By: Caitlin Lee, WEPOWER Director of Communications & Storytelling
WEPOWER is a St. Louis organization that fosters community power by focusing on early childhood education. A diverse group of teachers, child care center directors, parents, and academics are brought together as “tomorrow builders,” a fellowship that brain-storms, gathers information, and works to effect policy change. They are committed to reimagining and redesigning the region’s early childhood education (ECE) system to be more equitable and innovative.
Currently, 94,000 ECE-age kids in St. Louis city and county are growing up in a fractured system. The Ferguson Commission’s signature priorities and For the Sake of All’s landmark report highlight the need for investment and innovation in the early childhood education sphere.
“We cannot keep leaving those closest and most impacted out of the conversation,” says Joey Saunders, director of the fellowship.
“Our region has a real opportunity to strengthen a system that will yield huge returns for us all, and it starts with a community of change makers courageous enough to imagine a radically different future,” says CEO and founder of WEPOWER, Charli Cooksey.
Research shows that high-quality ECE means better professional, personal, and academic outcomes and a stronger workforce that drives economic mobility. It means kids’ health issues are diagnosed and treated sooner. It means less spending on special ed interventions, remedial classes, and incarceration. In other words, each dollar invested in great pre-K yields around $4-$9 in societal return.
During the first of two years, fellows engage in capacity building experiences that focus on systems thinking, design, and dynamics and leadership development. They engage in local and national listening sessions and research and analysis of early childhood innovations.
As part of their landscape assessment, fellows have asked parents and guardians of children ages 0-5 and early childhood education providers to join a visioning campaign by sharing their dreams for an ECE system reimagined.
Toward the end of their first year, the “tomorrow builders” fellowship — alongside solution teams made up of educators, parents and guardians, and subject matter experts — will publish a playbook that articulates a community-driven vision of how the early childhood education system across the region should function to equitably support every child. Fellows will work with partners, including Social System Design Lab, SkipNV, and Southside Early Childhood Center, to implement these recommendations.
“In order to break the grip of intergenerational poverty on children and families, real structural change is needed, particularly within the early childhood education system,” says Gary Parker, associate dean of external affairs and director of the Clark-Fox Policy Institute, another fellowship partner. “This requires the development and implementation of policies grounded in empirical facts that advance equity. The Tomorrow Builders Fellows collectively bring the vast lived and professional experience that is needed to tackle this challenge.”