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First Teacher: Parent-Led School-Readiness

Supported, connected parents/caregivers are the key to preparing all children to be school-ready and world-ready.

Photo of Dinah Shepherd
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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 has been an amazing process, not only in terms of the feedback we have received, but also reading other people's ideas and perspectives. Our ideas have not changed as much as the way we articulate our idea. Our mentors and others who took the time to read our profile made the following recommendations that we gratefully accepted: 1. We reigned in our passion (So hard!) and made sure to provide specific details about our programming and our outcomes. 2. We included more short testimonials from parents so that a wider audience could understand what First Teacher looks and feels like in action 3. We rethought which Innovation Target best characterizes First Teacher; while we had originally opted for "Network", First Teacher is also a "Platform" AND a "System Design." We wish we could have chosen multiple targets! (On a different topic, I really enjoyed talking with Laura Wallace from Maternity Care Coalition and thinking big about what it would mean to be a pass-through foundation for families; in other words, raising money to support individual parent's ideas to come to fruition. Money is often power, so that was a powerful idea to daydream about with Laura!)

Name or Organization

First Teacher


Currently Boston, MA (Neighborhoods rich in resilience, resourcefulness, and trauma)

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?

  • Full-scale roll-out: I have completed a pilot and analyzed the impact of that pilot on the users I am trying to reach with my idea. I am ready to expand the pilot significantly.

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

First Teacher is a game-changer on three levels: 1. Our youngest citizens from our most oppressed, dismissed communities will be prepared for school because their parents are supported to teach and learn together. We will simultaneously... 2. Shift people's mindsets from a social-service model to a social-capital model, while offering... 3. An effective and sustainable solution to a problem that circumvents the major policy/resource constraints facing the early childhood education field. We are tapping the most valuable and untapped stakeholders, parents!

Select an Innovation Target

  • Platform: Creating a community or market that facilitates interaction between users and resources.

Tell us more about your innovation (1500 characters)

First Teacher is a parent-led school-readiness movement built and lead by the same families who participate. Everything we do at FT connects to one of our two goals: 1. Support parents and caregivers in our role as our child's first, and most important teacher, as we prepare our children for success in kindergarten and beyond 2. Support parents and caregivers as we reweave a growing and supportive network and community with our families

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

Too many young children in our country are entering kindergarten unprepared: 39% of four-and-a-half and five-year-old children entering kindergarten in Boston are unprepared, both academically and social emotionally. This is a national problem created by our country's systemic racism, and the consequences of starting one's educational career already behind are staggering. In addition, First Teacher seeks to aggressively dispel the myth that Black and Brown children need to be saved by others.

Explain your idea (5000 characters)

First Teacher is a model that works because we follow these three principles to increase the number of children who are entering kindergarten prepared: 1. A social-capital vs social service model 2. An assets vs. deficits-based approach 3. A commitment to collaboratively building capacity on every level starting with the parent, who then builds the capacity of: our children, our extended family, our community, our neighborhood, and our schools. FT is a movement built and lead by the same families who participate. First Teacher families are Black, Brown, Cape Verdean, Caribbean, Somalian, and white. The majority of us are cash-poor, but some of us are middle-class professionals; this class diversity is one of the critical pieces of First Teacher. The FT movement is made up of parents and caregivers of 0-5 years olds who: • Are engaged in a supportive community that places parents and their power at the center of all we do • Have an improved competence and confidence in their role as their children's first teachers • Understand and capitalize on the everyday interactions that build their children's brains Working collaboratively, FT parents/caregivers hone their skills through participation in: • Workshops focused on parents sharing skills and strategies to build their children's language, literacy, social-emotional, and executive function skills (Topics include: playing outdoors, talking, healthy technology use, music and movement, sleep, art, exploring, reading, early numeracy, etc.) • Playdates focused on real-time building of social emotional skills and relationships • Engaging summer programming for the whole family, and more! First Teacher has been created, developed, and grown in two adjacent neighborhoods in Boston: Roxbury and North Dorchester, and almost all our recruiting has been through word-of-mouth. We grow slowly and deliberately, adding partnerships with families of 0-5 years olds through community organizations or schools that share our belief that parents are their child's first and most important teacher. Because we are guided by the belief that learning happens through relationships and community builds through connections, a key goal is that 100% of FT participants report feeling respected in our community. We use workshop surveys and attendance records to measure our success in creating a respectful environment. Through such records we learn if our participants like what we are doing enough to return and to bring new participants. Collecting such developmental data has helped us to assess, in our early years, whether our actions are working for participants. In our 3rd and 4th years we continue to gather such developmental data while also analyzing data that provides information on: 1. Whether parents/caregivers report an increase in confidence and competence in their role as their child’s first teacher 2. What increase parents/caregivers report in time spent talking, reading, exploring, modeling empathy, etc. with their young children. Mid- and end- of year surveys, focus groups, interviews and parent/caregiver reflections are the major sources of data we use to evaluate our progress towards achieving these goals. This year we plan to collect data to understand better the impact that our parent-centered work has on the school-readiness, both cognitive and social-emotional, of FT children. Our plan is to collect initial school report cards from FT children who have entered kindergarten this year. Each month, FT parent-leaders gather to plan. At these meetings, we refine our programming based on our own reflections and participant feedback. We also look together each month at data from attendance records and surveys at our multiple sites. This regular analysis of data by our core leadership has been a primary mechanism for learning and refining our movement as we grow. Here about it from a First Teacher parent: "... I learned little things like that...when we did FPW [Family Play Week], now when I travel with my kids I travel with a book, I travel with crayons and pencils, paper-- little activities to keep them calm and not wile them up-- its transformed my children to different kids...just by doing little things like that -- before my daughter would not sit down--now I'm getting the other end of it: "Your daughter is not being social enough...she sits down and is reading her books and coloring..."-- But then it's like--I look at myself-- and I am like damn-- like (talking through tears)--I tried so hard to get her here--like, she is not being socially awkward--this is the kid that I want-- have you seen [the movie] Matilda? How she just goes, regardless of the craziness mommy's going through--because you can get lost in books. It helps you grow your's always a lesson." K, mom to 2 kids, ages 7 and 4, Joined First Teacher 20 months ago (Walked in off the street, and asked, "What is this place? It looks like heaven!")

