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Global Roots Play School

Global Roots Play School aims to provide innovative educational opportunities for refugee and immigrant parents and children in Ithaca, NY.

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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)

Our proposal has evolved immensely since we first created our Early Submission. Through mentorship feedback and use of OpenIDEO toolkits, we have learned new ways to communicate our idea more clearly. We have focused on telling a strong and compelling story of why our program started, and how we think our idea could spread further throughout the United States.

Name or Organization

Ithaca Welcomes Refugees (IWR) founded Global Roots Play School in September 2017. IWR works to foster a welcoming and fair environment for refugees and at-risk immigrants in Ithaca, New York.


Ithaca, New York

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?

  • Piloting: I have started to implement my solution as a whole with a first set of real users.

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

Refugees and immigrants in the United States need English language skills, but how can parents of very young children attend English as a Second Language (ESL) classes without childcare? Global Roots Play School empowers refugee and immigrant families by providing high quality early childhood education to children ages 18 months to 3 years old during ESL class time. Our two-generation approach guarantees families’ access to crucial transformative programs that offer them a chance to make big changes in their lives.

Select an Innovation Target

  • Service: A new or enhanced service that creates value for end beneficiaries.

Tell us more about your innovation (1500 characters)

In 2016, upstate New York resettled 4,745 refugees— 94% of all refugees in New York State. We are a small, local project based in Ithaca, New York, but our idea has the potential to spread nationally to address a much broader need. According to the UNHCR, 96,900 refugees were resettled in the United States in 2016. According to the 2016 Current Population Survey (CPS), immigrants and their U.S. born children made up 27% of the total U.S. population. There is a clear need for innovation that responds directly to the particular educational needs of refugee and immigrant families in our country. Rather than looking at supporting parents and children separately, our program mutually addresses the educational needs of the entire family through a two-generation model. Through adult ESL education, parents increase their opportunities for employment and community involvement. Through quality early childhood education, immigrant and refugee children become socially and emotionally ready for school. New York State’s Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) and Tompkins Learning Partners (TLP) provide free ESL classes for refugee and immigrant adults in downtown Ithaca. However, for parents, it is impossible to attend classes without childcare. That’s where Global Roots Play School comes in!

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

Refugee and immigrant parents in need of ESL risk lacking sufficient English for daily activities and remain limited in opportunities for employment, social interaction, and community integration. Refugee and immigrant children are at risk of an opportunity and achievement gap even before kindergarten. Our idea aims to solve both problems by empowering parents to attend ESL class, and ensuring that their young children ages 18 months to 3 years old get the best educational start possible.

Explain your idea (5000 characters)

Imagine you have had to flee your home country. Imagine you have lost family members or left some behind. Imagine remembering life during war. Imagine being in a place where you don’t understand what people are saying. Imagine leaving your young child in the care of strangers. Global Roots Play School opened in September 2017 to address the critical barrier that refugee and immigrant parents in Ithaca have faced in accessing ESL classes: the need for childcare that parents can trust and afford. Global Roots Play School works in active partnership with both BOCES and TLP. Prior to opening our program in September, many refugee and immigrant parents with young children remained isolated at home. Now, parents are able to drop their child off at our school and walk just a couple blocks to ESL class, with the security of knowing that their children are cared for close by. Childcare within short walking distance of parents' ESL school is crucial because resettled families in particular— who have been through trauma and separation from loved ones— have a need to know that they can get to their children in a moment's notice. One parent in our program recently told us, “I was nervous to send my child to school, but coming here I see how much love you give the children and I feel so much better.” So far our classroom has served fifteen refugee and immigrant children ages 18 months – 3 years old while their parents attend ESL class at the same time. The families we serve come from all over the world including Iraq, Afghanistan, Burma, Egypt, Romania, China, and Korea. Parents pay tuition on a sliding scale corresponding to their monthly income. Our affordable cost greatly increases accessibility. We offer a half-day program Monday through Friday from 9:00 to 12:00. Our short school day allows for a gentle introduction to a classroom experience for young children who are adjusting to life in a new country. Global Roots offers a supportive space for young children to learn, expand their trust beyond the family, and explore their world! Our diverse community of families speaks 11 different languages in addition to their developing English proficiency. We aim to provide a welcoming, inclusive, and emotionally responsive community for families as they find their footing in a new country. Global Roots teachers are dedicated to developing trusting relationships with children and parents so that each family can feel safe and secure enough to learn. Our educational approach values the social, emotional, cognitive and physical health of the whole child. Many children we serve have experienced war, trauma, separation from and loss of loved ones, and post-traumatic stress. Global Roots Play School is responsive to the emotional and comprehensive developmental needs of children in light of these experiences. We actively seek to promote resilience and healthy development of confidence, executive functioning and self-regulation (crucial school readiness skills) through sensitively forming responsive relationships, practicing trauma-informed care, and utilizing evidence-based practices. We keep up with research in early childhood development and brain development to support our work. We also work with 0-3 service providers who provide on-site therapy for children with special needs. Our classroom approach is play-based with many opportunities for children to make decisions, creatively problem-solve, and develop social connection. We choose play because it is how young children joyfully learn and make sense of their world. Developing language, forming peer relationships, expressing emotions, navigating conflicts, and developing sense of self and confidence all come about through play. Our classroom is full of dual language learners so we talk, read, and sing throughout the day, as this is proven best practice for language development. We value the cultural and linguistic background of every family we serve and we practice anti-bias education. From the books to the toys in our classroom, we work hard to ensure that every child has a positive mirror to reflect her identity. Our program empowers parents to pursue their personal educational goals that will lead to their own ability to self-sufficiently support their families in the long-term. These goals include but are not limited to: reading, writing, and speaking English more fluently, passing the TASC (the new GED), and the U.S. citizenship exam. Knowing that their children are cared for in a high quality educational environment nearby, parents are free to focus on their own education.

