Oregon Prepares to Fund Early Literacy Efforts

Oregon Prepares to Fund Early Literacy Efforts

Oregon is poised to distribute funds for early childhood learning and literacy. In 2023, lawmakers passed the Early Literacy Success Initiative, in part because only about half of the state’s students were proficient in reading through third grade. School districts have since applied for grants with the Oregon Department of Education and funds are expected soon.

Marina Merrill, director of research and strategy with the Children’s Institute, said the investments are exciting because brains develop faster in a person’s first eight years of life than at any other point.

“Those years are just so critical, especially that 90% of a child’s brain is developed by the age of five. Yet most of our investments in young children start at age five,” she said.

Grant applications from more than 200 districts and charter schools have focused on building capacity for early literacy through professional development and coaching. The Children’s Institute is holding a webinar tomorrow about the state’s investments and evidence-based early learning practices.

Herb Turner, founder of ANALYTICA, will participate in the Children’s Institute webinar. He said evidence-based practices are ones that have been studied and shown to improve students’ outcomes, meaning they can be used with confidence in the classroom.

“Oregon deserves a lot of credit for taking this on and for creating this emphasis on evidence-based practices and strategies, and getting behind evidence-based reading initiatives,” he explained.

Cesiah Vega-Lopez, a pre-k teacher at the bilingual school Echo Shaw Elementary in Cornelius, outside Hillsboro, said she’s used different practices to teach literacy, such as highlighting each letter of the alphabet with an animal that starts with that letter, and added that this is a critical time for kids.

“For them to be able to have this knowledge early on really helps support their learning as they move on through their trajectory of school, especially as they move on to kindergarten. So I think the focus on them learning or being aware of language is very important in their overall development,” Vega-Lopez explained.


Disclosure: Children’s Institute contributes to Public News Service’s fund for reporting on Children’s Issues, Early Childhood Education, Education, and Health Issues.
This article was written by Eric Tegethoff and originally shared through Public News Service on May 21, 2024. The link can be found here.
Oregon School’s Learning Labs Showcase the Power of Early Learning

Oregon School’s Learning Labs Showcase the Power of Early Learning

The Beaverton School District is blazing a trail in early education through bilingual learning labs, which emphasize playful inquiry and habits of mind.

School officials said the Early School Success initiative is designed to showcase the power of early learning and help make the case for expanded public investment in preschool.

Monique Singleton, principal at Vose Elementary in Beaverton, said the program helps children, many from immigrant families, successfully adjust to their new surroundings.

“I think the important part about the inquiry work that we’re doing with Children’s Institute, and I’ve talked about this with other principals and teachers, is that I think it’s really important just to be exploring and listening to your community and be able to explore it,” Singleton explained.

Vose Elementary hosted a learning lab earlier this week, showing participants in the district the transformative work the school is doing to improve outcomes for students and the community. The goals for the event were to hold space to nurture cross-district relationships and collaboration.

Singleton noted the emphasis is on teaching children life skills to help them cope with complex emotions and situations they either face at school, at home or both.

“The goal is to help them feel honored with a sense of belonging and a sense of safety around our emotions and a sense of identity,” Singleton pointed out. “So they don’t feel like they have to shut down a part of themselves in order to be successful at school.”

Vose’s faculty and staff are hands-on leaders who model empathy, learn alongside their staff, and consistently message the need for playful inquiry as an equity stance, Singleton added. They aim to provide children at Vose the same kind of learning experiences one might expect at an elite private school.


Disclosure: Children’s Institute contributes to Public News Service’s fund for reporting on Children’s Issues, Early Childhood Education, Education, and Health Issues.

This article was written by Mark Richardson and originally shared through Public News Service on May 16, 2024. The link can be found here.

Oregon’s Regional ‘Primeros Pasos’ Brings Together Sectors to Build Child Care for Latino Communities

Oregon’s Regional ‘Primeros Pasos’ Brings Together Sectors to Build Child Care for Latino Communities

We often talk about the critical nature of the early child care workforce. Child care serves as a community asset that not only benefits a single child or family unit, but also promotes the well-being of entire communities. A sufficient supply of quality child care promotes economic development by 1) Enabling parents, especially mothers, to fully engage in the workforce, 2) Promoting employee productivity generally, 3) Preparing children for kindergarten and beyond, where they gain skills to become contributors to the state economy, and 4) Interrupting cycles of poverty and inequities created and upheld by injust systems. Maria Weer, executive director at Building Healthy Families in Enterprise, said that “the business community is stating clearly that they can’t recruit staff because people don’t have child care.” Increasing support for early childhood education is the most effective and cost-efficient way of increasing equitable outcomes on a wide range of factors, from high school graduation and incarceration rates to issues of homelessness and health.

This article written by Liz Bell at EdNC and shared with permission highlights an incredible example of how sectors can unite to bring greater child care opportunities for underserved communities across Oregon.


In 2021, Mike McNally found himself on an unexpected mission.

As owner of Fairsing Vineyard & Winery an hour outside Portland, Oregon, and then chair of the Willamette Valley Wineries Association, McNally was researching how child care works.

He had spent the last couple of years figuring out how the association could do more than “enhance the prestige of Willamette Valley wines,” he said. The association set up a philanthropic arm to invest in employees of the region’s wineries, and in their communities. 

When asked what needs were most pressing, vineyard stewards pointed first to housing, and then to child care.


