Mayor’s Office

Mayor Miro Weinberger Announces Major Burlington Early Learning Initiative Pilot


February 12, 2015
Contact:  Mike Kanarick

Mayor Miro Weinberger Announces Major Burlington Early Learning Initiative Pilot

Releases White Paper Outlining City’s Early Learning Challenges and a Pilot Solution,
Announces Initial $122,000 Philanthropic Contribution, Names Advisory Board to Lead Effort

Burlington, VT – Mayor Miro Weinberger, accompanied by Governor Peter Shumlin and other community leaders, today announced a partnership with the Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children, the State Department of Health, the Burlington School District (BSD), and the Visiting Nurse Association (VNA) to create and implement a major new Burlington Early Learning Initiative.  The initiative is focused on improving kindergarten readiness for Burlington children, reducing special education and other public spending over time, and breaking the cycle of multi-generational poverty.   The multi-year pilot initiative will involve three major components that together demonstrably have improved education outcomes for children in other cities - home visiting for pregnant mothers and new parents, scholarships for high-quality child care, and rigorous evaluation.  The Permanent Fund has committed $122,000 of private philanthropic funds for the next stage of planning that will move the initiative from concept to implementation in 2016.  The Mayor also named an advisory board to lead the multi-year pilot, which is expected to be financed by additional philanthropic contributions and existing state and federal funds.


“Children born into poverty in our society face major challenges well before they enter the public school system,” said Mayor Weinberger during today’s announcement at the VNA Family Room in Burlington’s Old North End neighborhood. “Our goal in launching a Burlington Early Learning Initiative is nothing short of ensuring that all Burlington children have the opportunity to lead full, healthy, and successful lives.  This new focus on our youngest Burlingtonians will improve education and health outcomes, counteract the disadvantages that burden our poorest children, and use our public resources more effectively.”


“I am pleased with Burlington’s effort to work with the State and convert our success at securing federal grant dollars into tangible, on-the-ground improvements in peoples’ lives,” said Governor Shumlin. “This is the kind of innovative approach that can help our children without increasing the burden on taxpayers.”


“The Permanent Fund for Vermont's Children is pleased to invest in these integrated community and family-based services, which will demonstrate to Vermonters that a strong foundation built upon quality early experiences for our children leads to kindergarten readiness, school success, and, ultimately, contributes to a trained workforce and a strong economy,” said Rick Davis, Co-Founder and President of the Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children. “Mayor Weinberger and his team can offer the strong leadership and collaboration the Permanent Fund believes is essential to transform the early childhood system in Burlington."


Major Components of the Initiative


Over the next several months, with the support from the Permanent Fund for necessary staff capacity and research, the Mayor’s Advisory Board will assist with refining the design of the pilot and implementing it.  The number of children and families to be served during pilot will be determined in consultation with the Advisory Board.  The major components of the initiative are:


  • Evidence-Based Home Visiting: The home visiting component of the pilot will be offered to pregnant mothers and new parents or guardians living in the City.  This component will focus on teaching new parents about brain development, mentoring parents about what constitutes high-quality early education and care—and how to advocate for it—and educating parents about available enrichment opportunities for their children, including playgroups, parenting resources, museums, libraries, early education programs, and others.  Home visiting allows the pilot effort to make contact with the greatest number of parents and babies, assess their needs, and serve as an effective recruiting tool for families eligible for the scholarship portion of the program.  This component is anticipated to be implemented by January 2016.


  • Scholarships for High-Quality Early Education and Care: Participating families who have an annual income less than or equal to 185 percent of the federal poverty level will have the opportunity to enroll their children in a high-quality program for at least 12 and up to 35 hours per week, year-round. The pilot’s scholarship fund is intended to help address the gap in cost between any subsidy the family may receive and the full cost of the program or tuition set by the program.  Scholarships are designed to follow the child and should help guarantee placement of that child for the full year no matter the family’s subsidy eligibility status.  This component is anticipated to be implemented by fall 2016. 


