADHD is a unique challenge, and one I think many parents can relate to when learning and attention issues run in the family. But it is true that parents are their child’s best advocate. When your instincts tell you that something is going on under the surface, it’s important to trust that. It’s critical to seek out professionals who will listen and help you support your child in the way you know you need to.

I often wonder how different my life would have been if my parents and teachers had recognized my ADHD earlier and provided the accommodation and supports I needed all those years ago. Fortunately, my children won’t have to wonder about that. And I hope other parents trust their instincts, listen to their children, and follow a path that gets them and their child the supports they need.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Jessica Gordon
Posted by
Regional Manager for Understood, National Center for Learning Disabilities

From Daughter’s Advocate to National Advisory Board Member

One mother brings personal experience to the new
National Center for Improving Literacy

Laura Shultz boating with her daughter, Catherine.

Laura Shultz boating with her daughter, Catherine.

Laura Schultz is co-founder of Decoding Dyslexia Maryland and previously worked as a Congressional Staffer for Rep. Helen Delich Bentley and later as the Director of Federal and State Government Relations for a national trade association in Washington, D.C. She has a background in public policy and consulted for a Florida-based public relations firm for many years before “retiring” to focus on dyslexia advocacy to help children who struggle to read, write and spell in public school. She has two children, one a senior at Leonardtown High School and the other a junior at the U.S. Military Academy. Her husband is active duty Navy and they are a proud military family


Something was wrong, but no one could quite figure out what to call it.

At age three, my daughter Catherine spoke very few words compared to her brother. Early evaluations revealed that she needed speech and occupational therapy services.

Catherine displayed behavioral issues including aggression, which the school psychologist later attributed to possibly too much stimulation. At other times, she was withdrawn. She was held back in preschool because of these issues.

When she entered kindergarten, Catherine had meltdowns because of her frustrations with language.

What I saw was her having difficulty finding words and using incorrect language, which resulted in a scrambled output of the words she could find.

After three years in preschool and a year of kindergarten, she could not identify her letters and sounds, write her own name or spell simple words. I felt strongly that we were looking at a reading problem, and my advocacy finally resulted in her being found eligible for special education as a child with a “specific learning disability.”

As Catherine prepared to enter first grade at age seven, I was frightened and frustrated feeling that my child was in crisis and it did not seem that the district’s special education personnel knew how to address her reading and writing needs.

The years of pull-out services, small-group instruction and reading interventions produced few results.

Unfortunately it would take another six years from the time she was identified as having a “specific learning disability” before we understood her specific learning disability was dyslexia.

One year her teacher pulled me aside to share the Patricia Polacco book, “Thank you, Mr. Falker” and encouraged me to read it to Catherine. It was the first time anyone almost mentioned the common learning disability by name.

By fifth grade, our developmental pediatrician formally diagnosed Catherine with dyslexia. We shared the news with her school team hoping that we would finally be able to get the appropriate instruction in place for our daughter.

Unfortunately, we still found it difficult to bridge the divide between the evidence-based interventions being recommended and the programs and expertise available in our school.

By seventh grade, we had to move on to seek private reading and writing instruction for Catherine.

Through pinpointing Catherine’s dyslexia and getting her the proper services she needed, she is now a high school senior pursuing a certification in Computer Aided Design and Drawing (CADD), taking two English courses and making plans for college.

Laura Schultz and daughter, Catherine

Laura Schultz and daughter, Catherine

Students like my daughter sit in every classroom in every school in every state. They are ethnically, culturally and socio-economically diverse. Many of these students will have access to the resources our family ultimately pursued and that is good, but truth be told, many more will not and that is a problem.

Unidentified dyslexia often creates social and emotional difficulties for struggling children. Parents’ and schools’ lack of understanding and awareness of dyslexia and other disabilities can exacerbate a child’s struggles unnecessarily. I knew other families and schools would benefit from knowing about early reading interventions that included phonological awareness and decoding instruction—this type of instruction would not only reduce the underlying cause of a child’s anxieties or challenging behaviors, but would also teach them to read.

