Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children
Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children

The city of Cambridge, Mass., has released its “Early Childhood Task Force Report 2015.” It’s a comprehensive look at how the city can build an early childhood system that improves the lives of its youngest children.

“We should be breaking open bottles of champagne. This is fulfilling hopes and dreams of so many people in Cambridge,” school committee member Fred Fantini said, according to a Wicked Local Cambridge article, which adds:

“The task force [has] developed a three-year-plan to improve early childhood education that would require an intended budget of $190,000 in 2016, $1.3 million in 2017, and $2.3 million in 2018. In the first year of the plan, the money would go towards affordability of early childhood services, program quality, and governance. In 2017 and 2018, family engagement and health care will be included in the budget costs as well.”

In a memo, City Manager Richard C. Rossi explains that the task force did its work with this powerful vision in mind:

“All children in Cambridge receive high quality early education and care from birth through third grade. As a result, all children enter school ready to thrive academically, socially, emotionally and continue to do so through third grade and beyond.”

Cambridge joins other cities that are crafting comprehensive early childhood plans including Somerville, Philadelphia, and Seattle.


Community Concerns and Task Force Findings

The report includes challenges identified by community members. Among these:

“It’s challenging for families to navigate the systems if their child has a special need or they are new to the Cambridge community.” — Cambridge Preschool Teacher

“It takes a while to get plugged in and know about everything that exists. You have to be aggressive to find out what exists.” — Cambridge Parent

“Voucher pay is not enough – this is a big issue and not sure how to fix it without money.” — Cambridge Family Childcare Provider

“We need to learn more about what early childhood providers do, and they need to learn more about what we do.” — Cambridge Public School Elementary School Principal

Cambridge has a diverse population of children who will be best served by programs that are customized to meet their needs. The city is home to some 5,200 children under the age of 5, according to our community fact sheet. An impressive 70.9 percent of Cambridge’s preschool aged children are enrolled in early education and care programs, more than the statewide average of 59.7 percent. In addition, 65 percent of third graders read at a proficient or higher level, much better than the lower state rate of 57 percent.

However, the city has a higher concentration of English language learners: 28.3 percent versus a statewide average of 18.5 percent. And Cambridge’s poverty level for preschool aged children is 16 percent, roughly on par with the statewide rate of 16.8 percent.

With the needs of these families in mind, the report points to five key concerns:

• families lack access to information about services for their children

• quality is inconsistent across the city’s early childhood services and providers

• the city needs better alignment “between family childcare, community-based preschools and family support services, the Department of Human Services, and the Cambridge Public Schools”

• there are gaps in critical areas, “including additional supports for social-emotional skill development, mental health, family engagement, families in crisis, dual language learners, and children with disabilities,” and

• it’s tough for many families to access and pay for high-quality programs



“Based on its review of research and best practices and needs assessment, the Task Force developed a set of recommendations to guide improvements to early childhood services in Cambridge. The recommendations are organized around five goals:”

• “Increase Access to and Affordability of Early Education and Care Services

• “Continuously Improve Program Quality for Birth through Third Grade Programs and Services”

• “Build Partnerships to Promote Strong Family Engagement and Support”

• “Coordinate with Healthcare Providers to Ensure Access to Quality Healthcare Services,” and

• “Develop an Effective Birth through Third Grade Governance and Leadership Structure”

“The Task Force recognized that it would be a multi-year ongoing effort to build an effective early childhood system that would improve the outcomes for Cambridge’s children. The first step in this process is to create an effective Birth through Third Grade governance structure tasked with turning the recommendations of this report into a full-fledged strategic plan,” Rossi said in his memo.

The task force also recommended a number of other steps, including:

• creating the positions of “Early Childhood Director and Early Childhood Program Quality Specialist”

• developing “a realistic strategic plan and budget that guides the creation of an effective early education and care system. Monitor implementation of the plan on a regular basis” and use “data and evidence of change to adjust the plan in order to meet its short- and long-term benchmarks and to inform policy and practices”

• supporting ongoing efforts to improve “the quality and availability of home visiting programs”

• including “parents and families on the Birth through Third Grade Governance Board”

• developing and implementing “a city-wide transition plan to ensure a smooth transition for all rising kindergarteners”

• establishing “a committee focused on the health of young children and their families—for example, a joint sub-committee with the Cambridge Health Alliance and the Cambridge Department of Public Health guided by the Cambridge Community Health Improvement Plan (CHIP),” and

• developing a communication plan that raises “public awareness of the importance of quality early childhood education and care, the birth through third grade continuum, and the work of the Early Childhood Task Force.”

“The Task Force did not recommend immediate large scale expansion of slots for three and four year olds for a number of reasons,” Rossi says, pointing to the need to serve children and families from birth as well as the city’s hope to improve quality and also noting that there is a lack of space for “significantly more three and four olds in city, community or school programs.”

Cambridge will continue to explore “opportunities for expanding access to new spaces. In the meantime, the recommendations call for developing a pilot to expand access for low income three and four year olds as well as expansion of scholarship assistance within existing high quality programs.”

“We are aware that building a coherent system is more time consuming and less flashy than just adding more slots or more dollars to an existing system,” Rossi says. “But we have an opportunity to be leaders nationally and regionally by building a system that coherently knits together our existing resources and thoughtfully brings in new resources to meet the needs of our youngest residents.”