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Early Childhood Shared Services, Central Iowa

A shared services system for providers will take away the burden of the backroom duties and allow providers time to focus on children.

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Updates: How has your idea changed or evolved throughout the Prize? What updates have you made to this submission? (1500 characters)

This project involves community partners and it was important that we were all on the same page before I published our project. Since learning about the opportunity, we have had several conversations and events that have shaped our final proposal. Our project is focused on working with child care programs serving low-income children. In the past month we have worked hard to keep one of the programs open. Throughout this process we learned a great deal about the problems they were facing and number one was a lack of financial understanding on the part of leadership. This experience helped us to shape our final proposal for shared services. Having someone with the appropriate knowledge handling the financial piece is critical to the survival of small child care programs.

Name or Organization

Iowa Association for the Education of Young Children (IAEYC) Partners: United Way of Central Iowa, United Way Women's Leadership Connection, Polk County Early Childhood Iowa


Des Moines, Iowa

What is your stage of development?

  • Advanced Innovator with 3 to 10+ years of experience in ECD


  • Non - Profit

What is the stage of your proposal?

  • Prototyping: I have done some small tests or experiments with prospective users to continue developing my idea.

Describe your submission in one clear sentence

Shared Services aims to provide backroom services for programs in Central Iowa to support their sustainability and quality.

Describe how your solution could be a game-changer for your selected Opportunity Area (600 characters)

Birth to age 3 is a critical time for children. There is rapid brain growth and the stage is set for lifelong learning. All children deserve to be in a quality, loving early learning environment. Strong, effective leadership is essential for this to take place. The child care director is responsible for making sure all children have access to the quality they deserve. In order to do this, they need to be available to staff, children, and families. Providing them with a shared services opportunity would allow them to focus on their program quality and child outcomes rather than paperwork.

Select an Innovation Target

  • Business model: a better model with more effective structure or financing

Tell us more about your innovation (1500 characters)

The concept of shared services is gaining traction across the country in Early Childhood offices. It is the pooling of resources to help child care programs that are typically one-man operations. The director is responsible for all aspects of running a small business; marketing, HR, AR/AP, and facility maintenance. On top of operating a small business, they are responsible for the program; curriculum and assessment, parent engagement, health and safety, and professional development. By participating in a shared services opportunity, directors can focus on the program. In the beginning our shared services office will handle the billing for state child care assistance and the federal food program as well as bulk purchasing for materials and food. When the time is right, we will expand and offer support in human resources. With unemployment at an all-time low in the state of Iowa, 3%, finding qualified staff can be a full-time job. Shared services will post job openings, screen applicants, and provide orientation. We have a foundation in place that can handle shared services. Our ECQuIP, Early Childhood Quality Improvement Project, at IAEYC, provides support to child care programs serving low-income families. The project consultants provide consultation and professional development. In addition, the programs receive help with materials purchasing, facility improvements, and professional development.

What problem are you aiming to solve? (3 sentences)

Center Directors play a vital role in the quality of their programs. If they are constantly pulled to address financial, HR, purchasing, or maintenance issues, their time monitoring the program is jeopardized. While it is essential that they oversee program operations, the smaller, time eating tasks can be done by a shared services office.

Explain your idea (5000 characters)

