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LIFTing Kids to Success: How One Oregon School is Preparing Kids for Kindergarten

LIFTing Kids to Success: How One Oregon School is Preparing Kids for Kindergarten

The school season is upon us once more, carrying with it the usual back-to-school hustle and bustle of drop-offs and pick-ups, prepping school lunches, homework, and a whirlwind of after-school activities.  

While some of us may not feel entirely prepared for the return to this familiar routine, it’s a different story for young learners at Oceanlake Elementary School. They are ready and eager to embark on their next adventure – kindergarten!  

Little learners proudly shared some of the arts and crafts they completed during the LIFT summer camp.

For the better part of August, soon-to-be kindergartners at Oceanlake Elementary attended the LIFT Super Kind Kids Summer Camp, a no-cost, half-day summer learning program available to children within the Lincoln County School District.  

At the heart of LIFT, an acronym for “Learning is Fun Together,” is a commitment to empower children to feel good about themselves and find the goodness, strengths, and resilience that are already within them. This comprehensive approach involves crafting a secure, supportive, and immersive classroom setting, nurturing caring relationships between students and teachers, and cultivating a sense of belonging within the school community. 

Kathy Cleaver started the LIFT program 12 years ago, as a volunteer with the Lincoln County School District. Cleaver assists in coordinating the LIFT summer camp and also teaches a bilingual parent-child kindergarten readiness class for 3- to 5-year-olds and their parents, from October through June. 

She explained that one of the best ways children learn is through play, which is a cornerstone of the LIFT curriculum. Through play, children learn and practice friendship and social skills, develop supportive relationships with adults, and build positive self-concept.  

“We focus on teaching them social-emotional skills. We call them SEEC learning skills—social, emotional, ethical, and cognitive development skills,” said Cleaver.  

“It’s an expansion of the social emotional learning movement because it incorporates the concept of the innates goodness of the child, connected with the intellectual capacity and executive functions of the brain. So, they learn to open their heart and activate the learning and thinking parts of their brain.” 

A young child sits at a desk with a marker in hand, near their mouth. A coloring sheet sits in front of the child, and a box of markers is nearby.
Three incoming kindergartners sit together at a table, covered with coloring pages. They are participaing in an activity together. One child is playing with what appears to be blocks, the other two children are coloring.

A typical day at the LIFT summer camp serves as a valuable foundation, establishing a structured routine that familiarizes children with what lies ahead when they step back into the classroom come September.  

The daily agenda unfolds with a morning community circle, offering a sense of togetherness, followed by opportunities to engage with peers at “free play” centers around the room. Circle time lessons provide intentional social-emotional development, while artistic expression finds its place in arts and crafts activities. In the later part of the morning, the playground is a beacon for outdoor play and the day concludes with a special closing ritual where children joyfully celebrate the kind choices they’ve made throughout their day. 

Incoming kindergartners at Oceanlake Elementary School in Lincoln City share about kind things they did, to close out the day.

Crista Adovnik is a kindergarten teacher at Oceanlake Elementary and has been teaching with the LIFT summer program for five years. Adovnik is a big proponent of the program because it gives children the chance to practice skills before making the leap into the classroom. 

“The LIFT program is a really good introduction to kindergarten,” Adovnik said. “It gives students a chance to come in and get a feel for the school and meet some of the other classmates. They can come in and play more and share with their peers and see how it is to be with other kids.” 

Orion is an Oceanlake student starting kindergarten this year. Orion’s mom, Shannon Reboh, teaches preschool and knows that the transition from preschool to kindergarten is a big change for many kids. She and Orion feel much more confident about his transition to kindergarten, after his participation in the LIFT program. 

“Orion is now much more familiar with his school and the way it is run,” she said. “He has gotten to learn about the daily routines, lunchroom, playground, expectations, bathrooms, and school activities before the long school days officially begin. I highly recommend this program to help parents support their children have a successful transition into the upcoming school year.” 

LIFT paves the way for a smoother transition into the classroom, instilling confidence, familiarity, and a readiness to embrace the exciting journey of kindergarten for the young learners at Oceanlake Elementary.  

A Decade of Togetherness

A Decade of Togetherness

The sun dips lower in the sky on a hazy evening in late August, casting a warm golden hue across the football field at Yoncalla High School. The hum of excited chatter sets the scene, and children laugh and play.  