Who benefits? (1500 characters)

Refugee and immigrant parents and children who live in Ithaca, New York benefit from our program. Parents benefit from being able to attend ESL class and work toward their personal educational and career goals. Once refugee and immigrant parents become proficient in English they can become actively engaged members of their communities, contributing their many talents and skills that might otherwise have been underutilized due to a language barrier. In particular, women benefit from the freedom to pursue educational opportunities and advance their presence in society outside of the home. Ultimately, the advancement of parents will have a positive impact on the lives of their children through increasing family economic security. Children benefit from the opportunity to develop in a high quality early childhood classroom where they are loved and nurtured as they grow. Our program supports each child’s development so that they will enter pre-k and kindergarten socially and emotionally ready to learn. Through being part of educational communities, both parents and young children have made new friends and increased their sense of belonging in their new home country. Teachers and volunteers benefit as well by forming relationships with children and families who we learn from. We don’t view ourselves as purely providers of a service; we also recognize that we all learn from each other, and we see our work as both a privilege and a responsibility.

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

Our idea has already had a direct impact on the fifteen refugee and immigrant families who have enrolled in our program. We have sixteen more families on our waiting list and we are eager to catalyze positive changes in the lives of more families. In the few months since we opened in September, parents have had increased attendance at ESL classes. The ESL coordinator at TLP informed us that mothers reported being more committed to attending tutoring sessions and reaching their personal learning goals knowing that their children were being cared for in a fun, safe, educational setting. English language skills will allow parents to communicate with their child’s teachers in the future and this will enormously impact their engagement with their child's education and strengthen the bridge between home and school. Children from all over the world are developing critical school readiness skills in our program. Our idea could absolutely have long-lasting outcomes and generate systemic positive changes in the lives of families. Our model could be used in any of the 300+ refugee resettlement cities and towns across the United States, all of which are required to have associated ESL referral programs. English language ability is the single most important factor in how well immigrants and refugees are able to participate in life in the United States. There is a nation-wide need for childcare in order for parents to access ESL education, and we believe our idea could answer this need.

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

To date, we have served fifteen refugee and immigrant children in our program. Six of the families enrolled are at or under 100% of the poverty line and an additional six are at or under 200% of the poverty line. Children of immigrants are our nation’s fastest-growing demographic. Reports on achievement gap show an evident gap by age 3 for low-income children of immigrants. Our program will work on closing this achievement gap and creating positive school beginnings for low-income refugee and immigrant children, and help low-income parents get the best opportunities to improve their lives through education. Research on stress shows that stressors on parents can have enduring consequences for their children, even altering brain development. That is why it is so important to create programs that better support young parents and families. Our program alleviates stress for parents by providing a supportive community and educational opportunity for families. Through mutually addressing the educational needs of both parents and children, and through keeping our program affordable with a sliding scale tuition, we have created a system that makes accessing opportunities and attending those opportunities much more feasible for low-income families. The impact on low-income families includes increased family economic security and school readiness.