My family’s experience, in what I would describe as an excellent public school system, motivated me to reach out to other parents of children with dyslexia. I knew that many of these families were experiencing similar situations and that collectively we may be able to raise awareness and bring much needed resources to our schools and communities.

We established Decoding Dyslexia Maryland, a parent-led grassroots movement that offers awareness, support and advocacy for children with dyslexia, their parents and educators.

Through my advocacy work with Decoding Dyslexia Maryland, I was asked to serve as a parent stakeholder on the Family Engagement Advisory Board for the National Center on Improving Literacy* (NCIL), which was funded by Office of Special Education Programs in September 2016.

NCIL is an important component of the U.S. Department of Education’s mandate under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to support students with learning disabilities such as dyslexia. The center is tasked with:

  • Developing and/or identifying tools to screen for and detect reading challenges early;
  • Identifying evidence-based literacy instruction, strategies, accommodations and assistive technology;
  • Providing information to support families;
  • Developing and/or identifying professional development for teachers on early indicators and instructional strategies; and
  • Disseminating these resources within existing federal networks.

Schools today are searching for information and assistance in implementing the evidence-based instruction outlined in ESSA and required by many of the new dyslexia laws passing in state legislatures across the country.

As I near the end of my family’s personal pre-K-12 journey, I’m excited to be able to offer NCIL the benefit of my daughter’s experiences to help change the way students with reading challenges and dyslexia are identified and taught to read.

It’s my expectation that NCIL, in collaboration with parents, educators, community partners, and reading researchers, will offer our public schools the information and guidance they need to bring the science of reading into their classrooms and to close the research-to-practice gap that sometimes hinders their ability to deliver best practices in literacy instruction to the students that need it the most.

This October, Learning Disabilities Awareness Month, is the perfect time to learn more about the mission of the NCIL and to spread the word to your schools and communities about dyslexia and this new research-based resource. Encourage teachers, principals and families to visit the NCIL website and make suggestions about the types of information, tools, trainings and resources that are most needed.


* The National Center on Improving Literacy is a partnership among literacy experts, university researchers, and technical assistance providers, with funding from the U.S. Department of Education.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.


“Voices from the Field” Interview with Wendy Lewis Jackson,
Kresge Foundation’s Detroit Program

Wendy Lewis Jackson, Managing Director at the Kresge Foundation’s Detroit Program

Wendy Lewis Jackson,
Managing Director at the Kresge Foundation’s Detroit Program

Wendy Lewis Jackson is managing director for the Detroit Program at the Kresge Foundation. She co-leads the Foundation’s efforts to revitalize Detroit and to strengthen its social and economic fabric. Her work supports organizations providing economic opportunity for low-income people and addresses the needs of vulnerable children and families. Prior to joining Kresge in 2008, Wendy was a program director for Children and Family Initiatives and executive director for education initiatives at the Grand Rapids Community Foundation in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She taught at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan, and has co-authored and assisted in the publication of several reports and publications that address community needs and problem solving.


ED: How did you begin your career in Early Learning?

Wendy: My educational background is in political science and social policy. My career in philanthropy began at the Heart of West Michigan United Way in Grand Rapids, Michigan where I served as a senior associate responsible for grants in the areas of health, community development, and human services. From the United Way system I began working with the Grand Rapids Community Foundation. My professional focus has been to address issues that affect vulnerable children and families. In particular, how philanthropy can be used to change the trajectory of children’s lives by providing comprehensive supports to families and communities and ensure economic stability. My work over the years has included early childhood, child welfare, and K-12 education reform. My work in Detroit at the Kresge Foundation continues these themes with an emphasis on early childhood development and learning.

ED: What efforts have you and your organization been involved in to improve the quality of early learning?