As the night unfolds, the sounds of music from a live band dance through the air as families mingle and children savor the remaining sunlight, on the cusp of a new school year. 

Framed by a stunning view of the Umpqua Valley, Yoncalla’s annual community barbecue has become a symbol of togetherness, woven into the fabric of the town. 

This year, there was an added sense of pride and accomplishment as Yoncalla Early Works celebrated a decade-long milestone.  

Launched at Yoncalla Elementary School in 2013, Early Works has laid the foundation for an ecosystem of care. The initiative has not only shaped the educational landscape in Yoncalla, but has also nurtured a deep sense of connection among children, families, educators, and the greater community. 

Social events such as the barbecue are one way to foster connectedness among residents. Another is through annual community workshops aimed at helping young learners and building a healthy school culture.  

This year, Yoncalla school district organized community sessions centered on social-emotional learning from preschool through high school grades. 

Nicholas Oinonen, a certified Conscious Discipline trainer, spent two days in Yoncalla engaging with adult learners.  

“I was here training high school and elementary, and everyone involved at the school district on social-emotional learning,” explained Oinonen. “Conscious Discipline is a trauma-informed, social emotional tool to help teachers and students regulate emotions, and help learning happen in a positive way.” 

Many workshop attendees also joined the evening festivities and were enthusiastic about sharing what they learned over the previous two days. 

Taylor Vincelet, a Yoncalla local, parent, and an instructional assistant at the elementary school, expressed how the sessions provided valuable insight about student behavior. 

“Conscious Discipline explains that behavior doesn’t mean a kid is ‘bad,’” she said. “It’s really good about helping you understand the underlying emotions behind behaviors.”  

The community workshops and barbecue seamlessly combined, highlighting the power of collective effort and its impact in Yoncalla. And as a new school year begins again, Yoncalla community members reaffirmed their commitment to working together, supporting one another, and nurturing the growth of their children, and their community. 

This image shows a smiling group of CI Staff members standing in a line.
Unraveling Oregon’s 2023 Legislative Session: Wins, Missed Opportunities, and Powerful Advocacy for Early Childhood

Unraveling Oregon’s 2023 Legislative Session: Wins, Missed Opportunities, and Powerful Advocacy for Early Childhood

Oregon’s Legislature officially adjourned on June 25, 2023, after what was unquestionably one of the most unusual and politically divisive legislative sessions in Oregon’s history. The unpredictable tenor among lawmakers resulted in a mixed bag of outcomes for early childhood policies, and with that, a series of promising wins and some disheartening losses for Oregon’s early learning and care system. 

What influenced this year’s legislative session?  

  • Turnover and change in elected leadership and legislators. Not only did Oregon see a new Governor take office, but the legislature also has a new Speaker of the House, Senate President, majority and minority leaders, and a new House Ways and Means co-chair. In addition to this, about a third of Oregon legislators were new to the Legislature this year. 
  • The longest walkout in Oregon legislative history. Ten Senate republicans and one independent legislator did not participate in Senate floor sessions for a record-breaking 6 weeks. This brought bills and budgets to a standstill, and delayed the required work of the legislature, causing strain for legislative leadership to figure out how to complete the required legislative work by the constitutional end (Sine Die) of session.  
  • An unexpected $2 billion increase in the May revenue forecast. Although this mainly stemmed from changes to how the state budget was calculated, it required agencies to rethink their budgets, which posed a challenge to advocates who had already given significant input into a budget that they expected to be much smaller.  
  • Specific to early childhood, Oregon launched a new agency, the Department of Early Learning and Care (DELC). This is an exciting step for Oregon! However, because DELC is a new state agency, legislators may have been more cautious to give the department additional work or significant funding right away. Of course, advocates and providers shared a goal for a successful DELC launch and saw more opportunity for effective investment and nuance between funding streams than did legislative leaders.  


Persistent advocacy, promising wins 

Despite many unexpected hurdles throughout the legislative session, strong advocacy from Early Childhood Coalition (ECC) partners and other dedicated early childhood advocates made a significant impact on policy outcomes.  















 During the legislative session, advocates actively engaged by testifying at public hearings, meeting legislators, making calls, and sending messages to urge state leaders to invest in critical early childhood programs. The Early Childhood Equity Fund, child care facilities, early literacy, and higher wages for child care workers were among the priorities. 