A senior white man wearing a suit shows a spiral shaped vineyard on a cloudy day.

Mike McNally gives a tour of Fairsing Vineyard & Winery. Liz Bell/EducationNC

“My wife would like to be out here working with me, but she’s got to take care of the kids,” McNally recalled hearing in conversations with workers.

Employers across the country are hearing similar sentiments. Some businesses are opening on-site child care programs or subsidizing the cost of employees’ child care.

In North Carolina, an estimated 400,000 working parents are constrained by child care needs, according to a 2022 report from the NC Early Childhood Foundation. Insufficient child care is costing the state $3.5 billion annually, and the country $122 billion, according to a 2023 ReadyNation report. Local and statewide chambers of commerce are speaking about the need for child care.

But McNally’s journey did not end at acknowledging the need, holding a news conference, or even connecting his business’s own employees to child care. After two years, Primeros Pasos, “first steps,” is just getting started in building a child care system that serves Latino communities across the region.

‘An ideal partnership’

McNally was introduced to Jaime Arredondo, executive director of Capaces Leadership Institute, a nonprofit serving Latino communities in the Willamette Valley. The organization has been rooted in labor organizing and immigration raid resistance starting in the 1970s.

“My father was one of thousands of folks that came into that place in the ’80s to get immigration assistance,” Arredondo said.

He’s been involved in community-building efforts for many years. He described himself and McNally as “an ideal partnership” in some ways: a grandfather “trying to pay it forward,” and “a younger guy who’s got kids in pre-K.”

A group of young people gather together in a vineyard on a sunny day.

Photo Courtesy of Capaces Leadership Institute

“I’ve been in the movement, and I’ve been taught from an early age, take the long view,” Arredondo said.

He located an available lot and asked whether McNally could find funds to build a child care program. He then went on paternity leave.

Though he didn’t know how this partnership would evolve, his experience as a father to young children made him interested from the jump.

“There’s a time and a place for everything, and I wonder if he would have caught me at a younger age if I would have seen the potential in this,” he said.

An Aha Moment

During Arredondo’s time off, McNally got to work. He took a self-built crash course in early care and education.

He learned about Oregon’s system: Child Care Resource & Referral agencies, the early childhood workforce registry run by Portland State University, Early Learning Hubschild care subsidies and public preschool programs and quality rating scales.

Then he turned to experts. McNally took a trip to visit his niece, Amy Schmidtke, director of program development at the Buffet Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska, to learn more about the systemic issues leading to a broken child care market. There, he had an aha moment.

He left with a shift in his thinking. “It’s not about the building, it’s about the workforce,” he said.

By the time Arredondo was back from paternity leave, McNally knew he had to persuade him to think bigger than one building or one program.

“Until we build the workforce, we don’t have anything,” McNally said. “… I sat down and I said, ‘Hey, man, I think we need to turn this thing upside down.’”

In the last two years, that’s what Primeros Pasos, a consortium working to “create best-in-class early childhood education and care for Latina communities in Marion, Polk, and Yamhill counties,” has been doing.

McNally and Arredondo knew there were several organizations doing important work already that needed support and coordination.

A man with brown skin and a warm smile is wearing a white shirt and smiling at the camera. He has dark hair and a beard.

Jaime Arredondo

“(We were) two dudes coming together with no experience in the subject other than what they’ve read and what they’ve studied, and so we knew that we needed to bring people together that know how to do this work,” Arredondo said.

Primeros Pasos

McNally and Arredondo formed the group of regional early childhood organizations, agencies, and partner institutions. Capaces Leadership Institute sits at the top — with the closest proximity to Latino communities.

Instead of individual organizations deciding what to work on and then looking for funding, the community is at the center of those decisions.

“It’s the Latino organization, the Latino community, driving it, not state and county agencies,” McNally said.

The group conducted a needs assessment, located the existing resources, and created a strategy with measurable goals along the way.

That assessment found:

“Approximately 7,000 preschool Latino children (0-4-year-old) reside in this area. Early learning programs are available to serve only 1-in-8 infant and toddlers and 1-in-4 preschoolers. Only 33% of the available programs have conducted quality assessments, and only 15% have achieved a 3- 4- or 5-Star rating with the Spark Quality Rating & Improvement System.”

Primeros Pasos plans to serve 1,500 more children, enroll 300 new teachers in college and community-based training, open 150 new family child care homes, and create a culturally specific curriculum in the next five years.

A woman with brown skin and a black dress sits by a senior white man in a blue shirt at a table, where they use a tablet to describe their plan.

Lucy Escobar and Mike McNally explain the strategy behind Primeros Pasos. Katie Dukes/EducationNC

The consortium has already secured $300,000 from the Child Care Alliance to train providers, $300,000 from the state Department of Early Care and Learning to create a scholarship cohort of 25 students studying early childhood education at Clackamas Community College, and $1.5 million from the state to build capacity in organizations in the consortium to focus on the project.

The five-year project is going to cost about $70 million, which includes state funds going directly to programs serving children from established channels such as the state’s Employment-Related Day Care and Preschool Promise programs.

The program’s manager, Lucy Escobar, has been at the head of Primeros Pasos for less than two months. But she’s been working as a coach with child care providers for seven years.

“This is a legacy project,” Escobar said. She’s worked with providers like Herlin Alvarez, who just opened a Early Start Preschool and Child Care Center in Salem, Oregon, but operated a family child care home for seven years beforehand.