At the center of it all is the shared services hub. All activity goes through this hub; CCA (Child Care Assistance) billing, CACFP (Child and Adult Care Food Program) billing, human resources support, joint purchasing, professional development, janitorial and maintenance support. Thanks to some dollars from United Way of Central Iowa, we will be starting a small pilot with three programs in the spring of 2018. This is being done as a matter of necessity. These three programs are struggling and we want to shore them up with some outside support. The directors report that they are overwhelmed with everything they have to get done and as a result program quality is suffering. The goal is to take some of the financial tasks off their plate. The hub will become a part of the Early Childhood Quality Improvement Project (ECQuIP) which is part of the Iowa Association for the Education of Young Children (IAEYC). For phase I, additional staff with a background in finance/accounting will need to be added to the team. They will set up center accounts on QuickBooks and complete training on CCA and CACFP as well as shadow a director with knowledge about the billing systems. Once they have the 3 pilot sites on board and billing is being consistently and successfully completed, we will begin the joint purchasing of food and supplies. During the setup of phase I, we will be writing policies and procedures to create a system of checks and balances for billing practices. In these centers every penny counts. We don’t have room for error. It will be important that we have systems created that reduce the likelihood of errors resulting in the loss of money. Our goal is to add the additional coalition centers to the original pilot of 3 within the first 6 months of operation. Phase II will begin at the 6 month mark. Phase II consists of adding in human resources supports and janitorial/maintenance supports. Human resources can be difficult for a director with no background in business. There are so many things to be considered when hiring, firing, retaining, and evaluating staff. Having a resource person available to answer these tough questions will be invaluable to directors. We see many costly mistakes happen when directors fire staff without proper documentation. We also find through our file audits that not all personnel records are complete at the time of hire. Systems building will play an important role in HR as well as billing. By the end of year one, we hope to be serving the 18 centers in the Early Childhood Coalition. Phase III would be opening the service to other programs serving low-income children. Depending on the workload, this may require additional staff. The ECQuIP team currently provides professional development opportunities to the coalition centers. We can envision this becoming a wider offering once the basic shared services are in place.

Who benefits? (1500 characters)

The ECQuIP (Early Childhood Quality Improvement Project) team supports a group of 17 child care programs serving low-income children. Over the course of the year we will serve approximately 1500 children ages birth to 5. The consultants on our team are in the centers and classrooms every week. They have a relationship with the directors, staff and children. The benefit will be a trickle-down effect. We begin with the center director. He/she will notice that they have more time to focus on the program and their own professional development. Directors will have the opportunity to spend more time observing staff and providing feedback to support teacher growth. They will also have the time to evaluate their program and create a plan for continued quality growth. They will have the time to reflect on the assessment data of the children and support teachers as they make changes based on the data. Teachers will gain knowledge and confidence and feel supported in their position. This will impact the children they are working with. We should in turn see an increase in assessment scores for child growth and development. Strong teacher-child relationships will result in child growth.

What kind of impact will your idea have? (1500 characters)

Our project is responsible for meeting the United Way strategy of expanding access and improving the quality of early care and education environments for at-risk children. We are currently working with 17 programs in central Iowa that will serve approximately 1500 children birth to age 5 from July 1, 2017 – June 30, 2018. Our goal is to create a system that would support more child care programs serving low-income children. Our vision is that not only will the shared services business model give the center director more time to focus on program needs, but it will also save the program money. They may be paying for accounting services that would no longer be necessary. Without the time and resources to dedicate to the financial billing programs may not be getting all of the money they have coming to them. If we are able to shore up their backroom financial and human resource needs, we can then help them focus on the children. One outcome we will monitor is the number of children receiving a developmental screening. Our goal would be that 80% of the children served in a center taking advantage of shared services will be screened and referred for additional services where necessary. With the transient population served it is difficult to reach 100% of the children served. Our current data shows that of the 1369 children served between July 1, 2017 and December 31, 2017, 73% were screened and 21% of those screened were referred for additional services.

How does or how could your idea impact low-income children? (1500 characters)

Our entire focus is on low-income children. Per the Harvard University Center on the Developing Child publication: A Science-Based Framework for Early Childhood Policy, “For young children from low-income families, participation in very high-quality, center based, early education program has been demonstrated to enhance child cognitive and social development.” The six characteristics of high quality listed in the publication include “(1) highly skilled teachers; (2) small class sizes and high adult-to-child ratios; (3) age-appropriate curricula and stimulating materials in a safe physical setting; (4) a language-rich environment; (5) warm, responsive interactions between staff and children; and (6) high and consistent levels of child participation.” The ECQuIP team works to support the child care programs in these six areas so that the children being served can enter kindergarten on track with their peers not experiencing poverty. Through our work over the past few years, we have recognized that all the work in the classroom will not make a difference if the leader of the program does not have time to direct them toward their vision. They have wonderful ideas and can recognize where change is needed, but they are frustrated because they don’t have time to act on their ideas.