Who benefits? (1500 characters)

We all do: prepared kids become competent, engaged adults. Children that enter kindergarten prepared (both in terms of language/literacy and social-emotional skills), have "...higher rates of academic achievement, pro-social behavior, educational attainment." They also have lower rates of unemployment and "criminality." (Early Childhood Interventions: Karaly, Kilburn, and Cannon, 2005) In real time, the beneficiaries are: Parents/caregivers of children from birth-five who live in neighborhoods that are cash-poor and resilience-rich. The children of the above Local schools that will welcome our children to their kindergarten classes Communities where First Teacher parents and our children live The benefits of being a part of the FT movement are innumerable, but center most on 1. feeling supported and part of a larger, stronger network and 2. being armed with strategies, knowledge, information, advice and ideas about how to prepare our children for success in kindergarten and beyond. 75% of our founding staff members are parents from communities where FT is thriving, and we hire only from FT parent cohorts. We ARE our beneficiaries. This is one of the things that differentiates us from other "parenting programs." When asked why she chose to work at First Teacher after participating in the movement, N said, "I was a child that was left behind. I refuse to let that happen to my children." First Teacher is a community where parents discover their agency.

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

What would it mean if every child entered school prepared because every parent knew and exercised their power as their child's first, and most important, teacher? What if every parent knew that their power to teach their children came in the everyday interactions that often seem so tedious? (Ex: Waiting for the bus? Count read cars! Colors + early numeracy!) What if every parent had a place to go where he/she knew he/she would be hugged and listened to, and even that other parents would learn from him/her that day? What if schools, foundations, government organizations so insidious in every cash-poor neighborhood of color recognized parents as the powerful change agent in their children's lives that they truly are? What is parents taught each other their true agency? Systems everywhere could topple and rebuild. At First Teacher, we assume every neighborhood is made up of parents that have skills, strategies, knowledge to share; we create nonjudgmental, supportive spaces and structures (FT programming) where parents can teach and learn together. Hear it from a First Teacher parent: "I was not communicative before First Teacher, especially with G...having an IEP...Before I was a little quiet until I realized , you know, no one is going to be able to help if I don't speak up and say the things that are wrong and if I don't call people out on what they are doing wrong." O, mom to 2 children, ages 3 and 5, Joined First Teacher 14 months ago (Lives upstairs from our office)