  • Measurement: The results of the pilot will be rigorously collected and evaluated.  This evaluation will include assessing the impact of the pilot on kindergarten readiness and third grade reading proficiency, key nationally accepted benchmarks. 


Philanthropic Support, Technical Assistance, and Timeline


The pilot initiative will support the good work of many care providers already underway in the City and will not increase the burden on City taxpayers.  Rather, the pilot will rely on philanthropic funding to demonstrate the initiative’s effectiveness with a goal of drawing on a potential array of sustainable funding sources in future years.  The initial philanthropic funding from the Permanent Fund provides the resources to move the project from its current conceptual stage to implementation.  Over the next few months, an Advisory Board named by Mayor Weinberger will continue to conduct due diligence on the proposed model, data, and capacity issues and facilitate the implementation of home-visiting by January 2016 and the scholarship model by fall 2016.


This effort would not be possible without the advice and technical assistance received from representatives of the Governor’s Office, the Agency of Human Services (AHS) Department of Health, and the Agency of Education (AOE).  Building Bright Futures (BBF), the non-profit charged with aligning work across the State and within 12 regional councils to improve access, quality, and affordability of early childhood resources, also has been instrumental in developing this pilot initiative and gathering the necessary data.


“The Vermont Department of Health’s Division of Maternal and Child Health (MCH) enthusiastically supports the City of Burlington in this early childhood education pilot program as a major initiative to improve the health and welfare of young families and children,” said Dr. Breena Holmes, Director of MCH. “We in Vermont are so fortunate that, in addition to the City’s leadership, our state and national policy makers are also investing in early childhood. We at the Health Department will work with partners at all levels to coordinate on these innovative programs to insure optimal outcomes for families.”

“This effort holds great potential for Burlington’s children,” said Julie Coffey, Executive Director of BBF. “BBF is pleased to be working with the Mayor to align the work in Burlington with other work underway across the State to make sure these resources are used effectively to help improve education outcomes.”


Pilot Design and White Paper


The pilot design is based on concepts proposed in a white paper, titled “Burlington Beginnings: A White Paper on a Comprehensive, Coordinated Sustainable Early Learning Initiative,” produced through a partnership involving the City, the United Way of Chittenden County, and philanthropic support.  Jessica Nordhaus, an experienced educator, entrepreneur, consultant, and Partnership for Change Steering Committee Member, wrote the paper based on extensive outreach to stakeholders in Burlington’s early childhood education system, input from the Mayor, and a review of different early childhood models employed across the country. 


The white paper details the challenge in the City, acknowledging that “…despite a robust network of service organizations and supportive programming in Burlington, we have not been able to break the cycle of poverty that so many families live in for generations.”  In Burlington, disadvantages associated with socio-economic status become harder to change over time.  By third grade, only about 50 percent of those children eligible for free or reduced lunch are able to read at grade level, while more than 70 percent of their peers not on similar lunch programs have reached that benchmark.  By eighth grade, while only 60 percent of the children eligible for free or reduced lunch are reading at grade level, more than 90 percent of their peers not on similar lunch programs have met or surpassed that threshold. These poorer children then graduate at an unusually low rate, earn less as adults, suffer higher rates of incarceration and drug use, and experience a far lower life expectancy.


However, research in recent years has demonstrated that strategic investments in high-quality child care for children from birth to age five can eliminate the learning gap between poor children and their peers and create enormous public returns on investment over time.  With reference to this research and the experience of other communities, the white paper proposes a model for Burlington drawn in part from St. Paul, Minnesota.  In St. Paul, an effort led by the former research director of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, Art Rolnick, Ph.D., used a combination of methods – home visiting, scholarships for high-quality care, and rigorous evaluation – to improve educational outcomes.  Through his work and research, Dr. Rolnick has calculated that strategic investments in early childhood education can yield a 16 percent annualized return on investment by reducing special education and other public spending requirements substantially over time.


