Introduction to the Community Connections Program Model
The Community Connections preschool program (herein referred to as Community Connections) was developed to help prepare children in home-based child care for success in school and in life. It has three goals: (1) to make state prekindergarten classroom experiences available to children in home-based care, (2) to extend classroom learning experiences in the home-based care setting, and (3) to support infant and toddler development in participating providers’ homes.
In this model, state prekindergarten (Illinois “Preschool for All”) classrooms provide half-day sessions four days per week for 3- and 4-year-old children coming from home-based child care. On the fifth day, the teachers visit children’s care providers; delivering books and educational materials, modeling ways to extend curriculum activities, and discussing children’s learning in the classroom. While preschoolers are in classrooms away from the home-based care setting, providers have precious time to focus on the needs of infants and toddlers in their care.
Illinois Action for Children (herein referred to as IAFC) created the Community Connections program model in 2005 as Illinois was rapidly expanding its state prekindergarten program, which would ultimately change from serving exclusively at-risk children to become “Preschool for All.” As the Preschool for All program grew, it became clear that large numbers of preschoolers in home-based care were being left out.
Home-based care is the only option for many parents in low-wage jobs because those jobs tend to require non-traditional work hours – evenings, weekends, and changing shifts – when child care centers are closed. In Illinois, 67% of low-income single mothers with children under six work non-traditional hours (Illinois Action for Children, 2006). These mothers overwhelmingly choose home-based child care, usually provided by family, friends and neighbors. According to Illinois Child Care Assistance Program data, among families using the Child Care Assistance Program in Cook County, 58% have enrolled their children in home-based child care (22% in licensed homes and 36% in license-exempt Family, Friend and Neighbor care).
While home-based child care is a significant community asset, preschool-age children tend to learn cognitive school readiness skills best in classroom settings (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Early Child Care Research Network, 2002). In 2005, IAFC developed Community Connections to support home-based child care while adding a classroom-based experience to the children’s day. This new program represents a third model through which state prekindergarten services are delivered in Illinois. The two most common models are part-day school-based programs and full-day programs delivered in conjunction with child care centers. As a third model, Community Connections has the potential to reach a large population of unserved children.
Community Connections Program Evaluation: Phase I Implementation Study
The Illinois State Board of Education has requested evidence that the Community Connections mixed model works before making funding available for it statewide. Education agencies in other states are expected to ask the same question.
Community Connections is a mixed model, incorporating classroom-based and homeprovider- based elements. As such, it represents a significant departure from the common state prekindergarten models, which are entirely classroom-based. While research conducted on Early Head Start and Parents as Teachers models has suggested that specific mixed models are effective (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2006; Parents as Teachers National Center, 2007), IAFC and its state education agency are seeking evidence specific to the Community Connections model.
In Phase 1 of a two phase evaluation, IAFC asked Child Trends and the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) to conduct a study to examine model clarity, fidelity, and the implementation of Community Connections. Phase 2, to take place after implementation issues are identified and addressed, will be an outcomes study.
This report describes the methodology and presents the findings of Phase 1 of the evaluation of the Community Connections model, the implementation study. Central to the methodology, described in detail below, were comprehensive interviews with members of the five groups participating in, or “connected” through, Community Connections: the complete cadre of Preschool for All coordinators at IAFC, as well as samples of participating center directors, classroom teachers and assistant teachers, home-based care providers, and parents of participating children. In addition to interviews, quality observations were conducted with the home-based providers in their care settings, with each observation focused on a child participating in Community Connections. Review of participation data maintained by IAFC informed selection of the centers for the study, as well as the range of home-based providers affiliated with those centers from which to recruit the sample. As described more fully later, recruitment efforts were successful with licensed providers, all of whom were English-speaking, but not with license-exempt providers, who may have felt uncomfortable being observed.
The results section of the report opens by summarizing the reactions, which were predominately enthusiastic, to participating in Community Connections from the coordinators, center directors, center teachers, home providers, and parents; as well as their impressions, also heavily favorable, of the model and its benefits to them and their children. This section goes on to review interview responses and program documents for insights into how well the model is achieving its first goal: making preschool classroom experiences available to children who would not otherwise have them. Findings follow from the quality observations of the home-based care settings conducted with the Child Care Assessment Tool for Relatives (CCAT-R). Highlights from the observations include good caregiver engagement with the focal child and good-toadequate caregiver and child language factors. Conducted once in the spring, the observations provided a view of Community Connections’ home-based care well into the program year, but not an opportunity for comparison with care at the outset of the year.
The results section then discusses respondents’ perceptions of benefits/targeted effects of the program and concludes with an analysis of respondents’ descriptions of the key activities of the Community Connections model specifically, as well as Preschool for All in general, their sense of challenges facing the model, and ideas for meeting those challenges. Targeted effects of the program discussed by respondents included new or stronger connections among parents, centers, and home-based providers; perceptions of improvements in the center classroom and home-based care setting; perceived improvements in children’s learning; and business/personal benefits to participating in the program. There was a high degree of shared understanding of core model components. Nevertheless, responses suggested a need for more specificity about some components. In identifying challenges, teachers and providers expressed the need for more training and support in some areas. For example, teachers wished for additional guidance in scheduling and making the best use of their visits with providers in their homes. Also, parents, providers, and teachers all expressed concerns about the effectiveness of the special occasions and events offered to bring parents and/or providers together at the centers with teachers.
The report concludes with recommendations to IAFC, based on the findings, for strengthening the Community Connections model and its implementation. These recommendations are provided to facilitate readiness of the program for formal evaluation of outcomes, so that the Illinois State Board of Education can extend it throughout Illinois, and so that education agencies in other states can adapt it to their prekindergarten programs.