Innovation: What makes your concept innovative? (1500 characters)

It is difficult to explain the world of child care. These centers are essentially small business’ relying on parent or state fees to survive. The regulations and oversight vary from state to state. There is no one business model that is preferred. In Iowa, anyone can open a center, regardless of their background, early childhood knowledge, or financial resources. If you were to survey center directors, you might find one common complaint; too much to do and not enough time. Everything falls on the shoulders of the center director. This idea of the shared services business model is not new or original. It has been successfully implemented in other states. Unfortunately, the number of shared services opportunities is too few. It takes time, organization, and money to get this plan off the ground. It also requires a sponsor that is grounded in early childhood and has the infrastructure to support the business model. The mission of Iowa AEYC is to promote high-quality early learning for all children, birth through age 8, by connecting practice, policy, and research. We advance a diverse, dynamic early childhood profession and support all who care for, educate, and work on behalf of young children. Housing this shared services project at IAEYC with the ECQuIP team makes good business sense.

Scale: Describe how your idea could reach a significant number of end-users. (1500 characters)

The end-user in our project is the children. Creating systems to advance the quality of early childhood programs will ultimately lead to better child outcomes. Our project currently serves an average of 1500 children per year. Over time this can be a significant number of children impacted through this project. The obvious barrier to taking this project to scale is funding. We have financial support for our early childhood work from United Way of Central Iowa, Women’s Leadership Connection, and Polk County Early Childhood Iowa. They have funded the ECQuIP team since its inception. For this project to be viable, we will have to find new funding streams until we can determine a fair price to charge programs that would help sustain the project. Our funders are part of this project conversation and have committed to supporting where they can. Shared services will be a new concept for many programs. It is important that we get systems in place to prove that it works, the information is kept confidential, and the programs can trust us to give them a service that will benefit their program. There are over 300 child care programs in Polk County. This number does not include home providers. There are a sufficient number of programs that would be eligible to participate to help sustain the project.

Feasibility: Where are you with understanding the feasibility of your idea? Describe what you’ve done so far and your plans. (3000 characters)

This project idea was presented to members of United Way and Women’s Leadership Connection in 2016. Small, stand-alone, community child care centers are at risk of closing their doors after just one to two bad financial months. These programs are in low-income neighborhoods and the majority of their children (80 – 100%) receive state child care assistance. With our state reimbursement levels being some of the lowest in the country and no other revenue sources, fluctuations in enrollment can be detrimental. United Way and Women’s Leadership Connection are committed to helping these programs survive. They are on board with the idea of creating an umbrella of protection through the shared services model. They are willing to sit on an advisory board to help get the project off the ground and set up systems for sustainability. With the ECQuIP team already in place providing consultation services, this would be a somewhat seamless addition to the current services offered.

Business Viability: How viable is your business model? (1500 characters)

I am very confident that this business model will be successful. In the beginning we will be using grant and donation dollars to get off the ground. Our goal is to be able, by Phase III, to open this opportunity up to others in the community for a nominal fee. Child care is not a very profitable industry. Some programs sacrifice staff wage increases and materials purchases to keep their doors open. Shared services models in other areas of the country have been very successful. It will be important to communicate with these agencies to learn from their mistakes and model what is working well. Our funders are on board with this project and this will add to our viability.

HCD: How have you used human centered design to build or refine your concept? (1500 characters)

Our early childhood coalition began in 2002 as a result of the community coming together to address the closing of a low-income community based child care program. Community leaders recognized that they would need to step in and support child care programs in low-income neighborhoods both financially and programmatically. The project has evolved over time, but the goal of supporting these programs for the sake of the children has always remained the same. The ECQuIP team is immersed in these programs. We meet with directors and teachers every week and talk with them about their struggles and ask what we can do to support. We brainstorm at our monthly director meetings better ways to create systems to make the work more seamless. We are not supervisors but we do what we can to coach and mentor directors and teachers. We listen to their suggestions and ask them in what ways we can provide support. Our annual professional development plan is created from conversations with and observations of classroom teachers. The one question we always ask is what does this do for the children. Everything we do comes back to the children. Our mental health consultant has had 25 new mental health referrals in the past 6 months. This is on top of the 18 children already receiving her support. These children are in need of our help. If they are to be successful once they enter school, they need to have every advantage available to them.

