Roundtable Series: High Quality Early Learning and Parental Engagement are the featured topics at the Third Shared Prosperity Roundtable

 The March Shared Prosperity Roundtable brought together childcare advocates, service providers, scholars and local officials to discuss the importance of parental engagement for improving early learning program outcomes.

The Mayor’s Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity (CEO) held its third Shared Prosperity Roundtable session on Thursday March 27, 2014. The roundtables are informal gatherings that attract a diverse audience of service providers, academics, public officials, consumers and other stakeholders to learn new information, discuss strategies for alleviating poverty and forge new partnerships. The focus of the March Roundtable was on the role of parental engagement in improving outcomes in early childhood learning. The format for the March roundtable included an opening presentation by Dr. Phil Sirinides, and a panel discussion that covered a broad range of perspectives from the early child care and education communities.

March Shared Prosperity Round table discussion exercise.

March Shared Prosperity Round table discussion exercise.

Following the presentations by the featured speaker and panelists, the audience participated in an exercise at their individual tables in which they were asked to share their role or interest in the early child care field, and their ideas for increasing the effectiveness of outreach to parents. The information that CEO staff collected in this exercise will contribute to the development of new initiatives to support parental engagement.

Featured Presentation: Phil Sirinides, Ph.D., Consortium for Policy Research in Education

Phil Sirinides is a statistician with expertise in quantitative research methods and in the development and use of integrated data systems for public-sector planning and evaluation. He is a Senior Researcher with the Consortium for Policy Research in Education (CPRE) at the University of Pennsylvania and has worked on a wide range of research projects on behalf of the Pennsylvania Department of Public Health, the National Center for Education Statistics, the William Penn Foundation, and the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare, Office of Child Development and Early Learning (OCDEL).

The Importance of Access: Sirinides’ presentation was entitled “Family Engagement in Childcare Quality.” While Sirinides came to view active parental engagement as an important program outcome, his research led him to conclude that access to high quality early learning resources is really the most critical first step: both building access and sustaining it. Quality ratings approaches (e.g., Keystone STARS) are often derived from a straightforward supply and demand model, which assumes the presence of an informed consumer base that demands quality, and an entrepreneurial provider community that responds to demand signals by increasing the supply of high quality services. However, Sirinides stated that it is not clear that the public and private marketplace for child care services actually operates efficiently. In practice the demand for quality has not been increasing over time, and the growth in the number of childcare facilities participating in the Keystone STARS rating system has been flat.

Sirinides believes that it is simplistic to think that parents are just deciding to not choose quality (suggesting that if they only had more information about quality and its benefits, they would make different choices). In order to fully understand the decisions of parents, and offer the kinds of parental supports that will lead to increased enrollments, he said that we need to build a more complete picture of families and their needs. For example, the cost of child care is a very important factor that is not given enough attention. Philadelphia’s average daily rate (ADR), which is a common cost metric for child care services in Pennsylvania, tends to be significantly higher than the state average. Moreover, it is not clear that the ADR fully covers the added costs associated with high quality services.

Polarizing Trends in Funding Support: Providing supplemental funds can help offset some of the high costs of quality care, but Sirinides is concerned that the flow of resources to increase quality may have the unanticipated consequence of sorting providers into two groups: high quality and low quality. In particular, as more resources are directed to improve the quality of the Keystone STARS sites, we may be increasing the supply of both high quality and low quality programs, leading to a disappearing “middle” range (similar to what is happening to the middle class in the US economy). From 2007 to 2009, the percentage of providers participating in Keystone STARS declined and costs flat-lined. The implication of these trends is that some providers have “given up” on efforts to attain quality measures. Nevertheless, these providers continue to serve a stable customer base. Sirinides noted that there are waiting lists for the high quality providers, but there are also waiting lists for the low quality providers. This is because childcare is such a critical, basic resource for families. By the time they reach kindergarten in Pennsylvania: 80 percent of children have had some kind of center based care; and 18 percent have received non-center / non-relative care. We also see a strong correlation between the parents’ level of education and children’s levels of economic hardship, and children experience more poverty than any other demographic group.

