Every morning when Sheila Ricley arrives at work, a note near her computer greets her with an optimistic reminder: “Obstacles are opportunities.”
In Sheila’s line of work, focusing on what’s possible helps to navigate the inevitable challenges. Sheila is the program manager for the Wyoming Preschool Development Grant Birth Through Five (PDG B–5) renewal grant. The multi-year federal investment aims to strengthen the state’s early childhood system through improved collaboration, coordination, and quality.
The Wyoming PDG B–5 team has a vision for what they hope to accomplish with the funding—and their early childhood strategic plan is a roadmap for getting there. Along the way, Education Northwest is helping them use data to move the state toward a brighter future for Wyoming’s youth.
Developing a Map to the Future
Before beginning the monumental task of improving a statewide system, the PDG B–5 team needed to understand the landscape of early care and education. Under the initial grant, they conducted a needs assessment, collecting information from families, educators, and providers as well as local and state agencies, school districts, and organizations that support early care and education.
Wyoming has existed in a data desert for far too long, and soon we will be able to actually answer some questions with data.
Using this data, the team then developed a strategic plan with short-, intermediate-, and long-term strategies for improvement in six areas:
- Family empowerment, knowledge, and choice
- Connection and access to early childhood education and B–5 services
- Early childhood education quality
- Early childhood education workforce
- Governance, systems, and data
Now, Sheila and her partners are using renewal grant funding to implement the strategic plan. Together, diverse partners—preschool providers, local and state agencies, nonprofits, higher education institutions, schools, educators, and families—are developing and implementing aligned policies and programs that improve care and education for Wyoming’s children.
Tracking Progress and Improving Practice Through Data
With limited time and funds available, Sheila needs to ensure the grant team is making progress toward its goals and doing meaningful work along the way. As grant evaluator, Education Northwest helps gather data to measure progress, make sense of the data, and correct course as needed.
With the information collected regularly from partners, providers, and families, Education Northwest assesses progress in the six strategic plan areas. These updates are shared on the WY Quality Counts website to communicate movement toward goals.
Through regular memos and debriefs, Sheila and her partners also reflect on their work and whether they need to adjust to reach their goals.
“Education Northwest’s data memos have a section identifying challenges, and we come together and discuss what we can do to improve the process for implementation progress,” said Sheila. “Reflecting on the data has shifted our actions and how we move forward. It was very helpful to pause and intentionally reflect on our practice and how we were going to adjust our approach.”
The Education Northwest team credits the success of the partnership to the Wyoming team’s willingness to include the evaluators in the process.
“We have attended lots of meetings, including executive leadership team meetings, to collect data and gain a deep understanding of the work being done,” said Education Northwest researcher Elizabeth Gandhi. “They have included us as a key partner and invited us into the room to share our expertise. We built a lot of trust that allows us to go beyond just collecting data to collaboratively make meaning out of the data we collect.”
Building Future Capacity With Better Data Systems
Recognizing the importance of data, Sheila and her partners are using grant funds to lay the foundation for an early childhood data integration system. This statewide system will collect information from early childhood programs and enable more comprehensive reporting and analysis of data across the field.
“I'm excited to have that data,” says Sheila. “Wyoming has existed in a data desert for far too long, and soon we will be able to actually answer some questions with data—things we thought we knew anecdotally, or perhaps the data proves us completely wrong about what we thought we knew about the state of services for children and families.”
Seeing all her team has accomplished, Sheila remains optimistic about the future of early childhood education across Wyoming. Before the grant, many PDG partners were doing their work in isolation. Bringing these groups together has proven how collaborating at the systems level can improve services and conditions for providers, families, and children.
“I’m looking forward to looking back on all the progress we’ve accomplished with the PDG on behalf of improving coordination, collaboration, and increasing the quality of services for children and families across our state,” Sheila said. “When it’s all said and done, hopefully there will be some additional investments to continue building on our success and help children in Wyoming continue to thrive.”