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Providing the Data and Impetus to Improve Children's Lives in Illinois

by Tom Hanlon / Mar 3, 2022

Preschool children

To some, what IECAM (Illinois Early Childhood Asset Map) does might seem like a lot of number crunching. But those numbers add up to programs and initiatives that are changing children’s lives across the state of Illinois.

Quite often, when IECAM receives a request for data, they don’t know precisely what it’s for or how it will be used.

“It’s actually better that way,” says Dawn Thomas, IECAM Director. “We don’t feel pressured to make the numbers tell a certain story.”

Such was the case back in late 2019, when the organization, which provides early childhood data and maps to local and state agencies and other stakeholders to improve outcomes for Illinois children, received a request from Gov. JB Pritzker’s office for early childhood demographic data across the state.

Several months later, IECAM realized the impact that data was beginning to have.

Acting on the Data

In April 2020, Gov. Pritzker created the Illinois Commission on Equitable Early Childhood Education and Care Funding and charged the commission with making Illinois the best state in the nation for raising young children. To meet that goal, the commission came up with three recommendations:

  • Advance equity and quality by articulating a long-term funding goal for policymakers, enabling them to see where funding is lacking and helping them to prioritize investments to achieve the funding goal;
  • Coordinate funding so policymakers can send money where it is most needed, creating better services for children; and,
  • Centralize early childhood education and care programs into one state agency, with designated community and regional structures.

As he created the commission, Pritzker also established a new division of early childhood within the Illinois Department of Human Services and launched an early childhood transformation team to set up regional and community infrastructure as the state moves toward making the commission’s three recommendations a reality.

These actions, Thomas believes, were prompted by IECAM’s contribution to the report. That data started the ball rolling, and it hasn’t stopped.

A Humbling Process

Keith Hollenkamp, IECAM project data manager, collected the data and analyzed, cleaned, and processed it with the help of Ricardo Covarrubias, a data specialist at IECAM.

"When doing a statewide analysis, I take an in-depth look at each of the state’s school districts, which then provides a bigger-picture look at the state as a whole,” Hollenkamp says. As of last summer, there were 852 school districts in Illinois.

“What I learn every time I do an analysis is poverty is the leading factor in all of this,” Hollenkamp says. “You can trace everything back to poverty, on if we are doing a good job in funding and providing services for the places that are experiencing high poverty, especially among zero- to five-year-olds.”

It’s shocking to see the number of children living in poverty, he adds. “You know poverty exists, but when the numbers are staring you in the face, it’s surprising and disheartening.”

Thomas agrees. “Quite honestly, it’s humbling for us,” she says. “We see a side of the state and of the communities that are impacted a lot by either poverty or language barriers or shortages of teachers. We know what counties will be on an at-risk list. It’s systemic.”

Children's Lives at Stake

The bottom-line risk, Thomas says, is children’s lives.

“Research shows that 90 percent of a child’s brain is formed by the time he or she turns six,” she explains. “That’s powerful. We used to think they didn’t need to learn much before they reached kindergarten, but now we know we need to stimulate their brain growth.”

High-quality early childhood education, she notes, will have a significant effect on their futures. “It will affect their education, their future earnings, and their future health,” she says. “Research shows that for every dollar spent on early childhood education, we get back an average of four dollars. For at-risk children, that goes to thirteen dollars! That’s amazing. If people really knew what impact early childhood education can have on children in their local community, there would be a lot of changes.” 

Room for Optimism

Changes are, however, in the works—thanks in part to the data provided by IECAM.

“We see a lot of good work going on, a lot of people who care,” Hollenkamp says. “A lot of people who put the money where it needs to be put to get a better outcome for the kids in the state.”

Thomas sees room for hope.

“We’re in a very optimistic time for early childhood in the state,” she says. “Gov. Pritzker is so behind early childhood, so supportive of it. We have a lot of foundations putting a lot of money into research, looking into equitable issues for all children no matter race or ethnicity. There’s just a real drive to see change. And if we’re going to see change, this may be the time we can actually do it.”