35 Years of Innovation in Early Learning

Poverty is an entrenched, intergenerational problem in this country. We believe (and research shows) that the years from birth to age five represent our best chance to change the odds. For 35 years, we’ve developed innovative solutions to improve outcomes for our country’s youngest learners.

Irving Harris Press Conferance
Irving Harris Press Confernce

With successful programs as our foundation, we’re now increasing our impact nationwide through knowledge sharing and field-strengthening tools. We’ve partnered with several state systems to ensure families have access to high-quality home visiting services. Our comprehensive support system for school leaders is now debuting in three states. And we’ve partnered with PBS Kids and the NYU School of Medicine’s Center for Early Childhood Health and Development to create new resources that empower parents as their child’s first teacher.

Two little girl classmates reading a book together
Two little girl classmates reading a book together

One of our best examples of innovation is Educare, now a national network of 22 birth-to-five schools that serve as learning labs for best practices and policy improvements. Educare began as an ambitious Ounce initiative to serve families displaced by the loss of public housing on Chicago’s South Side.

Beethoven Project
Beethoven Project

In partnership with the Buffet Early Childhood Fund, the Educare Learning Network then grew organically as philanthropists, education leaders and early learning programs expressed a desire to create greater impact in their own communities as well as a collective voice for change on a larger scale.

Educare schools serve children and families in cities, suburbs, rural communities and on an indigenous tribe’s reservation, and they provide innovation to the entire field. By focusing on improving practice based on each community’s needs and available resources, Educare has demonstrated what’s possible in a wide variety of contexts.

Educare Lincoln
Educare Lincoln

As a next wave of innovation, the Educare Best Practices Initiative aims to help other community-based programs achieve greater outcomes for many more children. Local Educare schools are serving as training hubs for their communities and states, helping others to implement high-quality practices that improve classroom experience and family engagement. Together, we will not rest until all young children have equal opportunities to succeed.

Meet Frances and Olivia

Nearly three decades ago, 15-year-old Frances Quintanilla sought out resources for herself and her soon-to-be-born daughter, Olivia. She started with a prenatal class at an Ounce-funded program and moved along her uncharted journey with the support of a home visitor.

Over the years, Frances stayed in contact with that Ounce-funded program and enrolled Olivia in its Head Start program when she was 4 years old. “Those resources in the beginning were fantastic,” Frances says. “It gave me confidence. And it gave me the tools I needed as a parent.”

Frances went on to finish college and pursue a career, while Olivia started learning the violin in 2nd grade and eventually became a member of the Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra. Today, Olivia is a 27-year-old working musician, business owner and instructor, giving violin, cello and viola lessons to people of all ages. Frances describes both herself and her daughter as “content and happy.”

After 27 years, the impact of Frances’ involvement in the home visiting and center-based program is still there. “I’m at the point in my life where I want to start giving back,” Frances says. She now helps mentor young girls and women, seeing how many of them often don’t know what resources are available. Frances says that the Ounce-funded program helped give her that connection and relationship, and now she’s helping others find it.

A photo of a scooting baby boy.

20 Years of Helping New Moms in Illinois

Doulas have been an innovative addition to the traditional home visiting program model. They build strong bonds with expecting and new parents, and those parents in turn build strong bonds with their own babies. The belief that “I can do this” is passed from doula to parent, and from parent to child, creating a new, self-perpetuating cycle that helps families make healthy choices for a lifetime. The University of Chicago is currently conducting a randomized control trial evaluating our doula home visiting model. Data collected for this study thus far shows multiple benefits in the first year of life, including use of safe sleep practices, parent encouragement of infants’ learning, and mother persistence in higher education and employment.

The doula program is a perfect example of the work we do: using private support to launch a program rooted in the power of relationships, and scaling it with public funding. Since we piloted our model 20 years ago, we have expanded our doula support to more than 20 locations across Illinois, supporting the births of over 17,000 children. And now we’ve expanded our impact through an online home visiting training program so other states can implement effective programs and services.

Meet Kristina and Monzell

Before their child was born, the reality of becoming parents brought Kristina, 19, and Monzell, 20, happiness and hope. But it also brought anxiety, especially for Kristina. Her stress about employment, education and housing took a toll. She learned from her doctor that her baby was underweight and that her blood pressure was dangerously high.

But their Ounce doula, Loretha, helped them navigate every obstacle they faced during Kristina’s pregnancy. “She taught me how important it was not to have stress,” Kristina says. “She was always reminding me to think about my health, and the health of my baby.”