Innovation: What makes your concept innovative? (5000 characters)

Our concept is innovative and our approach is different from what is already being done in the space of ECD. While other models in the U.S. exist with a two-generational framework for addressing the educational needs of immigrant and refugee families, the challenge is reducing barriers to access. Our primary goal is to make our program accessible to families and we achieve this by addressing the comprehensive needs of the families we serve, and by making our program truly affordable. Our approach to addressing the comprehensive needs of the families we serve is innovative because rather than remaining within the traditional bounds of the field of early childhood, we work in partnership with refugee resettlement, adult education, and mental health professionals. Our innovative intersectoral collaboration is crucial to running a program that truly responds to the comprehensive needs of the families we serve. Our umbrella organization, Ithaca Welcomes Refugees, has a Response Team comprised of committed volunteers from the social services and mental health professions. This team works alongside Global Roots staff to support the needs of families. For instance, the Response Team provides support for families as they navigate finding housing, adjust to Ithaca’s very cold winters, and handle personal sources of life stress related to resettlement. Research shows that quality early childhood education can provide essential benefits to children of immigrants and refugees ranging from improved health, mental health, English language proficiency, and developing social and cognitive skills. But despite the proven benefits of high quality early childhood education, many immigrant and refugee families face barriers to accessing school for their children. The high cost of early childhood care, cost of transportation, and limited proficiency in English all result in difficulty navigating the early childhood education landscape. That is why our low cost, nearby location, and innovative intersectoral collaboration is so important to the overall success of our program.

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

One barrier to scaling that we are working on is the language barrier. Our program serves families who speak eleven different languages. Some parents are limited in their English language proficiency, and our staff does not speak the many languages spoken by the families we serve. Because of this, we sometimes have challenges in communication with parents. Family members and members of the ESL programs have been excellent resources for improving our cross-linguistic communication by serving as classroom volunteers and as volunteer translators during meetings with parents. While we are a small local project, we believe that our idea could be carried out in any welcoming community where immigrants and refugees live in the United States. In Colorado specifically, 8,123 refugees have resettled in the past 5 years (Oct 2012-Sept 2017), mostly in the cities of Denver and Aurora. The Spring Institute for Intercultural Learning, the main ESL provider in Denver, could serve as a potential partner for a pilot project. Nationally, our idea could advance and also serve as a model for the 100+ immigrant-friendly communities in the national Welcoming America network, which Ithaca Welcomes Refugees is a member of.

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

Global Roots Play School currently has a four-person staff, oversight from the board chair of IWR, and a committed team of three classroom volunteers (including one former ESL student). We were lucky to be able to open our program in a space that had previously been a nursery school for 60 years. This meant that basic furniture and classroom materials were already accounted for and we were able to open our doors with a relatively low overhead cost. We currently have the opportunity to use two classrooms, a large outdoor play space, and an indoor gym space. The ESL program of the Ithaca City School District is referring families to Global Roots Play School. We have sixteen families on our waiting list and we aspire to serve the needs of more refugee and immigrant families in our community. We would also like to connect with professionals across the country who are interested in replicating our idea. We are actively working to expand financial support for our program.

Business Viability: How viable is your business model? (5000 characters)

Global Roots Play School provides childcare at a truly affordable cost through our innovative business model. The reason immigrant and refugee parents weren't attending ESL class was because they lacked affordable, trusting, consistent childcare. Because our tuition cost is low, we rely on additional funding to cover operating costs. We have raised funds through an online Givegab campaign, through generous donations from local community organizations and individuals, and through receiving local grants. We are working on our long-term financial sustainability and looking into innovative avenues toward funding, including raising funds through impact-driven products. Our affordability is innovative. In NY state, early childhood programs that serve low-income families are required to operate for over three hours a day in order to qualify for DSS funding. We wanted to be able to provide a half-day program for the families we serve. Since many parents who have recently resettled do not yet have employment outside of the home, they have the flexibility to spend time after class with their young child. Transitioning to life in a new country is difficult, and time spent together provides both parent and child with a sense of family and belonging in their new home. Furthermore, research shows that a dual language learner’s home language is an asset that should be valued. Bilingual children are reported to have stronger working memories and a greater ability to think flexibly than monolingual learners. After a half-day in our classroom, children spend the rest of the day with a parent or other primary caregiver who speaks their home language. Most half-day early childhood programs are prohibitively expensive, resulting in limited options for low-income families. Federally funded early childhood programs such as Early Head Start are only available for families below the poverty line. This results in low-income families inhabiting separate early childhood spaces from families with higher incomes. Global Roots Play School values building an interconnected community, and we currently serve 3 Ithaca families who are not immigrants or refugees, and who do not need ESL classes. Our goal in including these 3 families, in addition to refugee and immigrant families, is to create a more integrated, inclusive community and to provide dual language learners with opportunities to hear and speak English with native English speakers. If chosen as a prize recipient, we will direct funds toward serving families on our waiting list and toward becoming a higher-performing organization with the power to sustain the meaningful change we are currently making. We believe our school makes a transformative impact on the lives of refugee and immigrant families in our community and we aspire to continue to create this lasting impact for years to come.

