Skip to content

Pandemic pivot: Lessons from the online Tools for Hope program series


Earlier this year, we wrapped up the last of 10 online Tools for Hope discussions to help guide the early childhood education community — center owners, staff, support organizations and others — through the first waves of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thanks to the leadership of our partners at Detroit Public TV (DPTV) and School Readiness Consulting (SRC), we were able to host early childhood experts from across Detroit to share lessons and advice with early childhood professionals as they continued to support our children and families. We were able to host partners such as Jeff Henze, an IFF program manager; Larry Horvath, director of the Bureau of Community and Health Systems in the state’s Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs; and two phenomenal Detroit center operators, Lisa Clark-Horton of LACC Childcare Academy and Nina Hodge of Above & Beyond Learning Center. Hodge captured the feelings of the ECE community: “I couldn’t show my staff that I was going to fall apart.” She had to project “hope that anchors our soul.”

Those were the kind of discussions that we were able to have with various hosts and guests across Tools for Hope installments that covered health and safety practices, curriculum development, trauma-informed practices, mental health and more for the benefit of thousands of viewers. We shared technical details, we networked, and, to paraphrase Hodge, we all did some soul-anchoring. And a companion series highlighted the stories of a dozen Early Learning Champions, again for thousands of viewers.

How did a collaboration with SRC and DPTV originally intended to create early educator fellowships pivot with the virus’ onslaught to become an online resource and professional development series? We asked DPTV and SRC to share their story because we feel it speaks to the kind of creativity, adaptability and collaboration that we all can use in the best of time — and that we sorely need when times are tough. —Jonathan C. Hui, Kresge Detroit Program, program officer

What was Tools for Hope and how was it intended to respond to the needs of early childhood educators during the pandemic?

The original purpose of the project that eventually was named Tools for Hope was to design an intense, cohort experience for 15 early childhood education (ECE) professionals in the city of Detroit. The defined goal was to support leadership development and advocacy within the field, based on strong stakeholder feedback and recommendations. SRC and Kresge began a partnership in 2018 to scan the needs of professional learning for the early childhood field in the city. Based on the scan and feedback from the advisory committee, a cohort experience seemed to be a great way to support members of the ECE field, driving awareness of the important work being done and the challenges facing the early childhood system.

In December 2019, the implementation team met to begin the planning and implementation of the cohort experience; this team included DPTV, SRC and Kresge. We were deep in the middle of planning and implementing the cohort experience in spring 2020, anticipating a summer/fall launch when the COVID-19 pandemic occurred.

At first, the planning team decided to pause planning for implementation. Within a few weeks, however, it became clear that the pandemic would be impacting everyone for the foreseeable future. At the same time, the team recognized that families and early childhood providers were among those most severely affected by the shutdowns and health concerns.

The team, along with support from the advisory board, shifted gears and started to think about what could be done to support early childhood leaders as they navigated program closings, virtual learning, loss of staff, as well as new health and safety standards. With news and guidelines changing frequently, there was a clear need to help caregivers, families and children navigate new circumstances and for educators to take care of themselves and their own families.

Tools for Hope: Equipping and Elevating Detroit’s Early Childhood Providers began to take shape. The idea was to create a collaborative process and project designed to uplift and support early childhood professionals, specifically in light of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.  At the same time, the project leaders wanted to provide practical guidance as the early childhood ecosystem navigated uncertain and unpredictable times ahead because of the public health crisis. As a result of this process, the project team was able to pull together expertise within Detroit to develop a clear and practical approach to effectively uplift the challenges and successes of Detroit’s early childhood professionals. These community partners were able to contribute timely and relevant high-quality professional learning supports for those working with young children, their families and their communities.

