Champions Tackle Tough Rural Issues - Early Childhood Education edition

Two and a half years ago, my wife gave birth to our third child. Now, our kids are ages 11, 8, and 2. I had a lot more energy with a 2-year-old at age 32 than I do at 42. Having multiple kids gives me a great appreciation for the work our early childhood education teachers do, whether it is in their home or at a childcare center.

Throughout rural Nebraska, many communities face a challenge of being able to provide enough childcare for parents. It is a demanding job and generally low paying.

I’ve had the opportunity to get connect with Nebraska Children and Families Foundation through their Community 4 Kids program. There isn’t a cookie cutter approach to solve early childhood education in our rural communities. Community 4 Kids helps provide local communities with guidance and a framework to evaluate the current local situation and develop a solution that works for the community.

Through this program, I’ve had the chance to connect with other communities participating in Community 4 Kids. Each community had the same framework from Nebraska Children, but it is easy to see there are communities that are moving forward with strong plans for improvement and there are communities that are stuck.

The difference between the communities moving forward and the communities struggling comes down to leadership. The communities with a strong champion leading the efforts and bringing others on board are moving forward. There was even one community who was moving forward but has been stuck in transition when the leader of the group took a new job outside the community.

The champions come from different backgrounds. In some communities, leadership comes from the public school. In others, it is University Extension or the Educational Service Unit. A few communities have had leadership from the local community foundation or economic development. In every community, one person stepped up to do extra work to move forward.

Even though the leaders are different in each community, it is easy to see similar traits that follow the five practices outlined in Kouzes and Posner’s Leadership Challenge. The leaders Model the Way by walking the talk about the importance of quality early childhood education. They Envision the Future by leading a committee to determine and implementing solutions. They Enable Others to Act by keeping a core team engaged and working together to make change. Finally, they Encourage the Heart, by recognizing childcare providers and their teammates on the core team.

These are all great characteristics, but the number one characteristic I noticed from the leaders with the most success is PASSION. Their passion for children and their providers is magnetic and provides an inner fire to make difficult, long-term, time consuming change. The passion exhibited by champions is what makes the best stand out.

Even if you aren’t involved in early childhood education, you can still learn about rural leadership from the champions of Community 4 Kids in Nebraska in three ways.

1.     Step Up – No one had a job requirement of leading a Community 4 Kids core team. The champions were willing to build a core team and implement solutions because it was the right thing to do, even though it meant extra work. Don’t wait to be called to solve a local problem, step up and make it happen.

2.     Don’t Go It Alone – Each community participating in Community 4 Kids needs a core team. This is essential in gathering information, support, brainstorming and implementing solutions. If you are looking to make a difference, find a few people with complementary strengths to be a part of your team.

3.     Follow Your Heart – The best champions have a passion for early childhood education that is magnetic. They are able to rally the community to move forward because of the passion they show. Make a difference in the parts of your community that mean the most to you.

We’re still working on developing and implementing the solutions for early childhood education in McCook. If you want to visit about our plan or have your own projects that have worked, please contact me to share.