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Square One Advocates for Access, Opportunities in Early Education

Joan Kagan

Joan Kagan, Square One president and CEO

For more than 130 years, Square One has met the challenge of providing quality early-childhood education, thus serving not only young people, but also their families and the community. Today, as the importance of such education becomes ever more apparent, the challenges to providing it continue to mount. Square One is trying to meet those challenges through vital connections to a host of constituencies.

By Sarah Leete Tsitso

When a water main broke and created a massive sinkhole in the middle of downtown Springfield two weeks ago, Square One President and CEO Joan Kagan could empathize with those who were displaced.

She has seen more than her fair share of disasters and led her team back from the brink. In June 2011, a tornado tore through Square One. Eighteen months later, another of its buildings was destroyed by a gas explosion downtown. Even now, the view from the Square One administrative offices on Main Street is obscured by bulldozers, dirt piles, and orange fencing that are all part of MGM’s massive construction project.

Through — or despite — it all, this 133-year-old nonprofit organization continues to thrive, serving 700 children and their families each day, even in the face of adversity. When the tornado hit on a Wednesday evening, the agency reopened on Monday morning and had space for every single child in the program. After the gas explosion, it got tougher; the team was weary from living in crisis mode and struggling to find the energy to regroup and rebuild. Still, despite the loss of two sites, it had to turn away only 17 children, helping those families find other programs that met their needs.

“The key to the survival of Square One is our adaptability and responsiveness to the needs of the community,” said Kagan. “We have a great, committed staff and team, a board that is willing to take occasional leaps of faith, and a caring community.”

To further strengthen the organization, Kagan and the board of directors recently made a bold decision to expand the resource development team. She hired Kristine Allard in July as vice president of development, then added Dawn DiStefano in January to serve as director of grant development.

Together with Kagan, this experienced team is already making an impact in raising funds and awareness.

Building a Solid Foundation

Square One’s mission is to ensure that all children and families have the opportunity to succeed at school, at work, and in life by providing educational programs, family-support services, health and fitness resources, and a voice in the community. At the core of everything it does is a belief, confirmed by research, that children who begin learning early become better learners for life.

Programs at Square One include center-based child care; preschool and kindergarten; home-based child care in 40 locations throughout the region; after-school, weekend, and summer programming for children living in homeless shelters; fitness and nutrition initiatives; job-skills training for parents; parent education for incarcerated and post-incarcerated parents; supervised visitation; peer support groups for victims and survivors of domestic violence and parents recovering from addiction; and family literacy programs.

Kristine Allard

Kristine Allard, vice president of Development for Square One, says the agency hopes to build support by creating connections.

Taking a holistic, whole-family approach to early-childhood education ensures that the needs of the child are met, with a belief that family success contributes to educational success. As science and research have expanded to show the importance of early-childhood education, the demand for highly qualified teachers has risen dramatically over the past couple of decades. Unfortunately, salaries for these teachers have not kept pace, which presents a near-constant issue for organizations like Square One.

Kagan said early-childhood education has been a focus in terms of curriculum development and resources; however, there is still a lot of work to do in ensuring that programs can attract — and retain — energetic, committed, qualified teachers to lead these classrooms and undertake the important work happening inside.

For many years, early-childhood education was called nursery school, and was focused on keeping children safe and entertained while their parents were at work. Now, these programs are geared toward preparing children for public school, making sure they are ready to learn and interact with their peers when they enter kindergarten.

As this evolution progressed, the need for trained and educated teachers expanded. But supply has not kept up with demand, particularly since jobs in early-childhood education have notoriously low pay rates. Kagan said it is increasingly difficult to find and keep these teachers. As their level of education and training increase, they often leave to take better-paying jobs in the public school system.

Because Square One mostly serves at-risk children and families, Kagan and Allard stressed the need for teachers and others who can meet the unique needs of this population. Of the 700 children served each day, only four are privately paid. The others receive some sort of subsidy that enables them to access services.

Many of Square One’s children have at least one parent who is incarcerated. Others are involved with the Department of Children and Families, are homeless, have at least one parent in recovery, or have a teen parent. With this wide array of needs, Square One employs social workers, therapists, and others who can provide support services to the children and their families.

Many of these family issues have an impact on education, as well as the children’s social and emotional growth. If a child is hungry or malnourished, it affects that child’s ability to focus in school. If a child has a toothache, he or she may not be as cooperative and open to learning.

Kagan noted that 85% of brain development occurs between birth and age 5; if a child does not have a solid foundation, he or she will fall behind, resulting in lifelong implications for future success. To give a strong start to as many children as possible, Square One has partnered with the YMCA, Head Start, and the Springfield School Department on a pilot program geared toward providing free early education to 4-year-olds who had never before participated in a formal program. The school department, which received a four-year grant from the state, provides coaches who work with the teachers at Square One to ensure that the curriculum aligns with state standards.

“We realized there is a large pool of children entering kindergarten who have had no access to formal child care or preschool, so those children were entering kindergarten completely unprepared for it,” said Allard. “This means they are already way behind their peers, even when it comes to basics like how to stand in line or take instructions from a teacher.”