Monzell describes Loretha as being like a third parent to their daughter: “She was there all the time, every time, whenever we needed her.” Learning about his developing baby motivated Monzell to be the best possible partner, and helped him build the confidence he feels today as a father.

Since the baby’s birth, Loretha has helped Kristina and Monzell secure and furnish their first apartment together, connected them to quality child care, and continued to encourage them both to pursue their own career and education goals. “We want [our daughter] to see us as her first love and her role models,” says Monzell.

A photo of teacher in classroom with students.
A photo of teacher in classroom with students.

10 Years of Advocacy in Washington, DC

With millions of children under 5 living in poverty, the Ounce and a core group of Educare funders recognized that a strong, bipartisan federal advocacy effort would be needed to create tipping-point change on a national scale. Out of this, the First Five Years Fund (FFYF) was born in 2007.

From the beginning, FFYF was designed to be different: rooted in the language of education, and integrating a balanced approach of messaging, policy and advocacy. It was also inclusive, helping unite the advocacy community and ultimately helping to secure cumulative federal funding increases of more than $8 billion for early education.

Voters support making quality early education more affordable for working families to give children a strong start.

Not only have there been steady funding increases to expand the quality of Head Start programs, but for the first time there is now a dedicated funding stream within the nation’s largest education law to support high-quality preschool expansion. With that addition to the Every Student Achieves Act, the Preschool Development Grants have already served more than 130,000 children.

As the country has recently become more divided along political lines, FFYF has successfully navigated these uncertain waters, serving as a trusted, nonpartisan resource and thought partner to the White House, Congress and a growing coalition of advocates in Washington, DC, and states across the country.

According to FFYF polling, 89% of American voters agree that we must make quality early childhood education more accessible and affordable to low-and middle-income families. Having played an integral role in advancing bipartisan victories for America’s youngest learners this past year, FFYF has cemented early childhood education as an issue that can unite a divided government.

Little Girl with Attitude
Little Girl with Attitude

Meet Chuck Mills

Of all the stories that the First Five Years Fund has helped elevate in Washington, DC, and across the country over the past decade, one memorable voice has been that of Chuck Mills, a former Marine One pilot and Head Start graduate. Chuck is the youngest of six children raised by a single mother, and when he testified as part of a 2011 panel of expert witnesses on Capitol Hill, he shared how influential Head Start had been for him personally.

As a successful owner of two businesses, and leader of Virginia’s Small Business Administration for three years, Chuck encouraged lawmakers to broaden their view of Head Start’s power:

“If we think about Head Start as a program from an economic perspective as opposed to simply a social program—as a program that can take a child and teach them the ways that they can be successful on their own with no additional government assistance—then we can all conclude that Head Start is a fantastic place to not only give a kid an early childhood education but also start the basic foundation of economic prowess and economic success.”


The Ounce of Prevention Fund is founded by Irving Harris with matching grants from the Pittway Corporation and the State of Illinois


Began providing home visiting services in Illinois


Opened Head Start in Chicago, the only other grantee in the area besides the City of Chicago


Founded the Center for Successful Child Development (aka the Beethoven Project), a landmark, comprehensive early childhood program in a Robert Taylor Homes high-rise


Expanded Head Start operations by subcontracting with other community-based agencies


Published “Head Start on Head Start," a special report that helped lay the groundwork for the development of the federal Early Head Start program


Helped advance creation of the Illinois Early Childhood Block Grant, which combined existing funding streams and required a percentage of them to support birth-to-three programs


Opened Educare Chicago as the next evolution of the Beethoven Project


Began consultations with policymakers and advocacy organizations in other states on early childhood issues, based on success in Illinois


Established a partnership—now called the Educare Learning Network—with the Buffett Early Childhood Fund


Helped create Illinois’ Early Learning Council to ensure public funds are spent wisely


Helped to make Illinois the first state in the nation to offer quality preschool to all 3- and 4-year-olds via the Preschool for All bill


Launched the First Five Years Fund, the federal policy team of the Ounce


Expanded training and technical assistance to over 100 community-based programs in Illinois


Won a $3 million Investing in Innovation grant from the US Department of Education, to explore innovations in leadership development


Awarded Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge grant to bring leadership training to 300 programs in Illinois


First Five Years Fund helped convene the White House Summit on Early Education


Launched Achieve OnDemand, an online professional development platform for home visitors and their supervisors


Hosted the Sixth National Summit on Quality in Home Visiting Programs


Guided the launch of Illinois Family Connects, a universal newborn support system

And we’ll continue our work to make early learning opportunities, beginning at birth, an integral part of our nation’s education system.

Mother and child walking down corridor.
Mother and child walking down corridor.