Photo: Oksana Kuzmina/shutterstock

Photo: Oksana Kuzmina/shutterstock

The more we learn about the early years of life, the more we understand how critical they are. Babies, after all, are tiny learning powerhouses with rapidly growing brains.

Brain development begins before birth, and during the first years of life, it proceeds at an amazing pace. At that stage, young children’s brains are creating more than 1 million new neural connections every second, according to Harvard’s Center on Child Development. We now know that a child’s environment and early experiences can encourage or impede this development, and that those initial factors have an impact on lifelong physical health.

It’s information like this that drives the Pritzker Children’s Initiative (PCI), which, for two decades, has spearheaded philanthropic efforts for early childhood learning and development. The Pritzker Initiative’s most recent batch of grants went to 10 community-based coalitions around the country following a year-long competition to “identify innovative, community-based efforts to improve outcomes for infants and toddlers,” according to Pritzker’s announcement. The grants ranged from $250,000 to $500,000, depending on the population of the community. 

The Pritzker family, as IP has previously reported, is large and diverse in its philanthropic interests. But J.B. Pritzker, now the governor of Illinois, and his wife M.K. Pritzker, have been steadfast in their support for early childhood (prenatal through age three), an area of philanthropy that has often received less attention than pre-K and K-12 programs. That has begun to change in recent years as science reveals the long-term benefits of prenatal and early childhood programs—as well as the lifelong damage that can result when infants experience deprivation and trauma. 

Many philanthropists support early childhood nonprofits locally, but there are a number of large national funders in this space, as well, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Buffett Early Childhood Fund.  

Gerry Cobb, director of PCI, would like to see philanthropists do even more. “More people in the funding world are seeing prenatal to three as a priority for funding, but it still isn’t getting enough emphasis, given how important it is,” she said. 

Bridgeport Prospers 

Despite all we now know about the developing brain, the U.S. continues to lag behind in investments in children’s earliest years. America ranks 20th among the 34 most developed nations in total spending for early childhood, according to PCI, despite evidence that such investments yield benefits—in economic as well as human terms.

The human cost of this neglect is steep, and falls hardest, not surprisingly, on low-income children and children of color. According to a report from the Center for American Progress, “Gaps in children’s cognitive abilities by income are evident as early as nine months old and significantly widen by the age of two.”  

Allison Logan sees such gaps firsthand as executive director of Bridgeport Prospers, one of the Pritzker Children’s Initiative’s recent community grantees. Bridgeport, Connecticut, is both the largest city in the state and one of its poorest, though it is ringed on all sides by some of the wealthiest communities in the United States. 

“In Bridgeport, 75% of three-year-olds entering Head Start are already behind their peers in their social, emotional and academic development,” Logan said. “If that opportunity gap isn’t closed, it just keeps growing exponentially, so that child will be three to four years behind by the time they get to high school.” 

Cobb made it clear that the focus of PCI’s community grants is about more than quality childcare, as important as that is. “We know that healthy development starts even before birth, so we want to see parents getting prenatal care, support when a child is born, developmental screening for the young child, as well as good healthcare,” she said. 

In Bridgeport, those services are all part of a project called the Bridgeport Baby Bundle, a comprehensive approach to care for infants from before birth through age three. Logan outlined some of the services included in the Baby Bundle: an increased number of home visits for pregnant and new mothers, more developmental screening, access to a mobile app called Sparkler that lets parents evaluate their child’s development and engage in learning activities, and increased access to doula care and literacy support. Pediatricians affiliated with the Baby Bundle emphasize the importance of early reading during well-child visits, and give parents children’s books.

Bridgeport Prospers includes the Bridgeport community in decision-making through an advisory team made up of local parents, grandparents and other interested citizens. “We wanted to make sure the community was at the forefront of decision-making—that we were not creating for, we were creating with, and that our work is co-designed with the community’s input,” Logan said. 

The advisory team informed Bridgeport Prospers, for example, that home visits for pregnant and new mothers carried a certain stigma. “Home visits are so important,” Logan said. “Counselors not only provide support, they connect families to other services, like food and housing, cognitive behavior therapy and screening for maternal depression. But we discovered that parents think home visits mean they’ve done something wrong.”

Logan is hoping that starting the visits earlier, when the mothers are pregnant, and building trust over time, will reduce some of the stigma. Bridgeport Prospers is also calling the counselors “wellness managers” to emphasize their positive roles, and increasing the number of families served so that visits become the norm rather than the exception. 

“Our goal is to flip-flop that number so at least 75% of kids are where they should be in terms of social-emotional and academic development by the age of three,” Logan said. “If kids are ready for pre-K, they will be ready for kindergarten, and all the way up. We believe these prenatal-to-three supports will change every outcome along the way.” 

Early childhood in Louisiana 

In New Orleans, Libbie Sonnier, executive director of the Louisiana Policy Institute for Children, has a similar goal. “We want every child entering kindergarten in Louisiana to be able to succeed,” she said. “To do that, they need access to prenatal-to-three essential services, including high-quality early care.” 

Louisiana is far from reaching that goal. According to Sonnier, less than 15% of kids in the state have access to quality early care. 

The Louisiana Policy Institute is another PCI grantee—the organization received a state grant under a Pritzker program previously reported here. Pritzker’s state grants were from $1 million to $3 million, depending on the population of the state. 

“Louisiana is a very poor state, and there has been a real lack of investment in early care,” said Sonnier. Pritzker funding has enabled agencies and organizations across the state to advocate together for policies to help the state’s youngest kids. 

“The Pritzker funding allows us to leave our silos and see our children as a collective whole—not through the perspective of the Department of Education, or the Department of Family Services, or through the health department,” Sonnier said. “This partnership is so important because no single organization has all the answers.”  

Audacity of hope

The Pritzker Children’s Initiative is covering a lot of ground with its state and community grants, in the hope that these investments will provide more young children with a strong foundation and the chance for a brighter future.

That goal faces daunting obstacles, from entrenched poverty and racism to ossified bureaucracies and COVID-strapped government budgets. There is also the persistent question about which approaches are  most effective. Cobb admits it’s a learning process for everyone involved. As a foundation, PCI works closely with its grantees, providing advice and technical support and picking up information along the way. “We feel we have a lot to learn, and we can learn to be more responsive in our grantmaking if we understand what’s working and what’s not,” she said. 

Sonnier, for one, appreciates PCI’s collaborative approach, its flexibility and its boldness.  “If one approach doesn’t work, they are open to us shifting strategies,” she said. “Pritzker has audacious goals, and their audacity allows us to be audacious, too. I have no problem being audacious on behalf of little people.”