Escobar started working with Alvarez at her dining room table, helping her navigate the complex systems and rules of child care licensing.

“Our vision was that one day, she would get to open her center, Escobar said. “And last year, we cut the ribbon.”

Primeros Pasos is now surveying the needs of a new cohort of in-home providers to support them with training and mentoring all in Spanish, in the coming year.

The project has four main strategic pillars: early childhood workforce and development, Latino-specific curriculum and learning plans, existing provider development, and recruitment of new educators and providers.

“By recruiting and supporting Latinx educators and providing them research-based resources and tools that are culturally relevant and developmentally appropriate, we can create an environment that doesn’t just acknowledge diversity but celebrates it as an essential component, alongside developing healthy mental and emotional relationships and stimulating brain development for our future generations,” Escobar said in an email.

A woman with brown skin, dark hair in a ponytail, and a teal shirt stands in front of a festive child care wall display.

Herlin Alvarez, owner of Early Start Preschool & Child Care Center. Liz Bell/EducationNC

The project’s consortium has a steering committee with a member from each of the consortium’s organizations: Capaces Leadership Institute, Child Care Resource & Referral, The Marion-Polk and Yamhill Early Learning Hub, Oregon Child Development Coalition, and the Willamette Valley Wineries’ Association.

“Each individual has brought their resources and perspective to the table, fostering the sharing of ideas, experiences, and a genuine care for the future of Oregon,” Escobar said. “I don’t see egos or private agendas; instead, I see a community willing to unite and collaboratively create a better Oregon for both the present and future generations.”

The project just brought on a public relations manager and outreach coordinator, is in the middle of launching a website, and is gearing up to welcome the in-home provider cohort.

Investing Early and Holistically

Even though the project in its first phases, Arredondo is not losing the long-term vision.

“When we invest at an early age, and when we invest holistically, I just can’t wait to see what kind of leaders this is going to produce in our community,” he said.

There are lessons outside of the region, and outside of Oregon, on cross-sector leadership going beyond immediate needs and solutions, he said. For Arredondo, the project is a full-circle moment. His father worked in the vineyards just like the ones that have spearheaded Primeros Pasos. He’s now headed toward another paternity leave to welcome his fourth child into the world in two weeks.

“It’s like growing a superpower, because you see things you didn’t see before,” he said. “I really believe it does take a village, whether that’s a village, or a big community, like our big region, to make this work.”

This work is attributed to Liz Bell, early childhood reporter for EducationNC. The original version can be found here.

Supporting a Strong Start for Children with Disabilities

Supporting a Strong Start for Children with Disabilities

We often talk about how investing in a child’s earliest years can set them up for long-term success. In a child’s first few years of life, more than one million new connections in the brain are formed every second, creating a foundation for the connections that form later. In order to build a strong foundation during this period of rapid brain development, it’s important to connect families with the tools needed to support their child’s development as early as possible.

New America’s newly launched blog series will examine early intervention and early childhood special education throughout the coming year.


Early intervention (EI) is a set of services available to families with young children. These range from physical therapy and occupational therapy to nutrition and speech and language services. Specifically, under Part C of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), children from birth through age two with developmental delays or disabilities or who are at risk of having a developmental delay are entitled to EI services. In pre-kindergarten settings, these services are often referred to as early childhood special education (ECSE) and are administered under IDEA Part B Section 619 (see graphic below).

A graphic with the title Supporting Young Children with Disabilities Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Beneath the title are three boxes. The first box has the words Early intervention, birth through two years old, IDEA Part C. The next box has the words Early childhood special education, three through five years old, IDEA Part B Section 619. The third box has the words Special education, five through 21 years old, IDEA Part B. There are three images that show a crawling baby, a toddler, and an elementary-aged child. There is also a caption with the words This graphic shows the way in which we conceptualize IDEA for the purposes of this blog series. Age ranges and terminology may differ slightly in different states and circumstances.

New America

Strong support for both the child and family as soon as a disability or developmental delay is identified yields benefits that last a lifetime. Yet, families of young children with disabilities and developmental delays face challenges in accessing EI and ECSE services. Studies indicate that the percentage of children eligible for EI services is greater than the number served. Only four percent of the birth through age two population are served under Part C of the IDEA, while research suggests between 12 to 20 percent of this population would benefit from EI services. Moreover, children and families of color face the lowest rates of EI service use. One study found that Black children with developmental delays who were eligible for EI services were eight times less likely than similar white peers to receive them.

Children’s Institute

One reason for these challenges may be the shortage of EI service providers (think speech and language pathologists, physical therapists, occupational therapists) who are trained to conduct evaluations and provide services. In a 2022 survey conducted by the IDEA Infant and Toddler Coordinators Association, all 45 state respondents reported provider shortages, with more than 80 percent experiencing shortages of speech and language pathologists and physical therapists. This theme came up in roundtable discussions we held earlier this year with 19 stakeholders* working at the intersection of disability and early childhood across the United States. The roundtable participants—which included EI providers, pediatricians, service coordinators, state Part C coordinators, and researchers—discussed how the current workforce crisis impacts families’ experiences navigating the referral and evaluation process, such as long waitlists for appointments and whether their concerns about their child’s development are taken seriously. The participants noted how addressing staffing shortages must be done in tandem with efforts to improve the cultural, linguistic, and racial diversity of the EI workforce. Participants also suggested expanding reflective supervision to support staff retention.