When apprised of Mayor Weinberger’s effort in Burlington, Dr. Rolnick, now affiliated with the University of Minnesota, offered the following statement about the important impacts of investments in early childhood education:  “I am very encouraged that the City of Burlington is willing to invest in early childhood education and health.  The neuroscience and economic research is overwhelming: Investing in early childhood education, for our most vulnerable children, has an extraordinary public return.  Research shows that when new parents are provided home visiting mentors, starting as early as prenatal, and access to high-quality early learning programs, their children start school healthy and ready to learn.  And when children start school healthy and ready to learn, they are less likely to need special education and be retained in a grade; and they are more likely to be literate by the sixth grade, graduate high school, start a family and become productive and law abiding citizens.”


Community Response


A number of representatives from different community organizations offered support for the effort:


“As it should, this has already proven to be a collaborative effort that will support much of the good work already underway in the community and seek to fill important gaps in assistance,” said Diana Langston, Director of the Burlington School District’s Essential Early Education Center. “I look forward to working with the City and many other community partners to advance this work intended to improve education outcomes for our children.”


“The VNA has long had a strong commitment to the health and well-being of families and children by providing care in their homes and through playgroups, preschool and parenting classes at our Family Room,” said Judy Peterson, President and CEO of VNA of Chittenden and Grand Isle Counties.  “We do this because we know how valuable support for the whole family is during these important first years of rapid growth and development.  The VNA wants to thank and recognize the Mayor and his team for making this investment a priority for our community, and we look forward to being a part of this initiative.”


“The Boys & Girls Club of Burlington has been serving area youth since 1942,” said Mary Alice McKenzie, Executive Director of the Boys & Girls Club of Burlington.  “A new focus on and new resources for early childhood education is critical to helping us achieve our mission of inspiring and enabling community youth to realize their full potential as productive, healthy, responsible, and caring citizens. I am glad to see broad support for this effort across our community.”


“Smart investments, like the investments in high-quality early learning programs contemplated here, can help decrease incidents of crime, reduce the costs associated with the criminal justice system, and save taxpayers money,” said Chittenden County State’s Attorney TJ Donovan.  “I am encouraged by what is being considered in Burlington, and support this important effort to help the youngest and most vulnerable in our community.”


“This work is about strengthening our schools and our community,” said Ward 4 City Councilor Dave Hartnett. “This initiative is focused on helping families that are trying to make ends meet and do what is best for their children.  We know from research on brain development that when we take action at an early age, we see far better outcomes for our children later in life.  This is important work, and I’m glad to see it is being set up in a way that will not add to the burden on the City’s taxpayers.”


Additional Background


Today’s announcement was the product of substantial work by many in our community.  In summer 2013, Mayor Weinberger attended a Mayors Innovation Project conference in Oak Park, IL that included a presentation by Dr. Rolnick focused on the potential social and economic returns associated with strategic investments in early childhood education. At the beginning of 2014, Mayor Weinberger secured an anonymous gift to the United Way to support the research necessary to understand Burlington’s early learning landscape and evaluate approaches for a way forward. 


As part of that effort, Jessica Nordhaus conducted extensive interviews and coordinated three stakeholder meetings through the first half of 2014 to solicit input from parents, childcare providers, practitioners from the education and health communities, advocates, early education specialists, impacted community organizations from Spectrum to the United Way, advocates, state and local officials, and community members about the challenges of early childhood education in Burlington.  These stakeholder meetings included a presentation from former Oak Park, IL Mayor David Pope on the success of the early learning initiative developed in Oak Park, and extensive collaboration across the Burlington early learning community to better understand the local situation.  In fall 2013, the Mayor’s Office worked to coordinate the community findings with State partners to ensure the pilot initiative was aligned with other State efforts.


In addition researching the St. Paul early learning model, other reviewed models included: Oak Park, IL; Salt Lake City, UT; San Antonio, TX and Oklahoma’s statewide effort to provide free prekindergarten to all four year-olds.  In Utah, the local United Way partnered with the school district and a nationally prominent investment firm to create an early education program and an associated study to demonstrate savings to the State.  The study found that 30 percent of low-income three–year-olds ended up in special education programs in Utah, but 95 percent of those involved in the early education initiative avoided special education requirements, saving Utah about $2,600 per child each year. 


*Please see the following documents by clicking on the links below:


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