From 2022 to 2023, Afton Partners worked closely with the Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE) and the Illinois Community College Board (ICCB) to support them in strategic planning and implementation of the Early Childhood Access Consortium for Equity (ECACE). A collaboration of higher education institutions in Illinois created by Public Act 102-0174, ECACE was established to “serve the needs of the incumbent early childhood workforce and the employers of early childhood educators and to advance racial equity while meeting the needs of employers by streamlining, coordinating, and improving the accessibility of degree completion pathways for up-skilling and the sustained expansion of educational pipelines at Illinois institutions of higher education.”
ECACE has accomplished much since its launch in 2021 including:
- Establishing a scholarship fro the incumbent ECE (Early Care & Education) workforce to pursue higher education
- Hiring navigators to help the existing early childhood workforce find and enroll in institutions that meet their needs
- Providing mentors within institutions to help students navigate academic and other supports
- Making institutional program offerings more accessible including evening, weekend and/or online courses
- Increasing recognition of students’ previous skills and experience
- Working on processes for seamless transfer of credits and degrees between institutions
Afton Partners worked closely with IBHE and ICCB to develop a strategic implementation plan for the Consortium by bringing together state agency partners to develop a vision, establish roles and responsibilities for the various partners (Consortium, Advisory Committee, Steering Committee etc.), and determine working groups to address strategic initiatives. Afton also supported implementation by conducting a needs assessment including focus groups, a survey of institutional teams, and follow-up interviews with Consortium members to understand the strengths, challenges, impact, and opportunities for improvement of ECACE. Additionally, Afton helped create a framework and plan for implementation of a knowledge base that can serve as a repository of information about the work of the Consortium for all institutional teams.
Collaboration and idea sharing across higher education institutions benefits institutions and students. ECACE has increased collaboration across Illinois institutions of higher education. Institutions particularly value opportunities to problem solve and share ideas to increase enrollment, persistence, and completion for the early childhood workforce. Many institutions shared that this type of state-wide institutional collaboration is new for Illinois and has the potential to improve student access and navigation through higher education across many different sectors.
Increasing education, competencies and credentials of the early education workforce must also come with increased compensation. While ECACE is a powerful, ground-breaking initiative to upskill the incumbent ECE workforce, many institutions also pointed out the need for wage increases for educators. Many prospective students do not see the value in investing considerable time and resources into additional education if they will not receive additional compensation. Early childhood compensation issues must be addressed alongside upskilling in order to address the shortage of well-qualified adults educating young children in Illinois