Funding was another theme that came up during the roundtables. Currently, funding dictates how many children receive access to EI—from the frequency, duration, and location to whether the service is available at all. Participants emphasized how the opposite should be the goal: a reality where service delivery—or the number of children eligible for and receiving services—is not constrained by the amount of funding that is invested. Participants touched on the need to fund proactively toward long-term, systems-building components, such as community health workers to support families navigating care and services for their children or ongoing training for service providers in all settings (e.g. district, state-contracted agency, private practice).

While participants were eager to discuss the challenges, there was an even stronger desire to focus on solutions. State leaders meet often with local practitioners and have gained a keen sense through the years of how these issues impact EI service providers and families in their state. Roundtable participants were largely in agreement over the major issues facing young children with disabilities and their families. However, there remains a gap between awareness and action, and participants wondered what state and federal policy levers could be valuable in meeting the mandate of IDEA Part C and ensuring equal protection under the law.

A photo of an infant with brown hair, smiling and wearing a white t-shirt under a dark vest and light colored bottoms. The infant is being held by an adult wearing a blue shirt and a necklace, whose face is outside of the frame, and being passed to a second adult who is also wearing a blue shirt. The background is blurred.

Shutterstock/New America

In our ongoing examination of meeting the educational needs of young children with disabilities and developmental delays, we are excited to launch an ongoing blog series in 2024 where we plan to tackle several questions, such as: What can states do to make EI and ECSE more equitable for children of color and children from families with low incomes? How can policymakers address challenges in meaningful ways? How can we better connect awareness to action? The series will address themes from the roundtable and include recent research.

If early childhood systems are to be designed to meet the needs of all children and families, EI and ECSE need to be recognized as key parts of that system. You can find New America’s growing body of work focused on disability policy on our disability resource page.

*For the roundtables, we were intentional about having representation across states, political contexts, and communities, but we acknowledge that these participants’ perspectives represent only a subset of those working to improve access and outcomes for young children with disabilities.

This work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY 4.0). It is attributed to Carrie Gillispie and Nicole Hsu. The original version can be found here.

Yoncalla Early Works: An Ecosystem of Care and Community

Yoncalla Early Works: An Ecosystem of Care and Community

Written by guest contributor Adriane Blackman.

On any given day in a preschool classroom at Yoncalla Elementary School, the atmosphere is abuzz with light and warmth. Kids and teachers are immersed in activity. Some children play in the kitchen “cooking” a meal for their friends, some build with blocks, while others nestle side by side poring over the pages of picture books. Play is a core activity, creating opportunities to grow and learn. And for preschoolers in Yoncalla, very possibly their most important work. 

Though preschool programming has existed in Yoncalla for several decades, the programming offered was limited, and wasn’t free. Over the past decade, preschool classrooms have expanded and evolved and now serve every 3 and 4-year-old in the district. It has become an essential opportunity for children in the community, stemming from the launch of Yoncalla Early Works in 2013.

More than ten years ago, Children’s Institute (CI) and The Ford Family Foundation (TFFF) recognized the importance of responding to the needs of remote rural communities in Oregon. They took time to understand the complexity and unique conditions present in Yoncalla, and then invested in an approach to engage with parents, families, educators, and local leaders to transform education and the role of the school in the community. That decision launched Yoncalla Early Works, a long-term initiative built on a partnership with the Yoncalla School District. 

Yoncalla is located close to Interstate 5 in Douglas County, halfway between Eugene and Roseburg with approximately 1,100 residents. With a history as a timber town, Yoncalla was steeped in the traditions of logging. For decades, life in the woods grounded the community in a strong work ethic and connection to the land. Pride of place and the resources found there, didn’t only fuel the economy, but a whole way of life. Massive shifts in the industry in the late 20th century led to significant changes in the community, including declining wages, job losses, and a dwindling population that led to reduced local tax revenue for schools. 

The shifting timber industry left the community with a cascade of challenges and for many, a feeling that their very way of life was being dishonored. Families were at the mercy of a broken system, leaving many to feel disempowered and disenfranchised by those in power.

When Early Works launched in Yoncalla, the story of a community steeped in poverty prevailed. But the true story of transformation in Yoncalla is built on community resilience. A group of engaged and committed parents, families, and educators with a commitment to excellence in education, and early learning as a driver for helping transform an entire district.


Building Trust and Safety

Megan Barber began teaching preschool at Yoncalla Elementary in 2015, returning to the community she grew up in after many years away and earning her masters degree. Today, she teaches alongside peers who are also from the community, working with two full preschool classrooms. Barber is keenly aware of the needs of her students, observing, responding, and guiding each of her students throughout any given day.

Megan Barber engages in story time with her preschool class at Yoncalla Elementary School

Megan Barber engages in story time with her preschool class at Yoncalla Elementary School

The forests surrounding Yoncalla are a constant reminder of their past and the traditions that have imbued this community with strength and grit, and a deep sense of Oregon. The trees continue to inspire and inform, even in something as simple as a preschool art project. Picture Barber seated at a small table next to one of her students, helping him with his work. She narrates his actions as he carefully glues green triangles onto his paper, eventually revealing a tree. He focuses intently as his small fingers select glitter squares to adorn the branches. Barber instructs, calmly and with care, giving him the opportunity to create his own work, in his own unique way. As he places his completed tree on the drying rack, she seamlessly transitions the class to whole group rug time, singing songs as she guides them to their appropriate rug squares.  

