Missouri’s new Office of Childhood has officially launched with a mission to transform the landscape of early childhood in the state for years to come.

The office’s ultimate goal: to expand the services the state offers for children and families and make it easier for them to be accessed in order to support the best outcomes for kids, said Pam Thomas, the assistant commissioner of the new office housed within the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Gov. Mike Parson announced the creation of the office in January and signed an executive order that would consolidate early childhood programs from the departments of social services, health and senior services and education all in one office.

Since then, it’s been a flurry of to-do lists, 100 stakeholder presentations, 26 in-person listening sessions and 13 transition teams that have helped facilitate the office’s launch. There are about 150 employees under the new office, which will oversee a roughly $600 million budget. No staff or divisions were downsized as a result of the transition, Thomas said.

Early childhood advocates, child care providers and officials said the office’s launch is a huge milestone to be celebrated that signals the metamorphosis to come.

“This is something that we only dreamt about, we only talked about for years and years and years, ‘What if…’” Thomas said. “Never thought we’d really ever see it come to fruition.”

The specific initiatives the office will pursue are still being finalized. But a few strategies are already clear. The office hopes to increase workforce development in the child care and early education industries to support them not just as jobs but as careers. It also will seek improved communication between the state, providers and families and stronger public-private partnerships.

The office will develop and gather data to measure best practices across programs for children to be healthy, successful learners.

A throughline of the office’s approach will be taking a renewed look at what’s working and what isn’t, said Thomas, who previously served as DESE’s chief of early learning, chief of strategic initiatives and talent development and served more than a decade as the state coordinator of the First Steps early intervention program.

Part of that means holding on to the “gems,” or services that are efficient and performing well.

“They’re making data-driven decisions, and they’re producing good outcomes, and we want to keep those in place,” Thomas said. “But we also know we have some things that maybe aren’t working as well. And those are the ones that we want to try to figure out how we can do that better so that we can serve our families better.”

Gaining momentum

The foundation of the office’s launch was laid years ago.

For early childhood advocates, they had long discussed ways to improve programs that were operating in silos across three state agencies.

Emily van Schenkhof, the executive director of the Children’s Trust Fund, a foundation for child abuse prevention created by the Legislature in 1983, said that translated to being unable to quantify things like how many home visits were occurring in the state.

“So really basic information we weren’t able to collect because programs weren’t working together. Programs were working in isolation,” van Schenkhof said. “To some degree, the desire to do this came from a recognition that we needed to do a lot better than what we were doing.”

A 2018 report by the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington D.C.-based think tank, ranked Missouri 45th in terms of its integration and governance of early childhood education programs.

Linda Rallo, the vice president of Aligned, a nonprofit coalition of business leaders focused on improving education in Kansas and Missouri, said advocates collaborated to map out what new structures could look like within Missouri’s current systems.

The award of a $6.5 million federal preschool development grant in 2019, and a subsequent $33.5 million three-year grant later that year, also helped jump-start initiatives like a needs assessment to identify long-term goals, an integrated data system and a network of regional early childhood hubs.

Conversations gained speed when the pandemic hit last year and exacerbated many issues providers and families were already facing. When Parson’s office expressed interest in making a reorganization happen, advocates said that gave it the momentum needed.

“The governor and his interest in early childhood is what changed this conversation,” van Schenkhof said.

A spokeswoman for Parson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Rallo compared early childhood to a transportation system, saying that for years the state has been building roads without a clear idea of where they may be going.

“And now, we’re going to be able to look and see the highway system. See how everything connects — see the on-ramps, the off-ramps, where they go — figure out where the weaknesses are,” Rallo said.

Changes already underway

The office only officially launched recently, but Cortaiga Collins, the owner of Good Shepherd Preschool and Infant/Toddler Center in St. Louis, said the work already underway has left her feeling optimistic that its creation is a step in the right direction.

“What I’m hoping that the consolidation will mean is that everybody will be speaking the same language, because too often we have gotten conflicting responses to the same question,” Collins said, later adding: “But we have seen some of the benefits of it going forward already.”

Among those benefits are clearer communication and more flexible policies on childcare subsidy reimbursements.

The state’s Child Care Subsidy Program supports eligible low-income families and foster kids by offering a sliding scale payment system. Amid the pandemic, child care providers recounted facing monthslong delays that totaled tens of thousands of dollars in payments. At one time in late October, 5,339 pending payment resolution requests were pending, according to emails the Independent obtained through an open records request that laid bare providers’ frustrations.

Thomas said the state has improved its turnaround time and is largely processing new payments within five to seven days of receiving them.

Collins said a process was recently put in place that allows providers to send an email to receive a status update if a payment resolution request hasn’t been resolved within 10 days. Previously, there was no clear channel to do so, she said, and emails often fell on deaf ears.

Casey Hanson, the director of outreach and engagement at Kids Win Missouri, a coalition of organizations that advocate for child well-being, said it might seem like basic changes to send communications about payment resolutions and better track them with invoice numbers, but they’ll have an outsized impact in ensuring providers continue to accept subsidy payments and offer services to low-income families.

“That’s a huge deal,” Hanson said. “So some of these changes seem small, but they’re going to lead to bigger things. They’re going to lead to rebuilding that trust. They’re going to lead to some of the providers that have left the program saying, ‘You know, I think I’m willing to come back; this seems like it’s being administered a lot better.’”

Another change the Office of Childhood is implementing is extending the length of time that providers have to correct issues online with payments from five days to 15. That extension provides additional time before a payment resolution request may be kicked off and will in turn decrease processing paperwork associated with the payments by 33%, or 320 hours a month, Thomas told the State Board of Education at its August meeting.

“And that’s a win-win,” Thomas said.

Thomas said it’s just one example of how the office hopes to reassess whether rules are in place to comply with specific laws or simply because it’s the way things have always been done.

“I’m a big proponent of finding that common ground or that middle ground where it makes it easier for the families, it makes it easier for the providers and it makes it easier for us,” Thomas said, “by alleviating a little bit of that burden on all of our parts.”

Personal background

Collins said listening sessions held to inform the office’s creation didn’t feel like monologues but rather a dialogue — a practice she hopes the state continues.

It was one of the qualities advocates praised Thomas for: her genuine interest in garnering feedback from the people served by these programs and her pragmatic, data-driven mindset coupled with a willingness to embrace change.

“She can put her head down and get the work done,” Rallo said, “but she knows where she’s headed.”

For Thomas, she pins her start in the field back to when she first became a mom. Now with four young boys, her third son was born premature, which required a stay in the neonatal intensive care unit. Thomas said it opened her eyes to the fact that it’s not just first-time parents that may need extra support.

“I got into this field because I became a mom. Really, when I had my first son at a young age, but especially as I had more children and learned that with every child you need something a little different. They’re not all the same, and you’re not the same,” Thomas said.

“And I think that’s what really makes it important for this office is that we have a place and we have services that can help families, even if it is your third child, even if it is your first child,” she added. “And it’s really based on what they need, at the time that they need it.”

Missouri Independent is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a public charity. It can be found at missouriindependent.com.

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