According to Sirinides, parental supports that address the underlying needs and values of parents (which may include some combination of transportation, cost, convenience, location, culture, trust, etc.) are greatly needed, in addition to more traditional strategies to increase demand by raising awareness. However, demand-driven efforts should include a wide range of marketing tactics, such as community engagement, social networking, media campaigns, and incentives. Outreach and engagement strategies must be more responsive to families’ diverse values and move beyond simply providing generic information about high quality.

To learn more about Dr. Phil Sirinides and his work, visit the Consortium for Policy Research in Education (CPRE) website (

Panel Discussion: Using Effective Parent Engagement Strategies to Improve Early Learning Outcomes

The opening presentation was followed by a panel discussion, which was moderated by Rashanda Perryman (Program Officer with the William Penn Foundation), and featured six panelists representing a broad segment of the early childhood education community:

  • Christie Balka – Senior Consultant, Pathways Strategies
  • Bette Begleiter – Deputy Director, Maternity Care Coalition
  • Sharon Neilson – Director, Woodland Academy Child Development Center
  • Suzanne O’Connor – Education Manager, United Way of Greater Philadelphia & Southern NJ
  • Denise T. Patterson – Director, Philadelphia Intellectual disAbility Services
  • Delores Shaw – Co-Chair, Philadelphia for Early Childhood Education (PECE)

The panel discussion provided an opportunity to expand upon some of the themes raised in the introductory presentation and offer concrete examples of parental engagement that have made a difference in the lives of families. The panel discussion was both informative and challenging, since one of the recurring messages shared by the panelists was the importance of trust, relationships and practical supports in order to effectively connect with parents and actively engage them in high quality early learning services. Below are a few of the many insights that were shared in the panel discussion.

Supply matters for high quality services: Supply constraints remain a factor in certain sections of Philadelphia. There is not a single open slot in the lower Northeast area for high quality early learning sites and there are huge waiting lists. To accommodate all eligible children for pre-K in Philadelphia, we would need more than 1000 more teachers and lots more space.

What does parental engagement really mean? Just showing up at a parent-teacher conference qualifies as engagement for some programs. Effective programs meet parents where they are and try to get them involved in enrichment activities and, if needed, therapeutic activities to address issues such as trauma, food insecurity, and domestic violence.

Information should be shared within the context of a relationship: There is an abundance of information available on the benefits of high quality early learning, and in our culture we are saturated with information on a daily basis. New parents are given a binder full of information when they leave the hospital – including information on the importance of quality child care. But the way to change behavior is not with more information but with a relationship. When a woman has a trusting relationship with providers who speak the same language, are from the same community, who are trusted, then she listens.

Try adopting the parent’s agenda first: Typically if a family is in poverty, they are living in an impoverished environment, and just keeping their children safe, out of trouble and properly nourished is a struggle. Instead of trying to get parents to buy in to your “high quality early childhood learning” agenda, meet them where they are and support them by sharing their agenda – helping them accomplish the goals most important to them. It may take you to a different place and in a different direction, but that is part of the shared journey with the parents. It becomes transformative for both parties.

Provide practical supports to help over-extended parents: Program developers need to recognize that everybody is trying to get a claim on parents’ time, particularly if parents have more than one child in the school system. More effort needs to be made to provide practical support to help them free up time to actually be engaged.

“Low quality” programs should not be ignored: Don’t just focus on the families who are partaking of the high quality programs. Look at the parents who are not accessing programs. Provide resources to the low quality providers. They are critical to making a real difference in the pre-k readiness problem.

Recognize and accommodate non-traditional family structures: It is not uncommon to find three generations that are involved in the care of the same child. Engagement needs to be responsive to not only parents, but grandparents, and other diverse, extended family structures (in some cases, even older siblings). Cultural and language issues are also critically important.

If you are interested in participating in a future roundtable meeting, please sign-up for updates from CEO through the “Get Involved” page.

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