Wendy: The Kresge Foundation is a national foundation that works to expand opportunities in America’s cities through grantmaking and social investing in arts and culture, education, environment, health, human services, and community development in Detroit. In my role at Kresge, I work to advance tangible and sustainable near- and long-term progress in Detroit. The Detroit program is the Foundation’s largest grantmaking area and we make approximately $30 million in grants each year to advance opportunity and quality of life. About four years ago, we began thinking more holistically about areas of emphasis in Detroit that could improve economic opportunity and reduce inequality. Early childhood became the major focus of our work. In 2016, Kresge launched the Kresge Early Years for Success Initiative (KEYS: Detroit), a five-year, $20 million grant, with the goal to build and improve early childhood systems in the city of Detroit. Within this initiative, the major agenda is to help the city of Detroit get traction to increase quality and to expand access for young children in early childhood programs.

KEYS: Detroit has five components.

  1. The first involves investments in new high-quality early childhood centers in the city. Through a gap analysis and needs assessment on Detroit’s early childhood system, conducted by the Midwest-based nonprofit IFF, we found there is a lack of 24,000 high-quality early childhood seats based on the number of children and their families in need of high-quality early childhood options. We are working to expand the number of seats by (1) investing in up to three new early childhood centers and (2) supporting IFF’s efforts to launch a new grant and loan program in Detroit to improve existing facilities. These grants and loans come with technical assistance to enhance quality.
  2. The second component is a partnership with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, called Hope Starts Here, to help the city of Detroit develop its first strategic framework for early childhood development and learning. Through the Hope Starts Here partnership we set out to engage 50,000 families to learn (1) what families with young children need and (2) how the city can improve its approach to early childhood development and education. We’re using the data collected from these community stakeholders to develop Hope Starts Here recommendations that will be released in fall 2017.
  3. The third component is establishing grant programs for Detroit neighborhoods. This program has not been launched yet, but it is planned to be a new opportunity for local leaders to work on early childhood initiatives within their communities.
  4. The fourth component is related to social investment. We are fortunate at Kresge to have tremendous social investment expertise. We are looking at innovative financial means beyond grant making to be able to provide other financial opportunities for those working in the early childhood space.
  5. Our last component is around field-building—meaning, making investments at the local, state, and national levels for improving data collection, advocacy, and research in early childhood.

We believe that the five components we are investing in will help Detroit’s youngest learners and ultimately have a positive impact on improving opportunities in the city.

ED: What are some of the challenges you have experienced in this work and what strategies have you tried to overcome them? 

Wendy: A major challenge that I have experienced is ensuring better coordination of existing programs. We completed a mapping exercise in Detroit to get a handle on the number of programs supporting young children and their families. We identified over 400 programs that support young children in some way, but they were not working in alignment with the same North Star. This fragmented approach is a huge challenge, but we are trying to capitalize on all of these efforts in early childhood.

Another challenge in Detroit is that many of the facilities that house early childhood programs are in substantial need of quality improvement. Families and their children should be able to receive services with dignity, starting with a building that fosters development and education. KEYS: Detroit is designed to put the necessary building blocks in place to have high-quality early childhood programs. In other communities, they start initiatives with bold goals, such as 90 percent of all young children will be able to access high-quality early childhood programs. In Detroit, there are so many fundamental things that need to be in place before we can begin to think of these goals. So setting up the fundamental structures is what KEYS is designed to do.

ED: What suggestions do you have for others interested in expanding access to high-quality early learning opportunities?  

Wendy: One suggestion is to not lead with the money. Really engage stakeholders and the community from the beginning, get a handle on what the needs are from various perspectives, and then develop a framework and solutions to address them. A community’s engagement is critical and fundamental to addressing its needs. Mobilizing families to become involved and help address the needs of their communities has been a critical element of the efforts in Detroit. A simple way of saying it—you need stakeholders and you need a plan!


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.