South Carolina’s First Steps is a unique public-private hybrid focused on supporting children’s readiness for school. We spoke with Georgia Mjartan, executive director of First Steps in early May 2021 about their plans to use the federal American Rescue Plan Act funds for early care and education.
Since South Carolina First Steps is such a unique entity, can you tell us a little about your partners?
First Steps is a small piece of the larger map of South Carolina’s early care and education system. We are one of seven state agencies implementing a range of programs for young children from federal, state, and local funding sources. Our budget and size is small, but we are very entrepreneurial, so we leverage our partners and our resources to meet families’ needs. First Steps convenes the state’s Early Childhood Advisory Council so we have a key role in helping the state think about inter-agency connectivity and plan for how to use funds more holistically.
The legislation that established First Steps was modeled after North Carolina’s Smart Start. Built on that vision of local leaders developing solutions that meet their communities early childhood needs, we have 46 county-level nonprofit affiliates that coordinate services for families. We implement our needs-based preK program for 4 year olds (First Steps 4K) in private and faith-based child care and school settings, and the South Carolina Department of Education oversees 4K in public school-based settings. Our mixed delivery program was intentionally designed to provide families with choices and preserve the child care infrastructure, thereby strengthening access to quality across all settings. To make this more navigable for families, the Early Childhood Advisory Council developed and launched PalmettoPreK.org in January of 2020. Currently, between both Head Start and state-funded, full-day 4K, as a state we only serve 47% of 4-year-olds in poverty, but that will change soon, as legislation to increase funding to $47M and expand access to full-day 4K across the state is expected to pass shortly. We’re also deeply involved with our state’s Prenatal to Three initiative, which is focused on increasing the social and emotional wellbeing of our state’s babies and toddlers.
We are interested in learning more about First Steps 4K+Siblings? What made the partnership successful? Can you tell us how this initiative came about?
South Carolina First Steps oversees implementation of the 4K program in private child cares, charter schools, private schools, nonprofits and faith-based settings. Typically, we align our program, school day and schedule with the public school 4K program. But during this pandemic year, we’ve had schools that are closed and child care programs that are open. Parents are working—so they need quality child care and through our mixed delivery model, they have choices of settings.
We heard from families that one reason they didn’t enroll their preschooler in 4K is because of siblings that needed child care as well. So we created First Steps 4K+Siblings to be care and education for the whole family. For any family who enrolls in First Steps 4K, all of the siblings in that household are automatically eligible for 52 week “scholarships” fully funded by the South Carolina Department of Social Services (DSS) Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF) voucher. For First Steps 4K + Siblings, the sibling scholarships (e.g. child care subsidy) can be used at any provider who is enrolled in our Quality Rating and Improvement System (called ABC Quality in South Carolina). These include center-based, family/group child care homes, and other afterschool only options.
The partnership is successful because we did a lot of groundwork to ensure that all stakeholders and legislators understood why this was important to support families. To make it easier for families, we aligned the two applications for 4K and child care subsidies, so the application meets all requirements of the funders, and more importantly, is a seamless process for families. For example, families who enroll in First Steps 4K+Siblings do not need to meet the training/work requirement of CCDF vouchers since this is not a requirement for 4K.
We also recognized that DSS’s staff have a lot on their plate to get the federal child care stabilization funds out to providers quickly to meet urgent needs of families and businesses. First Steps is pushing the +Siblings application out to families once their 4 year old is approved for First Steps 4K. The +Siblings application is very simple and streamlined and does not require any additional documentation from the family.
What strategies have worked well in engaging stakeholders to determine priorities in your state?
We have a federal Preschool Development Birth to Five (PDG B-5) Grant. Here are three ways we have been listening to and learning from families with young children:
(1) In the initial planning year, we did a state wide needs assessment to engage parent and family voice in setting our priorities. Over 5000 individuals contributed their ideas to our survey and stakeholder group listening sessions.
(2) We provided mini-grants to our 46 First Steps community non-profits to reach out to Hispanic families, dual language learners, parents of infants and toddlers, and other stakeholders with an interest in the needs of young children. They conducted at least two focus groups with both current clients, and intentionally included other families not currently receiving services.
(3) We also conducted surveys of parents with young children during the pandemic / Child Care. And we engaged with the Listen 4 Good Project to directly survey families who participate in First Steps Programs. Through this project, we’ve heard directly from recipients of public services, which is helping us understand the barriers from their points of view. It’s been eye-opening.