In 2013, Illinois established seven Early Childhood Innovation Zones under its Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge Grant. In these zones, organizations work together to enroll and serve the highest-need children in high quality early learning programs. Working together, the Innovation Zones experiment with different strategies and share experiences with other zones and policymakers.

Illinois Action for Children coordinates the work of the zones and provides training and consultation to the community-based coordinators and local core teams. Current Innovation Zones include: Aurora, Cicero, greater East St. Louis, North Lawndale (Chicago), Pilsen and Little Village (Chicago), Thornton Township (south Chicago suburbs), and Williamson County (Marion). See the Innovation Zone Fact Sheet for an overview.

    • They use a community systems approach to identify and engage high need children and families, and also improve program quality.
    • They analyze data to identify need, match solution to community need, plan, evaluate, and reflect (“Build-Measure-Learn” cycles).
    • They develop strong community ties and are sustained through asset-based community development models that emphasize cross-system teams.
    • They are outcome oriented and use action learning to build, measure, and learn to optimize outcomes.

Innovation Zone teams are encouraged to develop goals and strategies in one or both of the following areas:

1. Enrolling and serving children from priority populations
This goal is measured by tracking the number of children currently enrolled from these designated populations along with changes in that number over time. The priority populations are: homeless children; children of teen parents; children in the DCFS system including foster children, children with disabilities, children in poverty or deep poverty; and children whose families experience significant barriers based on their language.

Some of the strategies local teams use to achieve this goal are:

    • They form strong referral “pipelines” for eligible families already served by social service agencies, such as DCFS, the Early Intervention system, homeless shelters, teen programs, etc.
    • They work together in a community-wide outreach program that may include universal child screening, outreach by parent ambassadors, and other approaches that target the priority populations.
    • They build a shared community system to support enrollment of targeted families through personal follow-up and problem solving. For example, teams may find ways to get coats for children, arrange transportation to the program, pay for birth certificates, or find free medical services for child physicals. They may also develop a coordinated community referral system.
2. Quality improvement in early learning programs
This goal is measured by tracking the number of Gold-rated programs in ExceleRate Illinois, the state’s new quality rating and improvement system, as well as the number of programs that move up from any quality level to a higher level.

Some of the strategies local teams use to achieve this goal are:
    • They build a “community of practice” among program administrators and leaders to share information, strategies, and tips for quality improvement. Such communities might also share an instructional coach and align curriculum.
    • They establish mentoring relationships in which Gold-rated programs adopt one or more programs that are not yet Gold to help them move up through the ExceleRate Circles of Quality.
    • They enroll a cohort of leaders in a leadership development program such as Taking Charge of Change (McCormick Center at National-Louis University) or Lead, Learn, Excel (Ounce of Prevention and McCormick Center at National-Louis University).
    • They develop networks of social and health services to support enrolled families.
See the Introduction to Illinois Early Childhood Innovation Zones for information on the background, history, process, and framework.

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