In this environment, students practice self control, sitting with their legs crossed and managing their personal space. They practice leadership and select peers to share their ideas with the group. They also discuss different versions of a story, tallying observations onto a large graph displayed by the class calendar, an exercise that helps develop pre-literacy and math skills. As the lesson concludes, Barber checks in with a student who seemed to have difficulty staying engaged. 

“I notice you seem tired today,” she says. “Would you like to sit with me for a few minutes?” Her invitation is met with a quiet relief, as he quickly hops into her lap. Together, they look through her song book, singing the melody, as his small body relaxes and grows calm.  

“Every day is getting him to trust that I’m going to keep him safe,” she said. “He is always testing the limits of safe boundaries.“

This is responsive teaching, meeting kids where they’re at, knowing when the lesson plan needs to adjust. But Barber uses these tools not just because they feel good, but because they are grounded in research and best practice. 


Responsive Teaching

The concept of responsive teaching is based on the philosophy of Conscious Discipline and trauma sensitive practices. Conscious Discipline teaches children to self-regulate, identify their emotions, and solve problems. This whole-child approach encourages teachers to hold space for and honor the myriad of experiences that children bring with them to school, including trauma that has impacted their families and community. Teachers have completed hours of professional development on trauma, how it impacts behavior in children, and what it means for learning and engagement. 

Responsive teaching includes applying an asset-based lens to working with students, identifying strengths they bring, strengths within their families, connecting, creating trust, and building relationships. Educators in Yoncalla recognize that it is imperative for them to build meaningful relationships with their students and their families. 

Jill Wells with her preschool students

Jill Wells with her preschool students

In the extensive training that the Yoncalla teachers and staff have received in Conscious Discipline, they have learned that the most important part of this journey starts first with their own healing. Barber, and her teaching colleague, Jill Wells, speak openly about bringing awareness to their own school experiences, their personal assets and challenges, and the ways they have learned to self-regulate, all of which enables them to show up consistently and calmly for their students everyday. 

When Barber and Wells first meet families during their summer home visits, they explain that they are going on a journey together, and that their intention is to build trust between school and home. They reinforce the idea that parents play the most important role in their child’s life. They are welcomed in school and encouraged to participate in their child’s education. These relationships have been transformational and speak to the willingness of parents to be vulnerable and continue to forgive a school system that in many instances, failed them. 

Barber and Wells have created spaces that embody healing, safety, and acceptance. “We often don’t remember the details of preschool, but we remember how we felt,” Barber said. The classroom is structured to include academic learning, nutrition, movement, rest time, conflict resolution, and a multitude of invested adults. Children are guided to express themselves in safe ways to find resolution. Barber works tirelessly to create a classroom environment to help them do that. “Instead of expecting the kids to fit a certain mold, we see how we can alter the environment to fit them.”

Megan Barber's preschool classroom

Megan Barber’s preschool classroom

In the past, students experiencing behavioral challenges might have been ignored, considered “bad,” or handled with punitive discipline. Today, when students display challenging behavior, Barber and Wells see beyond the behavior and instead hear their small voices asking for help: “I am struggling. I don’t feel safe. Am I worth your time?” 

“This is how we’re going to love them,” Wells said. “We’re going to show up, wait, give them skills and help them re-focus.” 

Wells and Barber use picture books to teach early literacy skills, empathy, and acceptance. Books like Why Johnny Doesn’t Flap by Clay and Gail Morton help teach that there are many ways to be human in the world and that there is room for everyone’s experience. The conversations these stories elicit are a critical part of creating a classroom climate of safety and resilience.

Reminders of this holistic and accepting philosophy are built into the learning experience for every preschool student. On the walls, in the hallways, embedded within the activity centers in each classroom are visual cues to re-center, repair when mistakes are made, and start again. A kindness tree hangs on the wall of Barber’s room, with branches full of leaves written with a multitude of acts of kindness witnessed throughout the year. Barber tells her students that the kindness tree grows when we do nice things for each other: “You grow what you value, and we value kindness.” 

In the hallway dividing the two preschool classrooms, a conflict resolution ladder hangs in the wall at the ready. When two students find themselves in conflict, they are guided to pull down the ladder, lay it on the ground, and walk step by step from opposite ends of the ladder. As they get closer to each other, they express their feelings until they meet at the center and arrive at a common understanding. Teachers consistently respond in ways that help address needs as they arise, regrounding students so they can come back to a place where they can learn and thrive.

Every moment of the day in preschool is a learning opportunity. The social emotional lessons are intertwined with academic skills in pre-literacy and math. Lunchtime typically includes lessons in healthy nutrition, life skills, self-control, and language development. What’s notable about responsive teaching in Yoncalla is that what the 3 and 4-year-olds learn stays with them through elementary school. K-5 teachers see improved attendance, student behavior, parent engagement, test scores, overall school climate, and fewer discipline referrals.



Leadership and Collaboration 

When Early Works launched in Yoncalla in 2013, CI, TFFF, and the team at the Yoncalla School District recognized the need to have someone embedded in the community to lead the work. CI and Ford Family staff worked with the community to complete a community needs and resources assessment, eventually hiring a site liaison in 2014 to begin the work on the ground. This initial phase was instrumental in building foundational relationships and in 2015, Erin Helgren was hired to take over this work. This position was largely built from lessons learned and shared by having a family engagement coordinator at the Earl Boyles Early Works site in Portland. As site liaison, Erin’s work focused on engaging with the community, exploring its needs and desires, connecting with partners, and beginning the work of building a preschool program. 