“What is clear is that the voices of advocates from all across Oregon absolutely had an impact on the outcomes,” said Dana Hepper, director of policy and advocacy at Children’s Institute. “Early childhood advocates showed up, spoke out, and provided a powerful voice on behalf of Oregon’s youngest children and their families.” 

The list below includes the ECC’s priority bills and state agency policy option packages (POPs) that passed this session. For a detailed list of all early childhood policy outcomes, see the 2023 legislative recap.  

  • HB 3005: Create a child care infrastructure fund (this bill passed and was partially funded) 
  • HB 2727: Review zoning, building code, and permitting impact on child care 
  • SB 599: Protect child care providers in rental homes 
  • HB 2991: Create clear and equitable workforce pathways 
  • HB 3198: Improve early literacy instruction in preschool through third grade (in 2023) and birth to five (in 2024); fund community-based literacy interventions 
  • Oregon Health Authority (OHA) POP 425: Universally offered home visits (family connects) 
  • OHA POP 414: Implement early periodic screening, detection, and treatment (EPSDT

Missed opportunities 

During the thick of the governor’s race and in the months leading up to the 2023 legislative session, early childhood partners called on incoming state leaders to commit to a bold vision of leadership for Oregon children. 

And in a May 2023 letter to the Legislature’s Ways & Means Committee, Children’s Institute’s CEO Kali Thorne Ladd, urged legislators to prioritize investments in early learning and care.  

Investments in early childhood are among the most important investments we can make,” Thorne Ladd wrote. “While Oregon has made progress in this area, we must continue to invest in and strengthen the opportunities we create for children and families across the state.” 

Unfortunately, the Oregon Legislature missed a few needed and critical opportunities to invest in young children in this session: 

  • Early Intervention/Early Childhood Special Education (EIECSE). Funding for this program was cut by $19 million, which will result in cuts to services for babies and preschool aged children with disabilities and developmental delays. It will also likely result in workforce layoffs, in a time where there is already a shortage of early childhood workers. Early childhood advocates remain optimistic and continue to work with the Governor and legislative leadership to find a pathway to prevent cuts to these essential services.  
  • Employment Related Day Care (ERDC). In the last bill of the legislative session, the State allocated funding to the Department of Early Learning and Care (DELC) to help raise rates for child care providers and to support an increased number of families participating in the program. Even so, DELC estimates that this is not adequate and will result in reducing the number of working families that can be served. Advocates also continue to work with the Governor, DELC leadership, and legislators on this to prevent the need for a waitlist for child care subsidy. 
  • Early Childhood Equity Fund and Kindergarten Partnership Innovation Fund. CI worked hard to ensure that birth to five was included in the early literacy package (HB 3198), but these programs will have to wait a year to receive any funding for early literacy efforts. Birth to five literacy dollars should be used to make needed investments in the Early Childhood Equity Fund, which would support activities to help young children practice school readiness skills and provide culturally specific and language specific programming, as well as the Kindergarten Partnership Innovation Fund. While we are glad Oregon recognized the importance of the first five years in early literacy, we are disappointed the funding is delayed by a year. 


Next steps

Although the session has concluded, our work is not done. There are a few key next steps to ensure continued success for our policy wins.  

Moving forward, it is essential to ensure the successful implementation of the early childhood policies that passed, with continued engagement from community-based organizations and early childhood advocates. Ongoing engagement, appreciation, and accountability for session outcomes are crucial, as we work to build support among legislators for early childhood issues. CI will be intricately involved with efforts to support implementation.  

Looking ahead, we must plan for the future and drive momentum to secure additional funding in the upcoming legislative sessions and through the Emergency Board, continuing to push for needed programs such as the Early Childhood Equity Fund, Early Intervention/Early Childhood Special Education, and Employment Related Daycare.  

Together, as dedicated advocates for early childhood issues, we will persist in our efforts to continue to drive policies that help make Oregon the best place to be a kid.


The Power of Preschool Promise

The Power of Preschool Promise

Heather Rogen has worn many hats working in early childhood for nearly 32 years – from home visiting to directing Head Start programs, and working in family health programs.  