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

First Teacher was deliberately and singularly founded in cash-poor neighborhoods of color, as these are the families that are coping with the most barriers. These deliberate barriers, stemming from our country's history of racism, often lead Black and Brown parents to feel less powerful and to believe they lack agency. When surrounded by a mixed-class peer-group, and when given the space to teach and share with others, the same parents are able to actualize their own power. Hear it from a First Teacher parent: "Honestly I feel like First Teacher is like a circle in the middle a piece of paper and there are...a whole bunch of lines with different connections. One day [at] First Teacher, I met this lady there named C and she was starting a Sisterhood Empowering Healing group and I've been going to that since I think last November...almost a year now. And yeah, I feel like there's so many different connections that I have been able to create and different opportunities that I have been able to look into because of First Teacher." A, mom to 2 children, ages 1 and 3, joined First Teacher 18 months ago (Heard about us from a friend) We love that A does not talk about what she was "given" or how she was "served" at First Teacher; rather, she explains what SHE has been able to do for herself with support from the First Teacher community. Again, agency and power.

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

When A, a young mom of two said, "First Teacher is the first place where I took a breath" we realized this captures how different FT is from so many other organizations across our country. One reason parents feel so at ease here is because this is a movement they have helped to build. As S, a grandmother raising three grandchildren under age 7 says, “I like that there are no outside people, no administrators or people telling you what you need to do and how you need to do it. Instead it is a group of parents and parent support and suggestions on how to work with your children in ways that other programs may not talk about. We, the participants, have more closeness amongst each other. I like the convenience of the program. .. Also, there are no late fees, if you come in late to the program or workshop you won’t be charged for it. This is a place where children AND families learn." From the beginning, we have asked FT parents like S for feedback at every turn. We spent our first 2 years solely collection developmental data. We made a choice to build relationships before asking parents for data, as so many Black and Brown families in Boston are constantly asked to give data everywhere they go -- and how often does it actually benefit them? Our first two years, we only asked these 4 questions after every single FT workshop, playdate, etc: 1. Did you feel respected? 2. Did you learn something new? 3. What is one thing you will try differently with your child(ren) after today's programming? 4. What could we do to make this (workshop, playdate, event, etc.) better? Using this data that was focused in, not out, we have been able to make changes that better accommodate parents' needs and wants. Some of the change we made: 1. We moved from wanting to facilitate one-on-one home visits to playdates. When we convened a group of parents to ask if they would like home-visits, it was quickly apparent that many of them already were engaged in home visits through other organizations, and what they would like instead was time for kids to get together to play while parents could meet each other. That is why we now facilitate two playdates a month -- one in English and one in Spanish. 2. We changed our workshops from weekend mornings to weekday evenings; families said they would like to be with their children on the weekends, but need a break from them during the week! 3. We began partnering with families living in scatted-site homeless shelters when parents were struggling to get to our office because of prohibitive transportation costs (and the major hassle of packing up sometimes multiple kids to take the bus across town...) Once we went to them, many more families were able to engage and then joined the larger FT movement, engaging with other FT families. 4. Across the board, all our programming has become less structured, as we truly assume that parents are coming to FT with knowledge, skills, and power to share. They are not empty vessels waiting for us to fill them. When we look back at our workshops from 4 years ago, we cringe at the amount of information and simply WORDS that are in our presentations. Today, our workshops are almost entirely questions, creating time and space for parents to share what they know, not the other way around. (With the exception of brain science, care of Harvard's Center for the Developing Child because we are all enamored by the enigmatic and stunning brain!) Another reason why families can breathe at FT is because of our core values that center around being supportive and nonjudgmental. If someone is scared or anxious or worried they will be judged, they do not feel free to try new things, take risks, and open up to their peers. None of us can teach or learn when we are feeling under attack. Because so many parents -- both parent participants and paid parent leaders -- feel ownership of the First Teacher movement, scaling in Boston will be an organic and authentic process. We use FT families' connections to identify our next sites. For example, three FT parents send their children to an early learning center down the street, and kept telling us, "Come to the Haynes! There are so many great parents there!" A year later, the Haynes Early Education Center is our 3rd site. FT is ready to grow and GO where families want us. An investment from Gary Community Investments would enable us not only to develop and pilot our Total School Readiness model in 4 elementary schools with K0 classrooms over the next three years (Children must be 3 to enter K0), but also to develop an operational manual to teach others how to start their own FT movement in their own neighborhood. It is critical that FT comes from within a community, and we are excited to teach others about our model so that they can develop something with the same core values that is more responsive to the needs and wants of families in their own community, all across the country.