Tell us more about you (3000 characters)

I began as a center director in 1995. I have a background in both business and education. I learned over the years that I was an oddity because the majority of directors do not have any business experience. I have tried to use my background and education in business to support other center directors. I have worked in for-profit child care and for the past 16 years in the non-profit child care world. I had a wonderful mentor along the way and she introduced me to the idea of shared services in 2005. I was a director at the time, but very intrigued by what she was proposing. I initially helped her set up the billing systems for her shared services office. Unfortunately, the funding for the office was reallocated to a different project and our shared services office closed in 2008. While in operation, it was well received by directors. They recognized how much more time they had to spend in classrooms and with families. The few that I have talked with about this proposal are excited for the opportunity. I have been the coordinator for the ECQuIP Early Childhood Quality Improvement Project) team for 10 years. We are committed to helping child care programs serving low-income children. We advocate for them at the local and state level. Our team consists of 3 classroom consultants, 1 literacy consultant, 1 mental health consultant, and 2 child care nurse consultants. We have our good moments and our bad. We deal with a lot of children that in their short lives have experienced some horrific trauma. When you think about getting them ready to enter kindergarten it seems impossible when they are hungry and don’t feel safe. Through our support and some very loving teachers, they do succeed. In fact, some thrive. I was so moved by the children I worked with as a director that my husband and I decided to adopt a child from foster care. It has been a struggle for our family because she has many issues to deal with as a result of the trauma inflicted at a very young age. We know, however, that had we not stepped in, her situation could have been a very bad one. All of these children deserve every opportunity we can provide. We are committed to these centers surviving and shared services are a way to make that happen.

Do you have the people and partners you need to do what you’ve described? (500 characters)

Our partners, United Way of Central Iowa, Women’s Leadership Connection, and Polk County Early Childhood Iowa, have board members from the community that will be a great resource as we set up the hub and policies and procedures. It will be important to reach out and learn from those already doing shared services around the country.

As you consider your next steps, what kinds of help could you use? Is there a type of expertise that would be most helpful? (1800 characters)

There are a couple of areas in the country utilizing shared services. It would be beneficial to visit these programs and find out what barriers they encountered and how those were handled. It would also be helpful to speak with programs that are members and find out if there are things that could have been done differently in the beginning to make the process more seamless. When it is time to add in human resources, it would be a benefit to have some experts to talk with about how this could be set up and maintained to be the most effective for programs. Human resources can be challenging. It will be important that we make sure that we have all of the current information in this particular area.

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  • Yes, share my contact information

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Join the conversation:

Photo of MaryKay Mahar

Shared Service models are incredibly promising to reduce cost and administrative burden of individual child care operators. While models exist in pockets, successful models that drive down operational costs dramatically would be compelling in potential scaling. It would be very interesting to follow the successful implementation of this concept!

Photo of Stacey

Thank you MaryKay. If you are aware of models that are working well please pass along. I would love the information.

Photo of MaryKay Mahar

Hi Stacey,

Surely! In PA, we have I will say, while pooled funding and discounts exist, there are still gaps in addressing some of the larger operations costs that could be significantly reduced with shared services (health care contributions, payroll, etc.) A few to note:

Sound Child Care Solutions (SCCS) in Seattle is a local example of shared services. According to its Web site, “SCCS is a consortium of seven child care centers that creates stable child care by sharing administrative, accounting and human resource functions, while simultaneously investing in improved teacher practices by providing ongoing professional development opportunities in alignment with our commitment to undoing institutionalized racism, and providing quality care and education to the children we serve.”[3]

In Fairfax, Virginia, the Infant Toddler Family Day Care is a shared-services consortium of providers that receive a wide range of supports and services including marketing, training, monthly billing and collections, professional networking, supports to parents, and a substitute pool.

Quality Care for Children, in Georgia, is a hub for Web-based services that are offered statewide. These shared services include cost savings on food and supplies, templates, and support documents.

You may already be aware of these, but if not I hope the information is helpful!

Photo of Stacey

I had done a little research. In fact, we are hoping that if we are awarded dollars we will be able to visit some programs, including yours!

Photo of MaryKay Mahar

Best of luck and keep me posted if opportunities to collaborate arise! Definitely the right time to capitalize on the Shared Services potential!