In 2020, Rogen founded Boulden-Rogen Early Learning Academy. In just two years, the academy expanded to six early learning centers, serving communities in Redmond, Bend, and Prineville.  

“I decided it was time to look at my community and see where the gaps were,” Rogen said. “And I decided to design a program that had the fewest barriers as possible for families.” 

For Rogen, it is essential that all families have access to high-quality early learning and care, so the center offers a variety of payment programs, which gives parents more options for where they send their young children.  

“Part of that is having a private pay program, Employment-Related Day Care, Baby Promise, and Preschool Promise all wrapped into one center that looks the same, no matter who is paying for those spots,” she said.  

The first Boulden-Rogen site in downtown Redmond started small, with Preschool Promise providing some of the initial funding. This gave Rogen the means to build and expand early learning and care centers across Central Oregon, with well-trained and experienced staff, and lower child ratios.

Oregon’s Preschool Promise provides free high-quality preschool education to children ages 3-4 whose families live at 200 percent or below the Federal Poverty Level, foster families, and families in certain rural communities.  

In 2015, Children’s Institute collaborated with 34 partner organizations to support Preschool Promise legislation. After its successful passage, the program launched in 2016 across nine regions, as a part of a larger statewide initiative to improve early childhood education, and partners with public and private providers to expand access to preschool and support the diverse needs of Oregon families. 

Preschool Promise is administered by the state’s Early Learning Division (ELD)—part of the Oregon Department of Education—and coordinated by local early learning hubs, which promote the program, help to recruit families, and process applications.  


An agency in transition 

Preschool Promise was a staple source of income for early childhood programs during the pandemic, which devastated an already fragile sector. Coming out of COVID, the ELD has been focused on accountability, implementing new reporting requirements, examining enrollment thresholds, and having more targeted supports and conversations with early learning hubs for enrollment.   

Currently, Preschool Promise serves about 4,300 young children across Oregon. Some regions of the state are still struggling to fill slots and serve eligible families, but ELD director Alyssa Chatterjee is confident that the creation of a new state agency—the Department of Early Learning and Care (DELC)—will be more responsive to communities across the state and will support a more centralized and streamlined early childhood system.

“We need to be more responsive to the information that we get from early learning hubs, and we need to build a system that’s going to allow us to do that. And I think as we’re becoming the Department of Early Learning and Care, we have a lot more control and ability to create those systems,” said Chatterjee.

The passage of Oregon House Bill 3073 (2021) established DELC to centralize and streamline Oregon’s early childhood system, with Chatterjee leading the department. The ELD will begin operating as the DELC starting on July 1, 2023.  

Flexibility to meet families’ diverse needs 

Preschool Promise offers a mixed delivery approach, meaning that families have more flexibility in where they take their children. Chatterjee explained that the mixed delivery system recognizes that high-quality preschool can happen in a variety of settings.  

“That means we have family child care providers, we have small and large private centers, nonprofits, school district partners, community organizations, and recognize that high-quality environments for preschool exists in all those settings,” said Chatterjee. 

An image of the different types of early childhood programs that are funded by Preschool Promise. This includes Head Start and Oregon Pre K, Public Preschool, Public Charter Schools, Private Preschool, Relief Nurseries, Education Service Districts, Community Based Organizations, and Child Care Providers

This allows families to choose a child care arrangement that best meets their needs, whether it be full-time, part-time, evenings and weekends, or drop-in care.  

It also ensures that families experiencing a range of financial and living situations have opportunities to access high-quality early learning and care.  

First Place Kids Preschool is a unique, low-barrier program through St. Vincent de Paul of Lane County that addresses the needs of children and families who are experiencing homelessness. 

The center’s wraparound model offers therapeutic child care, family resource coordination, advocacy and referrals, and family enrichment and bonding activities. 

The preschool is completely free to young children who are experiencing homelessness in the Eugene community and currently has 15 available slots in its first year of Preschool Promise.  

First Place Kids director, Ilana Jakubowski, says that although there has been a bit of a learning curve working with Preschool Promise, it is hugely beneficial both for families and the preschool program itself. 

“This program is huge because it provides a living wage for the preschool staff and free early education for families,” said Jakubowski. “It has allowed us to start a classroom from the ground up.” 