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

Key ingredients necessary for any community throughout the country to start their own FT movement: 1. A core of highly engaged parents from the community. When we started FT, we inadvertently followed the 20-60-20 rule of change: first, connect with the 20% of parents that are already highly engaged and know what they want/need from a community of other parents; then, rely on those 20% to help you recruit the next 60%, who would really need to hear from a trusted source that First Teacher is legit. Finally, think creatively with the 80% about how to connect with the 20% of families that are so traumatized and mired in racism and its corresponding poverty that they will be less likely to want to join anything. 2. Research on what it takes for a child to be school-ready, combined with brain research, and parent facilitators that know how to connect with a group of their peers 3. A warm, welcoming space for parents to be with their children AND spend time away from them while they are with competent childcare providers. Once founding FT movements are ready to grow past founding cohort of families, they must partner with like-minded community organizations/local elementary schools to connect with new families. Significant funding at this critical point will enable us to create info networks throughout the country while honing our Total School Readiness model in Boston, partnering with families and leadership in local schools to own the readiness of all children.

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

Since we started programming in April 2014, we have grown from: 4 families to 100+ families actively participating in the FT movement 1 site to 4 sites Parent-led workshops to: parent-ledworkshops, play dates, drop-in play, Fun Fairs, family yoga with our amazing partner, Hands to Hearts Yoga, and 2 weeks of engaging summer programming for the whole family. A budget of $91,000 to $250,000. Our social media presence 8 parents with a good idea to a paid staff of 9 parents, all of whom are either founders or were hired from a previous FT parent cohort. Consistent data that shows that 99% of FT families feel respected at every FT event and 95% of FT parents/caregivers learn something new at every FT workshop Our plans: Ultimately, we would love to grow in three ways: 1. Partner with elementary schools that start with kids at age 3 (called K0 in Boston) so that neighboring families with new babies could join the First Teacher cohort at that school, already getting themselves and their children comfortable and confident in a school environment. Over the next 3 years, we will partner with families in 4 elementary schools in our neighborhood, Roxbury. 2. Scale by connecting with parents in neighborhoods all over the country that are interested in founding their own First Teacher. This is not a movement where we can pick up and start something in a neighborhood that is not our own, but we can certainly teach our model to parents/caregivers that are leaders in their own communities and want to start First Teacher. Over the next 3-5 years, we are open to supporting families in at least 2 other states as they build their own FT movement. 3. Prove our impact through parent-centered Participatory Action Research. We will not be another place studying people -- they can study themselves! In terms of becoming more financially stable, we will use a partial fee-for-service model, asking for commitments of $10,000 from each school community. As we have grown, our budget has shifted from heavy foundation support and light individual investors support to the opposite. We believe that, while foundation funding is critical, our parents supporting parents programming model should be mirrored through our fundraising model. By 2021, 50% of our funding will come from parents and caregivers that believe in the power of their peers in other neighbors and understand the importance of shifting resources in our neighborhoods.

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

First Teacher is very viable because: 1. Our number one stakeholders are parents, who need no convincing when it comes to the power of brain science and a trusted network of peers and their shared knowledge. 2. Our number two stakeholders are schools, who need support as the expectations placed upon them are untenable; we will need to work hard to prove our model is effective, as schools -- especially in cash-poor communities of color -- are often deluged with the promise of effective partnerships. That is why part of our model will be a First Teacher parent leader who will be in the school one day a week to connect with families and build our partnership with families and the school leadership. When the responsibility of developing a partnership falls solely on school leadership, it rarely comes to fruition because the school leaders are already stretched too thin. 3. Our model is incredibly affordable, especially when compared with the cost of later interventions. Our Total School Readiness model costs a school less about $10,000 (We raise the other $20,000), regardless of the number of families that participate. In our partnerships with families outside of schools, First Teacher currently costs about $1200 per family, per year. (Families do not pay this fee; we raise it. It is important to note, though, that many First Teacher families do financially support First Teacher every year.) Our number one barrier is systemic: It is challenging to "sell" a social-capital model in a social-service world.

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

In design-thinking terms, everything about First Teacher is user-designed and user-driven.