Theory of Change Model: The Early Works theory of change shows how we envision reaching out foals for sustainable change for children and families

Theory of Change Model: The Early Works theory of change shows how we envision reaching out foals for sustainable change for children and families

I was charged with walking alongside the community and ensuring diverse stakeholders had the opportunity to be heard and responded to, and to look for opportunities for forward movement,” Helgren said. “The work required someone in the community, as it was difficult to move the work forward without someone understanding the nuances and complexities unique to a rural community.”

With a background in social work, early childhood, and community building, Helgren brought a fresh perspective to Yoncalla, one that helped reimagine what early learning could look like for the district.  

“My position allowed the district to mindfully create a program that was grounded simultaneously in both best practices and family voice,” Helgren said. 

Early on in the initiative, it wasn’t uncommon for Helgren to encounter resistance. Some parents and educators didn’t see a need or have the desire to change. Many in the community did not support preschool implementation, preferring to focus on things like family fun nights, access to sports, and community baby showers. It wasn’t uncommon to hear, “This is how we’ve always done it.” 

Brian Berry, the Yoncalla superintendent since 2017, has been working in public education since 1986. When Helgren arrived, Berry was serving as the principal of Yoncalla High School. They didn’t always see eye to eye. Their strong relationship today took time to evolve as they initially challenged each other to think from different perspectives. Their different roles allowed them to stretch each other to find the best solutions to complex problems. Berry initially viewed her as an outsider, as someone who did not understand the community and was not steeped in public education. But over time, they grew to collaborate as leaders, 

 “Working with Erin has been a privilege,” Berry said. “Because I’ve been in public education for so long, I tend to have an inside the box mentality. Erin comes to education from a totally different outside of the box perspective. I believe because of this, we work well together and keep each other on our toes when blending public education into the Early Works model.” 

Both kept children at the center of decision making. Both upheld a vision for creating a school community grounded in the belief that every child can succeed, every family deserves respect, teachers are regarded for their professional expertise, and that every person in the community matters and is needed in order for everyone to achieve the greatest success. 

Today, that community includes a network of parents, families, teachers, and local leaders who are deeply invested in Yoncalla’s children, early learning, public health, families, and community resilience.  

Between 2013 and 2015, the expansion of preschool involved many conversations with parents and families. “It was driven by guidelines outlining the required service hours needed for stronger social-emotional and academic skills related to later school success,” Helgren said.  

But the work was not without its challenges. Helgren had hard conversations and sometimes had to make decisions that didn’t make her popular. But she also found allies in the community and in the school who were committed to the mission, and those were the people who helped bring this vision of early childhood to life.

From Berry’s perspective, one of the greatest challenges was stepping away from the traditional approach to education. “We built a model that actually serves and listens to the community,” he said. “Education programs do not teach you how to actually listen to the community that you work for.”

The preschool also had to be fully integrated into the operations of the elementary school. “We had to make sure we had communication between the preschool and the elementary school teachers. Preschool and elementary teachers are now on the same pay scale. Preschool teachers are part of our building and district meetings and the preschool director is part of our monthly administration meetings. We also have a student of the month award for the preschool!”

This type of model is significant to note as it’s not the norm for other districts implementing preschool. CI and TFFF work with districts that, despite getting Preschool Promise dollars, are not close to achieving pay equity. Preschool teachers are not embedded into the schools and are rarely included as directors or in administrative school district decision-making. It is not uncommon even for principals to have a cloudy idea of their role in preschool implementation. This unique collaboration between the preschool and the district, has been a powerful tool in the initiative’s transformation and one which will facilitate sustainable continued growth for years to come. 

Berry and Helgren haven’t been afraid to push each other to find the best solution for tough problems. One day they might be brainstorming ways to get buses for kids to access after school activities across town. Another day they are making plans for the next community event that will draw hundreds of people from the area. 

Today, Helgren’s role has evolved from site liaison to principal at the elementary school. For Berry, he sees a tremendous change in the district since early learning became a Yoncalla staple. 

“Students come into kindergarten with better school readiness skills. Teachers are more prepared to meet the diverse needs of the community and their families. That was not happening before,” Berry said. “And I want to make sure that what we’re doing in the elementary grades stays with kids all the way through middle and high school.


Expanding Health Care Access

Helgren, alongside parents, educators and community leaders, wanted to address unmet health care needs in their region of North Douglas County. Health was a core pillar of Early Works from the outset, recognizing that wrap-around services for families are vital to creating a healthy community and successful schools. 

This programming took time to be fully implemented, as trust building between the preschool and parent education took time to establish. CI and TFFF first conducted a Community Health Assessment that was community and parent-led.The CHNA was a catalyst for amplifying the need for health care and behavioral health services in the region,” Helgren reflects. Her team visited AVIVA leaders nearly a year prior to the health center opening to share their data. What was unique was the focus of the CHNA, specific to the region, versus a broad sweep that did not match the county wide health assessments. It was clear the needs of the rural community were not being adequately met.

In order to address this disparity, the Umpqua Community Health Center, now Aviva Health, opened a clinic in 2019, in the small neighboring town of Drain, just 10 minutes from Yoncalla Elementary. The goal was to expand access to essential health care services, including preventive care, immunizations, vision and dental screenings.