A profound impact 

Being a Preschool Promise family provides a peace of mind for parents, knowing they can enroll their children in preschool programs that stimulate healthy child development, help them reach milestones, and support a range of needs.  

Parent Kryssi Aguiar’s 5-year-old daughter, Kens, is enrolled in Preschool Promise at the Ivy School in Medford.  

Aguiar said that she was nervous about enrolling her daughter in Preschool Promise, concerned that she wouldn’t be able to find a program that would support Kens’ needs, as a child with autism. But the Ivy School exceeded her expectations and helped her daughter flourish. 

“We’re coming up on the end of our second year. She has been potty trained for almost a year and a half. She engages with other peers her age and older kids now and previously she wouldn’t,” said Aguiar. “I know that my daughter is safe and I know that she’s loved. I know she’s cared for. I know she’s appreciated and treasured.” 

Before Kens was enrolled in Preschool Promise, Aguiar’s family was a single income household. She said that if she and her husband had both been working, the cost of child care would have been financially impossible. Kens’ enrollment in Preschool Promise has enabled Aguiar to pursue higher education and she now works as a licensed tax professional for the State of Oregon. She and her husband are now both able to work. 

“Without my daughter being able to be at school and be safe, and taken care of, I would have literally never been able to do that,” she said. 

Providers are also seeing the direct impact of the program for young children and their families.  

“Our Boulden-Rogen parents are so excited that this program exists,” Rogen said. “We’ve had kiddos go on to kindergarten that are doing super, super well and are able to access the things they need.”  

At First Place Kids Preschool, many parents who waited to access early learning and care can now enroll their children in preschool, which in turn allows parents to access employment and other opportunities for themselves.  

“The families that have been able to access this care have told stories about waiting for months and months to access the care and now they can finally access it, so it definitely seems to be making an impact for families who are signing up,” said Jakubowski. 

“If a preschool program wants to be more accessible, then Preschool Promise is a great way to go.”

Governor Kotek Visits Yoncalla Early Works in Douglas County

Governor Kotek Visits Yoncalla Early Works in Douglas County

Governor Tina Kotek visited Douglas County as part of her One Oregon Listening Tour where she plans to visit all of Oregon’s 36 counties during her first year in office.

On Friday morning, she stopped at Yoncalla Elementary School’s Early Learning Center—a demonstration site for Children’s Institute’s Early Works program, which launched at the school in 2013.

Governor Kotek toured the early learning classrooms with preschool director, Megan Barber.

Barber guided Governor Kotek around each classroom, pointing to the various enrichment spaces for reading, STEM, and art, as well as areas for children to have quiet time and develop social-emotional skills.

She described the tight-knit relationships that children and their families have with teachers and school staff, sharing that before the beginning of each school year school staff does home visits with all the families that have children attending the Early Learning Center.

Governor Kotek visits Yoncalla Early WorksGovernor Kotek warmly thanked Barber for sharing and told her, “Every community deserves this.”

As the classroom tour came to an end, parent leaders, educators, and community members gathered in the kitchen/community space for a roundtable discussion about Early Works and the impact of a strong early learning program on children, families, and the community.

During the roundtable, Sara Ruiz-Weight shared how Early Works impacted her family.

“I started to realize what it was like to be part of a school family. I started to realize what it was like to be able to have help outside of my family. And so, it just became something bigger than what I ever expected,” said Ruiz-Weight. “Once you start to support families in small communities, they start to realize what their value really is,” she said.

There were few dry eyes as the room filled with stories from parents, grandparents, teachers, and community members.

One theme rang loud and clear – the school is the hub of this community, and a place where children and families can meet their needs.

Erin Helgren is the principal of Yoncalla Elementary School and the Early Works site liaison for Children’s Institute. She explained to Governor Kotek that the school’s early learning program is community-centered, community-driven, and that the focus should be on strengths, not deficits.

“This project is not grounded in poverty and what this community doesn’t have, but it’s grounded in what it DOES have.” said Helgren. “The foundation is justice and love, and feeling safe, and feeling connected. This is not head work, this is heart work,” she said.

Governor Kotek nodded thoughtfully and responded, saying, “It’s about the assets of the community, and the strengths that you have. It is about having community lead that transformation.”

She also said that, as governor, it is her job to listen and find ways to make it easier for communities to do what they need to thrive.

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