The virtual learning series began in August 2020 and included 10 sessions facilitated by Detroit community-based organizations and local early childhood systems leaders. We addressed topics early childhood educators and administrators identified as pressing. Organizations that took part included Henry Ford Health System, IFF, State of Michigan, Hope Starts Here, Living Arts, Community Education Commission, Detroit Public Schools Community District, Detroit Champions for HOPE, Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation, Mothering Justice, Early On at University of Michigan, Starfish Family Services, The Children’s Center, Zero to Three at University of Michigan, Keep Growing Detroit, National Kidney Foundation of Michigan, ECIC, and Policy Equity Group. In all, Tools for Hope programming was viewed more than 7,800 times across multiple platforms, including Facebook and the Tools for Hope website. Several sessions were shared widely, including the session on Using Technology to Support Parents & Families with Small Business Management coming in a close second.

All the programs remain online.

We also did not want to lose the original intention of highlighting the work that is being done by the early childhood providers in Detroit, many of whom went to extraordinary lengths to support families with essential workers and their children, while also caring for their own families and their staff/colleagues. DPTV took the lead and highlighted the stories of a dozen educators in a video series that was shared extensively on Facebook and broadcast on DPTV’s multiple channels. Each story profiled an outstanding professional as an Early Learning Champion for Detroit. By the end of the 2020-21 school year, the Champion videos had received more than 5,000 views online, generating more than 100 shares on social media and 226 supportive comments.

Finally, while equity was a thread that we planned for throughout the virtual series, in conversations with the professional development providers and participants, the team thought there was a need to intentionally share resources in the community that focused on supporting racial equity in the early years. SRC worked directly with the community advocates from Detroit Champions for HOPE to support the team in encouraging families in building positive racial identity in young children through the use of language and children’s literature in a train-the-trainer session: Representation, Black Joy & Activism.

What results and outcomes did we see from Tools for Hope – for the educators, the Detroit nonprofits that were engaged and the field in general.

The results of Tools for Hope were multifaceted. First, leaders from programs and agencies from across the city were able to meet, collaborate, plan and facilitate virtual learning experiences for ECE educators and administrators. Many of the professional learning providers had never met or worked together and this provided an opportunity to meet, connect and, hopefully, build relationships that will lead to future collaborations. Also, professional development providers were able to utilize new facilitation skills in the virtual space created.

Second, educators and administrators showed up, asked questions, provided resources, made connections and shared how they were overcoming some of the barriers faced. During a time when so much was happening in virtual spaces, and many educators living in marginalized communities also did not have access to technology and reliable internet access, educators overcame those barriers. During each session, an average of 30-50 educators attended and participated in the learning space, with many more watching the live stream or recorded versions of the program on Facebook.

The Detroit community was able to see and hear how their everyday heroes (early childhood professionals) overcame the barriers of the pandemic to effectively and responsively support young children and their families.

Survey results from the train-the-trainer session with Detroit Champions for HOPE indicated that the majority of the participants thought  the content was “very useful,” and participants liked the concrete examples and the opportunity to center Black joy. Educators were able to make new connections, learn how to incorporate literacy into virtual programming, and consider new ways to engage children in conversation. Participants left with practical ideas for next steps with families including using parent cafes, book clubs and playgroups. In the future, participants would like more opportunities for skill development in talking to children and more ways to advocate for systemic support for early childhood. Educators are also looking for strategies to help adults who need and want support in developing their own positive racial identity to counteract institutional and systemic oppression and the ongoing impact of colorism and anti-Black racism on individuals and communities.

What are the lessons for the early childhood system moving forward – on recognizing educators, building a coherent system for professional learning, centering nonprofits’ expertise in supporting educators and parents, supporting the needs of education professionals working in BIPOC communities, etc. …

There were several lessons learned by the project team, however, four were key to our successful partnership and should be considered for continuing to support all the adults who work with young children:

  • Be flexible, listen to the needs of your intended audience.
  • Local context and partnership are key when understanding the strengths, interest and needs of communities.
  • Early childhood educators want to be connected with resources and supports that meet their current needs and availability.
  • There is a continued need to support educators and families with information and resources, specifically as it relates to social justice and working towards racial equity for children and families in communities.