Inside an exam room at Aviva Health Clinic in Drain, OR

Inside an exam room at Aviva Health Clinic in Drain, OR


Today, Dr. Kanani Dilcher, a family medicine physician with an extensive background in community health, manages the clinic and provides care. She has also worked closely with the Yoncalla School District to secure grant funding for afterschool programming focused on health access. These after school movement activities create safe opportunities for kids to get exercise and receive a healthy meal under the careful watch of invested adults. She has helped students get urgent dental care and the required transportation. And she believes so strongly in the vision in Yoncalla that she transferred her children to the district for preschool and elementary school.


Dr. Kanani Dilcher managesd the health care clinic and provides care to families from Yoncalla and Drain

Dr. Kanani Dilcher manages the health care clinic and provides care to families from Yoncalla and Drain


Pivot Point: Engaged Families

Key partners for Yoncalla Early Works have been the parents and families from the Yoncalla community. The relationship between the school and families has strengthened over the years, but it took a steady effort to build trust and communication. 

In the past, it wasn’t common for parents to be invited into the school buildings, much less participate in school activities and decision making. Many parents had negative memories of school and felt disempowered to get involved and connect with the learning experience for their children. 

When Helgren began working in the Yoncalla community, she saw barriers to family engagement that were negatively impacting school climate and student achievement. “Children are always ready to learn but sometimes teachers aren’t prepared to teach in ways that feel safe,” Helgren said. “The relationship between successful students and effective teachers often depends on building trusting relationships with families.” 

Helgren has helped coordinate numerous parent engagement opportunities over the years. Today it isn’t uncommon to see parents at the school helping in classrooms, assisting at lunch or on the playground, or getting involved in after school activities. 

Buy-in from parents has grown substantially,” Berry said. “Parents are beginning to volunteer and not see the district as an obstacle to be avoided. We are seeing the students who were part of the preschool program get involved in our youth sports programs. Their parents are joining the booster club and the local Yoncalla Engaged Parents group.” Increasingly, families feel welcomed and honored. Parents and teachers often work together to create an ecosystem of care for their children, and parent involvement permeates the entire school experience.















Madison Kokos, a Yoncalla parent, grew up in Yoncalla and can see that things have changed significantly since she was a student at the elementary school. Her two children are now elementary students and attended preschool. Her youngest will enter preschool in the fall of 2023.

“My experience wasn’t terrible, but also not great,” Kokos said. When she became a young mother, she wondered if things would be the same for her children. Her oldest son had a successful preschool experience with Yoncalla Early Works. He was thriving and loved school. In kindergarten, however, he received numerous discipline referrals and had low academic performance. The message seemed to be that there was something wrong with her child. “Nearly every day there was a line of kindergarten students waiting to meet with the principal, sent by their teacher. Kids were always in trouble, especially boys,” she said. Discipline referrals were being made at an alarming level, making both kids and parents feel that school was not a place where they belonged or could find success. 

Kokos, who remembers when Early Works started, said the focus was on getting kids ready for kindergarten. “After going to kindergarten, we realized kindergarten wasn’t responsive to kids,” she said. “My son had a sensory issue that he was not able to get help with which impacted his behavior. His teacher was not responsive to his needs. Students were typically asked to sit for far too long and focus on activities that were not developmentally appropriate. Expectations for behavior were unrealistic.”

Helgren and Berry responded to Kokos’s concerns, along with other parents, and could see that the teaching philosophies used by preschool and elementary teachers were very different. They began the process of integrating the teaching practices from preschool into elementary grades. They worked with teachers, offered training, and helped the school community as a whole, recognize student strengths and respond to student needs. 

This transformation took time and finesse. Getting into the school and shifting practice was hard. On the surface, things looked good. School staff attended community events, participated in statewide and even some national training and seemed to be saying all the right things. Teachers were being taught about conscious discipline and how to shift their practice, but in reality were often using punitive approaches. It took time for leadership to recognize the practices and values were so misaligned until Kokos and several other parents sounded the alarm. This pivot point in the program’s history is important to recognize, as it came to impact how CI and TFFF thought about ESS and the importance of starting with classroom practices, as opposed to starting a preschool program and family engagement strategies from the outset.

Helgren and Berry worked hard to shrink this gulf. Eventually, the practices used in preschool settings were brought to higher grade levels and, over time, the learning experience for kids began to evolve. By the time Kokos’ second child reached kindergarten, the difference was stark. 

“My second child’s transition to kindergarten was really smooth,” she said. “When her speech issues were identified early on in preschool, those interventions followed her to kindergarten where her teachers were responsive and open.”

This kind of evolution of the teaching and learning environment has reduced the presence of shame and blame and brought more joy to the school. “There was also this idea that if kids were having fun, they weren’t learning, that anything enjoyable couldn’t also be educational,” Kokos said. “That has shifted. Teachers have created an environment where kids have fun and learn and, I believe, learn more efficiently and effectively. When kids are enjoying school, they have fewer behavior problems.” 

“The biggest sign for me as to how things were changing, was when the pandemic hit. My sons were so sad that school was closed,” Kokos said. “Before, my oldest son never wanted to go to school. But during the shutdown, he kept asking me why he couldn’t go. He even went as far as to say, ‘Why are you punishing me?’” 

Kokos remembers the early days of Early Works, recalling that many people in the community did not yet see a need for a new preschool. The small private program that was in place at the time was good enough for those who could afford it, but its limited programming left many children and families without access to adequate high quality early childhood education. 

