Dan Gaffney is a veteran educator and administrator, having spent 17 years with the Seaside School District in Oregon as an elementary principal and special education director. He later coordinated Clatsop County’s Preschool—Third Grade (P-3) Collaboration project to align programs and professional development for those working and involved with the education and care of children from birth to age 8. He also developed and directed Clatsop County’s early childhood health and education screening for 3 years. Dan has served on Oregon’s Northwest Early Learning Hub Governance Committee and Clatsop County’s Way to Wellville Strategic Council. Most recently, Dan directed the U.S. Department of Education-funded Preschool Pay for Success Feasibility Study involving Clatsop and Tillamook Counties in Oregon.
ED: How did you begin your career in education and then choose to focus on the importance of early learning?
Dan: I spent 37 years as a K–12 educator. First as a teacher, 13 years as elementary principal, and four years as a special education and English language learner director. All of these experiences really helped me understand the importance of the early childhood years. Being a special education director connected me with a broader education community that includes the medical community working with preschoolers who have or are suspected of having a disability. During the last five years, I’ve worked on preschool to third grade alignment. This has involved working with early childhood experts and the medical community to run a health and development screening clinic available to families with young children in our community. It has addressed a need in our community and connected these families much earlier to both the educational and health systems.
Our community is relatively rural, about 100 miles from Portland, Oregon, and on the coast. One of the things that struck me when I moved here 30 years ago is that people here are resourceful and pull together when there is a need. We find ways to address challenges which can be hard when you are far from a major metropolitan area. Our poverty rates continue to grow. In the elementary school where I was principal, 35 percent of students qualified for free and reduced lunch when I first started. Now, 17 years later, almost 70 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch. Our community has also become much more diverse with schools seeing increasing numbers of English language learners. Recognizing these changes in our community broadened my awareness of the challenges families with young children experience and led me to early childhood advocacy work. It also connected me to others at the state and local level working to improve early learning opportunities for young children in need. It has been fun and rewarding working with others who are passionate about improving services and programs for families and young children.
ED: What efforts have you and your community been involved in to improve the quality of early childhood programs and services?
Dan: I coordinated Clatsop County’s Preschool—Third Grade (P-3) Collaboration (funded through the Oregon Community Foundation). This project supported the alignment of educational programs, parenting programs and professional development for early childhood providers, school district teachers and administrators, healthcare professionals, and others involved in the education and care of children from birth to age 8. We called this initiative Clatsop Kinder Ready and brought together leaders from our Hispanic community and county government, preschool and K–12 educators, and others who delivered services to our young learners. That led us to do early childhood health and education screening clinics where families could bring in preschool-aged children and receive free health, developmental, and education screenings, and if needed, follow up with appropriate services. We conducted a couple of these each year. This effort relied on many volunteers—nursing students from the college, local Head Start staff, interpreters from the Hispanic Council, local high school students, elementary school staff, physicians, school psychologists, and others. We also provided transportation support when needed. It was a great example of the community working together.
Then, the state started funding Early Learning Hubs, which are charged with getting cross-sector partners to work together to create local systems that provide families and young children with the support they need. Our Northwest Early Learning Hub was able to take on the screenings, and now the hub is working to improve the link between screenings and the need for appropriate referrals and further evaluation.
A new piece of this work that our community started last year is the Welcome Baby project. The group that worked together under Clatsop Kinder Ready recognized we needed to do something to connect with families of new babies. Following the successful work in other Oregon communities who developed a welcome box, we decided to create welcome baby baskets that include needed baby supplies and a community ABC book. In the ABC book, each letter of the alphabet represents a service available in the community. Last I heard, we had given out over 100 of these in the two local hospitals where each family also connects with a social worker. Last May, we held a county-wide baby shower and invited all the families of babies that had been born in the last year to meet other families and service providers. Participants shared information about different programs and services available for young children and families. The county health department is going to take on the Welcome Baby program and we hope it can be sustained. It has increased awareness and excitement about the importance of these early years and what’s available to help families.
ED: How has your community benefitted from your Preschool Pay for Success (PFS) Feasibility Study and other early learning efforts?
Dan: We were thrilled we had the opportunity to explore how to expand high-quality preschool programs in our community through the Preschool PFS Feasibility Study. More specifically, the purpose of the study was to determine whether or not PFS was a feasible approach for this. Complementing the study were efforts by the Sorenson Impact Center at the University of Utah. Their data experts came in and helped us examine data from eight local school systems and Oregon’s Department of Education that could help inform our efforts.
There have been many benefits of conducting the PFS feasibility study. First, it broadened our set of partners engaged in our early learning work. Having a grant from the U.S. Department of Education really helped us to connect with partners at the University of Utah, the state, and other early learning partners and to form true collaborations. One of the unique partners we have here is the Coast Guard. We have over 600 Coast Guard families living in the county and two additional ships are being reassigned to our area. Our partnership with the Coast Guard extends to serving the needs of their families. They are interested in exploring what they can do and offer in terms of resources to help their families and the broader community around early learning. Our project also attracted interest from state leaders within the education department’s early learning division and the Children’s Institute, Oregon’s largest children’s advocate organization.
Second, and this excited people from the beginning, the study allowed us to pull together data we hadn’t had time or resources to pull together before. This renewed look at data solidified many of our assumptions but also provided us with new information. For example, we now have data showing us that the mobility of families in our community is a big issue. We can see the percentages of our students that are moving regularly across the eight school districts in our community; these data will be helpful in responding to this issue and better meeting the needs of our transient students. Data were really valuable for internal planning and when reaching out externally to clearly demonstrate the extent of our community’s needs. It made a case for expanding high-quality preschool and helped us develop specifics for how to reach families with young children.
Third, through the feasibility study we conducted a cost benefit analysis of preschool expansion and resulting transportation needs in our community. This helped us understand its cost and potential benefits, and understand when and how those benefits occur. Finally, being part of a feasibility study allowed us to consider doing things a little bit differently. We were new to the PFS concept, but it has helped us think about how we can expand on what worked for some of our families and children with the greatest needs.
ED: What suggestions do you have for others interested in expanding access to high-quality early learning programs?
Dan: Collaborate; don’t try to do it on your own. Find out who else has interest, expertise, and connections that are beneficial to not just families and children, but to the overall community. Think about connecting with businesses and your local chamber of commerce. For example, we learned one of our local fish processing centers was looking at buying slots in a local child care program and building that into their employees’ compensation so they could retain high-quality workers. We then brought them into our efforts since they were motivated to support their employees.
Don’t be afraid to reach out to leaders who might seem like they aren’t interested. Have your two minute elevator speech ready—be concise about what you are doing and why, and what the possibilities are. Over the course of my career, and with much practice, I have learned how to make a compelling pitch and have refined my approach with leaders.
Finally, be ready for ups and downs. There definitely isn’t an easy path in this work, but when you have a core group that is committed and willing to dream together and work together, you can keep the momentum going.
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.