In 2019, Regional Opportunity Initiatives (ROI), in collaboration with the Community Foundation of Bloomington and Monroe County and Monroe Smart Start, began exploring the potential of elevating the child care ecosystem across the Indiana Uplands with a series of activities customized to each of the region’s 11 counties (Brown, Crawford, Daviess, Dubois, Greene, Lawrence, Martin, Monroe, Orange, Owen, and Washington).

According to Brighter Futures Indiana, only 44% of the nearly 16,000 children under six in the Indiana Uplands region can be served by existing early care and education programs. Even fewer of these children are served in high-quality programs, a designation that only 40% of local programs have received (Paths to QUALITY Levels 3 & 4). 

The Ready Early Learning in the Uplands initiative was launched with three primary goals: 

  1. Increase high-quality early learning opportunities for children in the region 
  2. Identify regional early learning goals and agreed upon core competencies that will inform a regional plan for advancing early learning.
  3. Help to ensure children in our region are better prepared for success in school and life.

Ready Early Learning in the Uplands is a program of Monroe Smart Start, a leadership initiative of the Community Foundation of Bloomington and Monroe County. Since 2009, Monroe Smart Start has worked to promote early childhood education in Monroe County by increasing access to high-quality early learning experiences, facilitating professional development for educators, promoting family engagement and community partnerships, and participating in early learning advocacy.

A transformative 2020 grant from IU Health’s Community Impact Investment (CII) Fund and Early Learning Indiana for $405,000 enabled three Uplands county community foundations (Lawrence, Monroe, and Orange) and the Community Foundation of Morgan County to work with Monroe Smart Start to launch the Ready Early Learning in the Uplands program. Follow-on grant funding ($26,127.00) was also provided by Ready Communities, a program of ROI, to allow Martin County Community Foundation to participate in the program’s first round of activities.

Working with Monroe Smart Start, ROI, and Transform Consulting Group, these community foundations were able to convene stakeholders, gather data, conduct gap and opportunity analyses, and develop early learning strategic plans customized to their local needs. Implementation funding was also deployed to create community and family marketing materials, purchase equipment to expand child care capacity, allow participation in professional development activities for early childhood educators, and other items to advance local childcare. 

The Ready Early Learning in the Uplands initiative achieved significant early successes, including:

  • Engaging 150 stakeholders from five counties to form or advance early childhood education coalitions 
  • Creating 193 new childcare seats through implementation funding 
  • Increasing child care quality among Quality Cohort participants, affording 61% of children served by higher quality program designations 
  • Ten childcare programs advanced in Indiana’s Paths to QUALITY rating system, and one Head Start program earned national accreditation

In late 2023, Regional Opportunity Initiatives awarded an additional $275,000 grant to  Monroe Smart Start to expand the Ready Early Learning in the Uplands initiative’s planning activities to all 11 counties. Simultaneously, the Community Foundation of Bloomington and Monroe County was awarded a $45,000 Lilly Endowment GIFT VIII Community Leadership Planning Grant on behalf of the Uplands region to support a regional approach to collectively assess and advance early learning capacity and quality in the Uplands. 

In late December, Monroe Smart Start and ROI kicked off this new phase of the Ready Early Learning in the Uplands initiative with a summit of local stakeholders, childcare providers, and employers to begin thinking about their next steps to advance local early education. Design work is currently underway to create and update county-level early learning strategic plans. In addition to local plans, Monroe Smart Start and Transform Consulting Group are collaborating on a regional early learning plan that builds upon local strategies under development. 

Early learning stakeholders from across the region will reconvene in February to share updated plans and findings from their design thinking work.

In April, Monroe Smart Start and the Community Foundation of Bloomington and Monroe County, in collaboration with each of the region’s 11 community foundations, will develop a concept paper that may lead to an opportunity to apply for implementation funding that might support the Ready Early Learning in the Uplands initiative as part of the Lilly Endowment Community Leadership Implementation Grant program.

For more information on how to get involved with Ready Early Learning in your Uplands community, reach out to your county’s community foundation.