HCD: How have you used human centered design to build or refine your concept? (5000 characters)

Without realizing it, our idea sprouted from human centered design. It began with empathy and optimism. We first listened to the needs of the refugee and immigrant parents in our community who weren’t attending ESL class. They told us of their need for affordable childcare within walking distance from ESL class and we listened. Our nearby location is not merely convenient on a practical level, it is responsive to the emotional needs of recently resettled families who feel safer knowing they can get to their children on a moment's notice. We saw a problem in our community and had the optimism to try to solve it ourselves. As educators, we are experienced with the practice of human centered design. We listen to and observe children with empathy, we see possibilities for growth, we come up with ideas, we try ideas, we assess our successes and failures and we try again. We are always learning from our mistakes and continuing to grow. Our program is desirable for the families we serve and we know that because it grew from the needs that they voiced. We are continuing to seek feedback from families as we gather data from our first pilot year. Our program is feasible because we have a committed, competent staff. We are continuing to strengthen our business viability through fundraising campaigns and innovative strategies for creating revenue.

Tell us more about you (3000 characters)

Bronwyn Losey Bronwyn holds a Master’s degree in Early Childhood Development from the University of Rochester, and a Bachelor’s degree in Intercultural Studies and Social Change. Her 14 years of early childhood experience include teaching at IC3 in Ithaca and an English preschool in Russia, as well as managing a home group family daycare and an independent play school. Her passion is watching children form relationships and watching their curiosity run wild. “There is so much to learn from children when you move at their pace and let them take the lead.” Julie Coakley Julie has an M.Ed. in Early Childhood Education from Boston University and a B.A. in English from S.U.N.Y. at Buffalo. Her forty-four years in the early childhood field include teaching and administration in programs for children from birth through age seven, as well as providing professional development, coaching and mentoring for teachers of young children. She delights in discovering how to facilitate meaningful learning as she observes and listens to each child. Molly Alexander Molly has an M.S.Ed degree in Early Childhood General and Special Education from Bank Street College of Education and a B.A. in American Studies from Wesleyan University. Before moving to Ithaca, Molly taught for six years in linguistically and culturally diverse early childhood classrooms in New York City. Molly spent one year teaching in southern France, where many of her students were immigrants from Morocco and Algeria. She loves developing relationships with children and parents, and she is passionate about supporting young children as they grow. Molly has expertise in early childhood mental health and emotionally responsive practice. Amber Smith Amber has been working with young children for 25 years in daycare and nursery schools, as a nanny, and currently as the Executive Director of the Finger Lakes Toy Library and Early Childhood Specialist Consultant for the Family Reading Partnership. She has a BA in Child Development from Empire State College. Amber is passionate about bringing more open-ended play opportunities to the children of the Finger Lakes and loves observing children in their play. “Global Roots Play School is a wonderful new resource in our community. I am so happy to be a part of this family!” Julie Petrie Julie Petrie, Ithaca Welcomes Refugees Board Chair, has a Masters in Divinity and Bachelors in Anthropology and Asian Studies. Ms. Petrie has worked for a national refugee resettlement office as director of an intensive case management program serving vulnerable refugee arrivals to the United States. She has 22 years of experience in domestic and international humanitarian program design and implementation.

Do you have the people and partners you need to do what you’ve described? (600 characters)

We have a dedicated staff and strong partnerships with the IWR Board, IWR Response Project, Adult ESL programs at BOCES and TLP, dedicated volunteers— including former ESL students who want to give back to the community, and many other invested community members. We would like to expand our partnerships as we continue to grow. We would especially like to network with early childhood, adult ESL, and refugee resettlement professionals 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)

Expertise in language-based curriculum for young dual language learners would be especially helpful to us. We plan to continue to develop and deepen our practice of trauma-informed care and welcome expertise in this area. As we strengthen our two-generational approach to supporting the entire family we also welcome any support from professionals with this expertise. Our approach is innovative and based on our constant cycles of observation and assessment. Assessment tools would help us to evaluate our program’s efficacy and look for potential growth areas. We are currently working on developing cross-linguistic methods for collecting feedback from parents.

Are you willing to share your email contact information submitted on OpenIDEO with Gary Community Investments?

  • Yes, share my contact information

[Optional] Biography: Upload your biography. Please include links to relevant information (portfolio, LinkedIn profile, organization website, etc).

Mentorship: How was your idea supported? (5000 characters)

The Mentorship program was so helpful! Our mentor asked important clarifying questions and gave useful suggestions that led to a more precise focus on improving our proposal. After our conversation, we updated our proposal to highlight our program's mission and impact more effectively. We also started researching innovative fundraising solutions including the possibility of raising funds through impact-driven products.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Leisa Hirtz

Hi Molly, just stopping by to say congratulations on the wonderful work you do and your great submission. It's very impressive! Really and truly, best of luck.


Photo of Molly Alexander

Hi Leisa, thank you so much for taking the time to read our proposal and for your kind words and encouragement!
All the best,