14 St. Louisans, Educators, and Parents Commit to Reimagine and Redesign Early Childhood Education

The inaugural cohort of Tomorrow Builders. Photo by Izaiah Johnson.

The inaugural cohort of Tomorrow Builders. Photo by Izaiah Johnson.

WEPOWER is thrilled to announce the inaugural cohort of the Tomorrow Builders Fellowship. Over the next two years, the 14 fellows will reimagine and redesign the region’s early childhood education (ECE) system to be more equitable and innovative.

This work is necessary—94,000 ECE-age kids in STL city and county are growing up in a fractured system. The Ferguson Commission’s signature priorities and the For the Sake of All landmark report highlight the need for investment and innovation in the early childhood education sphere. “We cannot keep leaving those closest and most impacted out of the conversation,” says Joey Saunders, director of the fellowship.

“Our region has a real opportunity to strengthen a system that will yield huge returns for us all, and it starts with a community of changemakers courageous enough to imagine a radically different future,” says CEO and founder of WEPOWER, Charli Cooksey. Research shows that high quality ECE means better professional, personal, and academic outcomes, and a stronger workforce that drives economic mobility. It means kids’ health issues are diagnosed and treated sooner. It means less spending on special ed interventions, remedial classes, and incarceration. In other words, each dollar invested in great pre-K yields around $4-$9 in societal return.

During the first of two years, fellows will engage in capacity building experiences that focus on systems thinking, design, and dynamics and leadership development. They will engage in local and national listening sessions and research and analysis of early childhood innovations.

As part of their landscape assessment, fellows are asking parents and guardians of children ages 0-5 and early childhood education providers to join a visioning campaign by sharing their dreams for an ECE system reimagined.

Later this summer, the cohort will publish a playbook that articulates a community driven vision of how the early childhood education system across the region should function to innovatively and equitably support every child. Fellows will work with partners, including Social System Design Lab, SkipNV, and Southside Early Childhood Center, to implement these recommendations.

“In order to break the grip of intergenerational poverty on children and families, real structural change is needed, particularly within the early childhood education system,” says Gary Parker, associate dean of external affairs and director of the Clark-Fox Policy Institute, another fellowship partner. “This requires the development and implementation of policies grounded in empirical facts that advance equity.  The Tomorrow Builders Fellows collectively bring the vast lived and professional experience that is needed to tackle this challenge.”

The region is full of innovators motivated to create change. The response to our call for fellowship applicants is testament to this—just under 60 changemakers applied. WEPOWER and our program partners interviewed and selected a group of fellows with noteworthy achievements and inspiring commitments to equity.

The group is grounded in lived experiences dealing with the educational system at hand—including students, teachers, center directors, nonprofit leaders, parents, activists, academics, and elected officials from across the St. Louis region. 73% identify as people of color, 13% LGBTQ+, and 73% live in communities with poverty levels greater than the state average.

We hope you get to know our inaugural class of fellows, and join us in celebrating the start of their journey.