The Early Works team launched summer play groups and created opportunities for parents to engage with the school. Over time, community conversations and activities helped open the door to the idea of expanding early learning opportunities, including preschool, early intervention, home visits, and more. 

A pivot point was asking families to engage in conversations that explored resistance to preschool programming and then create a governance committee to help guide school administration in co-creating a program,” Helgren said. “We needed to listen to the community and respond to its needs and values. Many people were engaged in that work of problem solving, planning, and collaboration.” 

Yoncalla Students participating in summer learning

Today, teachers offer home visits before the fall school year begins to build relationships and get to know incoming children. The school offers parent education courses, cooking classes, classroom volunteer opportunities, and after school and summer programs. Some parents have become so inspired by what they see inside classrooms that they have become cooks, janitors, bus drivers, teachers aids, and office staff, among other roles. Family participation has resulted in a transformed school community, one that centers children. This has resulted in increased enrollment, student transfers from neighboring schools, improved attendance, growing achievement and decreased drop out rates.

Yoncalla Engaged People

The broader community supports Yoncalla’s children and families in a variety of ways. The Yoncalla Engaged People group, formerly called Yoncalla Engaged Parents, has grown steadily over the past decade and now has approximately 40 members. The group aims to be inclusive and engage a diverse group of community members while helping elevate parent voice in the school system and empower families to get involved. Additionally, the booster club, which has historically been focused on supporting sports, has expanded its focus to meet other community needs. Today, the club is responsible for a coat closet for the preschool and elementary school, and they are developing a food pantry to help offset food insecurity for families. When there is a need, the community has learned to rally and work with school leaders to find solutions.

What is best for kids? 

In 2018, when teachers began the work of adopting Conscious Discipline, their focus was on using a trauma-informed approach designed to transform teaching and learning with a focus on social-emotional learning. They have spent a significant amount of time learning to create a culture of compassion and how internal emotional states affect behavior, for students and adults. 

These approaches have taken time to become fully integrated. Helgren reflects, “It was a hard shift and has only been somewhat actualized over the last two years or so.” These practices were a vital tool in programming and the commitment to using them has been integral to its success. When parents came to Helgren and Berry with their worries, they responded by bringing this training to the upper grades, and the growth continues today following kids up through middle school with the goal of reaching high school too.   

“Conscious Discipline means adults have to be willing to dig in and do the hard work,” Helgren said. “It’s about increasing self-awareness and helping the adults in the building understand that they need to learn to co-regulate with kids. All adults in the school have access to this training, teachers, parents, instructional assistants, custodial staff, bus drivers, everybody.”

Helgren said she relies on reflective supervision to help her peers take the opportunity to learn. “I have to create space for adults to express themselves, which means sometimes I feel more like a social worker or therapist.”

Berry said, “Sometimes, that’s the job.”

In the classrooms, teachers have found that disruptions to the school day have been minimized and there are fewer discipline referrals. Adults embrace a culture of empowerment, acceptance, growth, and learning. When kids experience emotional dysregulation, they are given tools, starting in their very first moments as preschoolers, to cope with their big feelings and solve problems.  

“We used to think that preschool was about fun and games,” Berry said. “Now we think that preschool gives kids the essential skills they need to be successful in elementary school and beyond.” 

Teachers in the upper grades comment that they often overhear kids at recess working out a problem using the conflict management skills they learned as 3 and 4-year-olds. This radiates to peer interactions, classroom climate, academic performance, and school attendance. 

Helgren, as principal, does not take her teaching staff for granted. She recognizes that teaching can be rewarding, but also demanding and stressful. She leads and problem solves each day. When staff complained that the new literacy adoption wasn’t addressing the unique needs of their students, many of whom were two grade levels behind reading benchmark standards, Helgren invited curriculum experts to the district to work with Yoncalla teachers. They fine tuned their approach and built on existing skills and resources. That approach has helped teachers address specific needs relevant to their students, and elementary literacy scores have climbed. 

The school has also adopted a culture of mindfulness to offset the stress and fatigue that comes with each day. Yoga classes are available, helping teachers ground themselves and refresh. The staff room is designed for connection with no teaching supplies or copy machines allowed. Helgren encourages self care and incentivizes staff to do so by participating in wellness activities. All of these efforts are designed to boost staff morale, fight burnout, and create connection so the adults at Yoncalla can truly work in service to children. Collectively, they are guided by a single, recurring question: what is best for kids?


An Ecosystem of Care and Community

IIn Yoncalla, a multitude of community members are at work to make the town the best place to be a kid. Transformation has been possible because of an engaged community committed to growth, to acknowledging its history and recognizing its strengths and assets. Humble leadership and deeply respectful partnership built the trust necessary to make meaningful change, and ultimately bring about healing. 

“Yoncalla is a big deal,” Berry said. 

“Everything we do here is a collaboration,” Helgren said. “We value each other. We’re working on positivity, and that positivity is contagious.”

“The changes we’ve made, the investments in preschool and in children in general… it will pay off forever,” Berry said. 

The hills around Yoncalla are still lush with evergreen trees, and in some ways are a reminder that the town has recreated itself, persevered. Inside the school walls, teachers, parents, family members, and community leaders ground themselves in the idea that they are planting seeds for the future. The work they are doing today, and the seeds they are planting, creates the foundation for a new tomorrow, an ecosystem of care and community meant to transform the lives of children, their families, and Yoncalla’s future generations.