The program launched in September, with 60 children in three classrooms participating at Square One. Kagan reports that, while there have been challenges, the children’s growth has been remarkable.

If You Fund It, They Will Learn

Funding for pilot programs like the one at Square One is important, but only scratches the surface of the organization’s true financial needs. Kagan spends a considerable amount of time lobbying legislators at the state level to increase funding for education programs.

While she understands there is only so much money to go around, and plenty of worthwhile causes looking for a piece of the pie, she believes access to early-childhood education is crucial to the growth and development of society as a whole. She and others in the field have spent years advocating for adequate funding to cover the cost of doing business, which includes paying teachers a living wage and providing exceptional classroom experiences.

At Square One, the annual cost to provide high-quality early education and care is $15,000 per child. The state reimburses $9,000 of that cost, leaving a $6,000 gap for each child, every year.

“The state has to understand that this is really about getting children off to a good start,” she said. “We want them to succeed in school, graduate, go to college or vocational training, and become productive members of society. We also need the state and other stakeholders to understand the savings involved; when you invest in early education, the research has shown that there are significant savings down the road in costs associated with social welfare, criminal justice, and special-needs programs.”

Financial limitations have resulted in fewer programs offering these services to children statewide, and fewer seats in the remaining classrooms. In recent years, the number of available spots for those seeking early-childhood education in Massachusetts has shrunk by 3,000. This reduction in capacity is due to several factors, including the difficulty finding teachers and ever-increasing state regulations. If programs cannot find staff and cannot comply with state licensing requirements around the quality of the teachers they do find, they are closing their doors. It’s a simple business problem — it is not possible to operate without quality staff and enough money to pay the bills. When these centers close, it is the children who suffer.

Square One

At the core of everything Square One does is a belief, confirmed by research, that children who begin learning early become better learners for life.

If a child doesn’t have access to early-education programs, they have difficulty keeping up with their peers once they enter the public schools. The struggles are academic, social, and behavioral, and are challenging to address once the ship has sailed. For many of these struggling students, Kagan noted, it’s like going to a job every day where your boss yells at you for doing it wrong, but never shows you the right way.

This is where public and private investment in early-childhood education comes into play. Advocating for increased government funding is one way to raise needed funds, but it can’t be an organization’s only revenue stream. This is where Allard and DiStefano come in.

Developing a Brand

Since joining the team almost a year ago, Allard said she has been asking a lot of pointed questions. Did people in the community know the Square One brand? Did they know about the wrap-around services provided for families? Were they aware that there is more to Square One than preschool? Had people made the mental transition from the organization’s old identity — Springfield Day Nursery — to its new one?

The team sought answers to those questions, and built its development plan around the answers. This included implementation of a new annual fund-raising campaign, more marketing, bigger special events, and expanded outreach on new grant opportunities. The equation is simple: if they can raise more money, they can serve more kids, pay higher teacher salaries, and have a greater impact on the community.

“When you look at our families and the challenges they face, it can consume you,” said Allard. “Or, you can identify a need and perhaps make a call, write a grant, make a connection in the community, and, in the end, find a solution.”

While Greater Springfield does not have a deep pool of donors, the businesses and individuals here are generous with both their time and money. However, with fierce competition for limited dollars and volunteers, nonprofits like Square One are focused on tracking results. Donors look at their contributions as investments, and want to see those investments yield dividends. Kagan and Allard believe their donors appreciate the work done by the organization and understand how it benefits the community. But there are still those who may not be familiar with Square One and its mission.

Special events are one way to help spread the word and engage new supporters. While labor-intensive and time-consuming, events are about more than making money. They are also about making friends.

“Events let us get in front of people and provide them with that personal connection to the people we serve,” said Allard. “They get to meet the people their money supports and hear their stories first-hand. It’s different coming from the person who lived it. Afterward, people walk away with a better understanding of their community.”

That awareness also gives Square One and other nonprofit organizations a platform to advocate for what they need to meet their mission. For example, Kagan cited the Kentucky Derby-themed event held on behalf of Square One on May 7 at the Colony Club. This event, she noted, provides an opportunity to talk about the early-education and family-support services the organization provides.

“From understanding comes compassion,” she said. “That’s a big part of what comes from hosting an event like this. It’s about funds, friends, and advocacy. And, of course, it’s about having fun.”

Kagan and her staff bring that philosophy directly into the classroom, promoting friendship and fun as well as education. This long-standing commitment to families and children’s education has resulted in a large, dynamic group of donors and supporters who are always willing to lend a hand. Kagan recalls how, after the tornado, when she and her team escaped with nothing more than the items in their pockets, they were setting up shop in temporary space all over the city. A local business heard about their plight and showed up on their doorstop with a big box of office supplies.

“It may not seem like a big deal, a box full of pens and notebooks, but it was a very big deal for us,” she said. “You take those things for granted until you don’t have them. We literally had nothing; we got out with our lives, but that was about it. So, for someone to think about that basic need and make their way to our door with that box? It’s just one example of how this community rallies around its friends and neighbors in need.”

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