Tell us more about you (3000 characters)

As the founding executive director of First Teacher (Dinah Shepherd), my personal experience mimics those of many teachers, almost all of whom have started a sentence with, “If only we had our students earlier…” After two years teaching high school, I shifted to teaching literacy at the middle-school level in Roxbury. During my 11 years teaching middle school, I taught 6th graders critical thinking skills simultaneously with more rudimentary skills like knowing that the name on the front cover of a book signified the author. The gap was painfully clear, as was the fact that my students in no way lacked intelligence or capability. Add to this equation the births of my own privileged, white sons, and about 18 months later, their language explosions. The urgency of starting earlier, beginning at the beginning with families, was further solidified by powerful research on the baby brain. Concurrently during my tenure teaching middle school, I identified a critical missing role that I could not fill: mentoring Black and Latino middle school boys. I sought out committed men of color from the community to start Real Men Read, a literacy-based mentoring program currently in its 10th year. This experience highlighted two of my strengths: bringing people together and identifying untapped resources. The idea behind First Teacher is similar to that of Real Men Read: the expertise and experts already exist in the community. To that end, I asked a handful of my one-time students’ parents to found and build First Teacher with me. From day one, passionate, skilled, and engaged Black and Brown parents from Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan have built and sustained every aspect of First Teacher. As a dedicated and passionate teacher, I believed that we simply needed access to students earlier. I know now that it is parents and caregivers who need information and support earlier in their children’s development since they are their children’s first and most critical teachers. From the time we founded First Teacher, we said that by year five, we would not have a sole, white Executive Director. I am thrilled to report that, in July 2018, at the start of our fifth year, we will move to a Co-Director model, and I will be co-leading with Shantae Toole, a co-founder of First Teacher, mom of three, long-time public school teacher, and our current part-time Director of Operations. While we are both nervous, we know this is the right move, and are committed to ensuring the authenticity, power, and sustainability of the powerful First Teacher movement.

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

Yes! Our greatest partners are obviously FT families. Almost all our recruiting has happened by word-of-mouth because "parenting programs" come with so many stigmas that people need to hear from someone they trust that First Teacher is different. We also partner with amazing community organizations, Boston Public Schools, local libraries, etc. We believe in collaboration, not competition. As we grow, we will be looking for like-minded cash-poor communities of color that feel First Teacher is the right movement for their community.

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)

Our dream is to ultimately and solely be funded by individuals, as that fits our model of parents supporting parents. We need help creating systems of tracking and outreach.

Would you like mentoring support?

  • Yes

If so, what type of mentoring support do you think you need? (1200 characters)

After talking with our two mentors, it is clear the support we need moving forward is in creating an operational manual that begins to document the what, why, and how of First Teacher. This is something we will ask our Advisory Council to help with, and will also reach out to strategic planning coaches. This will enable interested families everywhere to develop their own First Teacher cohorts.

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).

[Optional] Attachments: Please upload relevant attachments or graphics or show us how you prototyped.

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

Truthfully, I was skeptical about how much we could learn from an hour-long conversation. I couldn't have been more wrong! Our two mentors -- John Konsin (Go, Prapela, LLC!) and Wayee Chu (Reach Capital: Investor in Education Technology Start-ups) were unbelievably supportive and helpful. We made significant changes based on their feedback. John patiently brought us through each section of our profile and recommended ways to be more concise. He recommended honing in on our strategies and principles that, when present, will provide a strong foundation for First Teacher anywhere in the country. He also gave us the very technical and helpful feedback that people's brains can really only digest three bullets or information at a time, so we cut back! Wayee provided a ton of information in only an hour. Not only is she a seasoned non-profit expert, she is also a business woman, and that combination of skill sets is rare and invaluable. Wayee recommended that we emphasize how parent-driven and parent-led means that we are user-driven and user-lead. She also felt strongly that we should be working on our plan of what this COULD look like in other states, and that that would entail documenting not only how we have built First Teacher, but also, how our later versions of the First Teacher model incorporated our user-feedback to evolve. Hearing from Wayee with her funder hat on was also incredibly helpful. She was candid about some approaches funders get wrong, but she also gave some very concrete feedback on what a funder would be looking for. Finally, Wayee asked, "Where are the parent voices in your profile?" We went back in and added parents' words and reflections and they, of course, made our story much more powerful. Both Wayee and John recommended I be less wordy in our description of First Teacher; as you can see, that is a work in progress! In terms of next steps, both Wayee and John offered to continuing supporting First Teacher's development. John even invited me to his next pitch for his NextGen Baby Box so that I can benefit from hearing the feedback he receives. John and Wayee were generous with their time, energy, and ideas.

Name or Organization

Third Sector New England: f/b/o First Teacher (Third Sector New England is our fiscal sponsor)


Boston, Massachusetts USA

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?

  • Full-scale roll-out: I have completed a pilot and analyzed the impact of that pilot on the users I am trying to reach with my idea. I am ready to expand the pilot significantly.

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Photo of May Aldwais

Parents are the child 's first teacher this is well said in the video. Love the idea but how do you plan to keep the parents involved? Thanks and good luck!

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