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Unique web site puts early childhood programs on the map and online


Susan Fowler and team
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Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
The Illinois Early Childhood Asset Map team, from left, led by Susan Fowler, professor of special education; Bernard Cesarone, the project's technical manager; Dawn Thomas, project coordinator; and Dianne Rothenberg, past project coordinator.

Craig Chamberlain, Education Editor

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — For individual parents, finding the right child care or preschool program is tough enough.

For anyone who wants the bigger picture on what’s available and where, matched with demographics on the preschool population, the challenge is daunting. Preschoolers are served by a diverse mix of programs and providers, funded by different agencies and levels of government.

In Illinois, however, the information is now integrated and available in one online system, available to policymakers, legislators, advocates, businesses – anyone who needs a clearer picture of what is available and the population to be served.

Called the Illinois Early Childhood Asset Map (IECAM), it is the product of an unusual teaming of computer visualization, demographic and early childhood specialists at the University of Illinois, working in collaboration with the organization Chicago Metropolis 2020.

IECAM, which went online last fall, appears to be the first system of its kind in the nation, according to education professor Susan Fowler, the project’s principal investigator. Other states already have inquired about doing their own, she said.

“Until we put together IECAM, it was nearly impossible to find out how many kids could be served in the combination of Head Start, licensed child care, license-exempt child care, state pre-K programs, licensed family care,” Fowler said.

Now, someone using the site can find those numbers by specific county, township or legislative district, or any area of their choosing. They can produce a map showing the location of almost every program or center, down to the neighborhood or block, and find the capacity of each, along with other specific details.

They also can access demographic data on the preschool-age population in a specified area, such as the number in certain family-income ranges.

As the project continues into the next phase, data will be updated annually and new types of data will be added on individual programs, Fowler said. Eventually, the site also will include information on the qualifications of the teachers in each program or center.

School districts have always had estimates of the number of 4-year-olds ready to enter kindergarten, Fowler said. Future additions to the system, however, will enable districts to see how many of those 4-year-olds have had experience in various programs, helping to answer questions of school-readiness.

The impetus for the project came in 2005 from the Illinois Early Learning Council, which wanted a tool that would help make the allocation of state funds for early childhood programs, such as Preschool for All, more effective and transparent, Fowler said.

Major funding for the project comes from the Illinois State Board of Education and the Illinois Department of Human Services, along with funds from various foundations.

The initial development was led by Emily Harris, at Chicago Metropolis 2000, and Dianne Rothenberg, now retired as director of the university’s Early Childhood and Parenting Collaborative (ECAP) in the College of Education, where the project is based at the U. of I.

Rothenberg served as the project coordinator until last November, when she was succeeded by Dawn Thomas. Bernard Cesarone, also at ECAP, serves as the project’s technical manager.

To implement other aspects of the system, however, the project brought in help from elsewhere on the campus. “It’s much easier to create collaborations across the campus, to develop tools like this, than it ever has been,” Fowler said.

For the geographic information system (GIS) mapping software, the project partnered with a team led by Alan Craig in the Advanced Visualization Laboratory at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the U. of I. Lorne Leonard served as the primary programmer.

Andrew Isserman, a professor in the department of urban and regional planning, has led the effort to develop and update demographic information for the site.

The GIS mapping is important, Fowler said, because “it really gives someone a way of looking at a community and seeing the distribution of resources or services.”

Despite the technology involved, the project has not been one of just connecting information sources and making the data flow. Fowler said project staff had put in a lot of hard work contacting many of the more than 3,000 individual agencies, programs and centers to obtain basic information, and to develop a single reporting system.

The IECAM site is available to the public, but not intended as a resource for individuals looking for child care, Fowler said. The site, for instance, does not provide names and contact information for individual programs or centers, she said.

The site’s home page directs those looking for child care to the Illinois Network of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies.