A Game-Changer for Early Education

It all started with eight brown bag lunches.

Like many system-shocking ideas, this one germinated in modest conditions. The year was 2004. The venue was the “Rose Room” in the old United Way office, a plain old meeting area given its nickname because of the floral stenciling that ran the perimeter of the room. There, for the first time, a handful of executive directors from United Way-supported child care and Head Start programs met around a table to do one simple thing: talk.

“What we did was create the space for a conversation to happen,” said Lauren Wool, United Way’s Director of Community Impact. “At United Way, we asked ourselves what we were hearing from our partners and the main thing was that directors are overwhelmed and they didn’t have a regular opportunity to talk to each other.”

This informal gathering ultimately gained its own name, Partnership for Effective Early Learning (PEEL). Meetings happened monthly, with Wool facilitating and all topics were on the table: fundraising, revenue, expenses, staff development, logic models and day-to-day operations.

Executive Directors for Child Care centers are a unique breed, essentially human Swiss Army Knives for organizations that are often strapped for resources. Need to write a parent newsletter? Click. Toilet’s clogged with a Duplo brick? Click. Lunch has to be prepared because the cook is on vacation? Click. PEEL offered a safe, let-it-rip locale for these Jills-of-all-Trades to chat up challenges, best practices and long and short-term strategies.

“It was a real gift to us to talk about our impact,” said Jackie Cowell, the Executive Director of Early Learning New Hampshire, who at the time was Executive Director for Community Child Care Center in Portsmouth. “We talked about everything. You could see the burdens lifted off their shoulders.”

“In some areas, every single one of us had aptitudes,” said Cellissa Hoyt, Executive Director of Growing Places. “We could shore up our weaknesses by learning from each other’s strengths. Even though we’ve all been working in a vastly under-resourced field for a very long time, we were never going to give up. We were going to find ways to strengthen our programs.”

This simple idea of sitting together and talking ultimately transformed into something more official, backed by funding from United Way and the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, built to do something audacious: change the way early learning does business in this region – and perhaps the Granite State.

In 2007, grant funding paid for a consultant to look at budgets for the member agencies and develop an implementation plan which, in 2009, would lead to the creation of the Seacoast Early Learning Alliance (SELA). A larger United Way Strategic Impact grant allowed the group to hire a project director. Next, SELA contracted with two companies: CCA for Social Good, a web platform that provided purchase savings and quality improvement tools and Great North Property Management, which spun off a subsidiary, Great North Advantage, to offer front-line expertise the programs rarely had in-house.

Instead of individual agencies trying to navigate the often murky (and sometimes ambivalent) world of program management, SELA members marshalled their combined buying power to become a single, high-leverage client. Vendors took notice, market-based competition kicked into fifth gear and the savings poured in. For these executive directors, the game had been changed forever.

“They realized the leverage they had,” says Wool. “In the beginning SELA represented $11 million worth of business to buy things like of milk and bread and paper and so on – and realized collective buying power and savings overnight.”

Today, that number is over $30 million.  The 23 agencies that comprise SELA in 2015 see savings up to 25% through CCA for Social Good for their purchasing and with Great North Advantage no longer have to worry about contracts, insurance, trash removal and other facility services. If SELA can hit its ultimate goal of 200 members, that figure rockets to $450 million worth of purchasing power.

“Before SELA, we just didn’t represent enough billable work,” says Hoyt, who also serves as the SELA Project Director. “It was always a challenge to get someone to respond.”

Despite the “Seacoast” in the SELA name, the group believes so strongly in its approach, they’ve taken it on the road. To date, 70 child care centers from Maine and Vermont have signed on. This June, Wool, Hoyt and Cowell presented the SELA model at the National Shared Services Conference in San Francisco.

The end result of all of it, the networking, the buying capability, the economies of scale, is and always has been the little faces in circle time. Savings are pumped directly into the classroom, through program investment and staff development and quality improvements that benefit kids.

“Thanks to SELA, these agencies aren’t in it alone anymore,” says Wool. “Whether they have enrollments of 35 or 350, they’re on an even playing field. The quality of early education in our region has never been higher, thanks in large part to SELA.”

“We are not done,” says Hoyt. “We can offer this to more programs and add more benefits and services. There is recognition bubbling up for the importance of the early childhood field and we know this can leverage more resources into programs that help them focus on what really matters—the children.”