Advancing Early Education Collaborative: The Rewards of Reaching Out

April 23, 2024

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The Rewards of Reaching Out

“Reach out, I’ll be there,” the Four Tops sang in a Billboard hit. And Martha’s Table is passing on the message, too. The community-based nonprofit is one of four groups that have come together since 2022 to help advance the careers of DC’s early childhood educators. The Advancing Early Education Collaborative (AEEC) is a partnership launched by Martha’s Table, American University, LIFT-DC and Trinity Washington University that helps women who identify as Black or Latina in the field of early childhood education achieve their educational, career, and financial goals and aspirations. It starts with the online asynchronous Child Development Associate® (CDA) Credential™ and ends with a bachelor’s degree in education from either Trinity Washington University or American University, which allows early childhood educators, or those who want to join the field, to fulfill their dreams.

The collaborative comes at a time when the Office of State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) is raising the requirements for educators in DC and offering more opportunities to meet them. For example, there has been a 17 percent rise in the number of educators earning a CDA® in the District over the past four years, and OSSE supports CDA training at no cost, as Christine Lynch and Bryce Jacobs, the managers of AEEC at Martha’s Table, point out. “There are now a lot of training programs for educators in DC,” Lynch explains. But AEEC offers something that makes it tops. “Our program is unique because it offers added wraparound supports that other programs don’t have.” That builds equity by opening doors for Black and Latina women in the historically marginalized DC communities of Wards 7 and 8.

The program receives funding from the JPMorgan Chase Advancing Cities Challenge Grant, advancing the 41-year-old mission of Martha’s Table to build a more equitable Washington, DC. Along with its partners, Martha’s Table is taking a big-picture approach to improving early learning by providing new or existing educators with free tuition to support their CDA and holistic support. “Many of the women who we work with face challenges in their lives,” Lynch says, “and need added supports to earn credentials that will improve their careers and lives.”

The personal and professional parts of the women’s lives are intertwined, as Lynch points out. “So, we’re really trying to smooth any daily roadblocks that might impede their academic and career success. Martha’s Table provides essential goods like clothing, baby formula and groceries, vouchers for child care and transportation. Together with our partners, we also offer life coaching to guide them in setting career and economic goals.”

All this assistance has made an impact, according to the metrics that Lynch and Jacobs carefully track. AEEC has become even more effective due to some tweaks the partners have made to the program since it began two years ago. “We’re really trying meet our students where they are and be responsive to what’s going on in their lives,” Jacobs says. “That’s led us to change the way we deliver the services our students need.”

A lot of the students already work in the early education field, so Martha’s Table is making it simpler for them to access the many benefits that the program provides. “For example, we began by offering healthy grocery products at Martha’s Table,” Jacobs says. “Then we learned it wasn’t convenient for students to come to us when our market was open. So, we opened pop-up markets where our students take their classes. Similarly, we began offering free work clothes at Martha’s Outfitters, and then switched to providing gift cards so students could shop where it was best for them.” And the AEEC partners also broadened their scope beyond what’s next in students’ lives to think more about what’s going on for them now.

“We’ve adapted our life coaching from focusing on future goals to making sure we address the acute issues that students currently face,” as Jacobs explains. “So, we recently hired a student support specialist, who can get to know the students and act as a sort of case manager to guide them through the program. She’s going to reach out when students start the program and ask if they want help with their coursework, if they have enough food, and if there’s anything else they need to succeed.”

Meeting the students’ needs also requires all AEEC partners to work together closely, Lynch says. “Collaboration is crucial in getting students through the program. So, we meet weekly for work groups and present together at conferences, activities we didn’t do at the beginning. We’ve taken steps to get out of our siloes and build broader systems to support our students.” That matters because “the right policies and processes don’t come about by chance or by working alone,” Jacobs adds. “One of our early wins as a collaborative was getting Trinity and American to sign an articulation agreement stating that credits from the CDA would transfer to an AA, something these two private universities had never done before. And we’re now working to offer the CDA credential in Spanish as we broaden our reach together.”

Collaboration is also important in getting the word out about AEEC and the opportunities it provides. This is a community effort, so the universities are taking steps to recruit candidates who qualify for the program. Martha’s Table has contacts at the Office of the State Superintendent that it’s using to recruit participants from the early learning field and it’s sending emails to early childhood center directors in Wards 7 and 8. Martha’s Table has held open house events about the program, promoted it in social media and email, and is preparing to spotlight it in newspaper ads. “So, we are already touching many members of our target audience,” Jacobs says.

“Still, we’d like to reach more,” Lynch adds, “so we’re working to make our messaging go even further in the community we serve. We want potential students to know the program is available and accessible to them.” And the best advertisement for the program is the success enjoyed by students like Sierre Allen, AEEC participant and Trinity class of 2024. Hearing about her life makes you think of that Four Tops hit, where they sang about what it’s like “when you feel the world has grown cold, you’re drifting out all on your own and you need a hand to hold”—a time when you must push on, as Sierre did despite the roadblocks she faced.

“I was a teen mom who had to drop out of high school,” Sierre recalls, “but I knew deep down that I had the potential to do something great. So, I went back to get my GED and worked while taking care of my child. Then I began college, and soon after starting classes, I lost my dad. I was not financially stable, and it was the hardest time of my life, but I didn’t give up,” Sierre says. And she finally got a helping hand while working as an assistant early childhood teacher. With support from AEEC, she’s graduating from Trinity this May with her bachelor’s degree in ECE and expects to become a lead teacher. “I now feel that I’m the author of my own story,” she says, “and can do whatever I want to do.”

Sierre has seen the rewards of reaching out to AEEC. And that makes her “a testament to the power of unity and shared purpose,” says Tiffany Williams, a former educator and CEO of Martha’s Table. “If you are an educator or aspiring educator, you won’t find a program as comprehensive as AEEC to support your journey in education. It begins when you reach out to us, and we’d love to have you.” Whatever roadblocks students face, AEEC will be there to see them through.

To learn more about AEEC, visit their website at



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