Commentaries

New York City Community Based Early Education Organizations: Meeting the Needs of the Future

Odell Mays, MBA is the principal in Mays2 Consulting LLC, a consulting practice that provides intensive financial and strategic management for nonprofit leadership. He has had an active 25 years career in the nonprofit world serving as a Chief Financial Officer and an Executive Director. In addition he has been involved in community service work through serving on the boards of NYC LGBT Community Services Center from 1994 to 2000 and more recently Gay Mens Health Crisis from 2006 to 2011, first as Treasurer and then as Chair and Co-Chair of the board. Odell has taught at Baruch’s School of Public Affairs in the Executive MPA and regular MPA programs for the last three years. He is a new adjunct instructor at the Heyman Center on Philanthropy teaching Fiscal Management and Philanthropy.


 

The economics and politics around access to early childhood education in New York City have become a highly visible issue. Nowhere are we seeing the drama played out more intensely than in the community based early childhood education programs throughout several of the city’s economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. Many of these organizations, often in communities of color, are tirelessly fighting to remain a viable solution to providing services in their communities. In order to appreciate the challenges it is necessary to understand the historical context of early childhood services, the major challenges facing organizations today and the opportunities for the future.

The modern historical context has three distinct periods that are important for our understanding. The first was during World War II which saw the need for childcare/daycare services in New York City as women went into the workforce in large numbers. This shift of women into the workplace facilitated the growth of childcare services in the city and was a catalyst for the city’s commitment to affordable childcare. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s the concept of “community- controlled” services grew out of the developing Black Power movement and consciousness raising era and politics of the time. It was during this era that many black and Latino community based organizations were given childcare sponsorships and government funding to support developing daycare centers in black and Latino communities throughout New York City. The growth of these daycare centers also encouraged local community economic development. Federally funded HEADSTART programs stressing the importance of early childhood education were developed and nurtured in these same communities. By the 1980’s “early education” became synonymous to childcare in New York City. This paradigm shift required community based organizations to become more sophisticated in their infrastructures and provision of an early childhood education curriculum administered by certified educators. The focus on an educational model with increasing demands for accountability and measurable impact meant that some of the original community groups involved in childcare services were no longer qualified to run programs due to a lack of infrastructure and necessary credentials. Also during this time and through the 1990’s the concept of “daycare services” became almost obsolete as organizations rushed to embrace the early childhood education model as the standard. Many local community groups were struggling with not only a “rebranding issue” but an overall upgrade of their infrastructure and programmatic services. Because the government had been the original funder of 100% of the programs, there was little incentive to develop diverse revenue streams.

Today the challenges facing the few remaining minority run community based early childhood education organizations are complicated but not insurmountable. These groups must develop new business models by enhancing their fiscal management skills and building innovative fundraising strategies- not reliant solely on government funding.

From 2006 to 2013, I had the privilege to work for Highbridge Advisory Council Family Services (HACFS), one of the largest minority run early childhood education programs in New York City. HACFS, located in the shadow of Yankee Stadium is a forty year old institution with a long history of providing day care and early education services in multi sites throughout the Bronx. During my tenure there first as a Financial Management Consultant and then as the interim Chief Financial Officer, I had the opportunity to work closely with the Chief Executive Officer, James W. Nathaniel, who is a well-respected community leader and icon within the field of childcare services and education. We strategized about how to answer some of these challenges. The overarching strategic challenge was developing new models of infrastructure management in order to stay viable in the twenty first century, especially given the fact that the government was no longer going to be the sole source of funding for early childhood education services.

We began our work together by enhancing the fiscal management skills. The staff focus became more about fiscal analysis and reporting than basic bookkeeping and recordkeeping, which meant constantly recruiting for emerging talent. The emphasis shifted from a disconnected program budget management approach to an overall organizational budget management approach. The accounting system and technology were updated and the fiscal staff received extensive training. We also incorporated a process of internal fiscal review and due diligence by program. Most importantly there was a concentrated effort to move the accounting and fiscal functions out of an “administrative silo” and into a more interactive relationship with the classroom setting to ensure that the fiscal staff was familiar with the classrooms and programs being offered. All of these initial changes were implemented and tested over a period of three to five years and the evolution is still occurring today.

Building new fundraising strategies require not only a more proficient fiscal operation but a substantial overhaul of the organizational culture emphasizing private fundraising and community partnerships. The efforts required to create innovative development strategies are a long term investment in relationship building in addition to building in house capacity for coordinating these efforts. At HACFS this effort is really being constructed from the “ground up” and will require some time to get operationalized and integrated into the infrastructure. But every community organization that has relied on government funding will have to embark on this journey.

While there are challenges that will take an investment of time and resources in order to overcome; there are some interesting opportunities that community based early education childhood organizations should explore for the future.

As CEO, James Nathaniel stresses the need for more fully integrated partnerships with private industry/corporations, the government and private foundations; focusing on capacity building for community based organizations. These partnerships would help increase the capacity for local community groups to provide services for children and families before entering the NYC public school system. The partnerships can also provide specific resources for building efficient business models at the local community level. Another opportunity is developing the next generation of sophisticated fiscal management capacity within community based organizations especially in capital investment strategies. This opportunity is being created as New York City’s government shrinks its footprint in managing real estate and buildings for many of the remaining community based groups. Organizations that have the in house fiscal management skills in place to tackle real estate issues, either in buying property or managing direct leases, will be well positioned in the future to strengthen their programs. There are opportunities for the NYC Department of Education to explore certain key partnerships with local community based organizations and develop an accreditation process for new early childhood learning centers, similar to accreditation for certified nurseries or charter schools.

Ultimately the goal with any initiative is to provide quality early childhood education programs at the community level. Achieving this goal would be a way to secure access to educational opportunities for as many New York City children as possible, while ensuring that organizations with longstanding roots in communities, such as HACFS, remain involved in meeting the needs of those communities that are often marginalized.




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