One of United Way Quad Cities’ biggest goals is to help get kids be ready to start school and the nonprofit has a new vice president heading the effort.

Cassie Stewart is the first vice president of early childhood learning and education. The Muscatine resident spent the last four years as a principal in the Davenport school district, two at Madison Elementary and two years before that at the Pre-K Children’s Villages program.

She also oversaw federal early childhood programs in the district in 2018. Stewart started her career as a Muscatine 5th-grade teacher, and middle school Project Lead the Way (teaching five years altogether).

Cassie Stewart of Muscatine, United Way Cities’ new vice president of early childhood learning and education, at the United Way offices in Bettendorf, Oct. 12, 2023 (photo by Jonathan Turner).

Her position is new, and United Way had about 40 applicants, president/CEO Rene Gellerman said Thursday.

“We have been working in and investing in education for many years,” she said, noting the nonprofit spends about $1.2 million annually for education, and about a quarter of that goes to early education (pre-K).

Women United, a donor network of United Way Quad Cities, is hosting a special evening of fun, signature cocktails, an inspiring speaker and designer handbag auction to raise money to support early childhood education. Tickets are on sale now for the Power of the Purse event, Thursday, Oct. 26, to benefit QC kids.

Women United is very passionate about early education, to make sure kids are ready for kindergarten, Gellerman said.

“It’s a personal passion of mine,” she said of working on Q2030. “There’s ripple effect to talent, business attraction, retention and business growth. I know the community also thinks it’s important.”

A lot of people are talking about the importance of early childhood education, child care, affordability, and paying providers a respectable, living wage.

“We’ve been thinking about what more we can do in this space, with this window open,” Gellerman said, noting there’s not one QC organization that works across the sectors in the region to coordinate and think through how to improve the situation.

So one of Stewart’s main priorities is to create that new coalition, by the end of December, and have it complete a new three-year strategic plan by June 2024.

“United Way can serve as that backbone and align resources,” Gellerman said. “We’re diving in.”

One of their key goals is improving third-grade reading levels. Part of that is mobilizing 800 volunteers (through Read United in the past two years to go into schools and read to students in elementary schools (grades 1-4). They’ve seen a good rebound in post-COVID 3rd-grade reading levels.

In the past couple years, QC kids reading at grade level in 3rd grade has jumped from 31 percent to 54 percent, Gellerman said. “That’s still not good enough,” she said. The number before COVID was at 61 percent.

“We need to be doing more to get our kids reading at 3rd grade, and the most ideal way to do that is in the pre-K environment,” Gellerman said. “Ninety percent of a child’s brain is developed by the age of 5. We need to be pouring more resources in that period of time, so those kids – when they go to school, they’re ready to learn.”

Raising $6M in past 12 years

Women United formed 12 years ago, a community of about 300 like-minded donors who all have a passion for early childhood education. They deploy the funding to empower parents through free workshops and training, provide child-care scholarships, support child-care centers through advocacy and skill enhancement, and raising public awareness to underscore the impact of early childhood education.

Rene Gellerman is president/CEO of United Way QC.

Women United’s first main project was raising $2.9 million to help build the downtown Davenport YMCA Early Learning Center, which opened in 2016 at 624 E. 4th St.

Over the past dozen years, Women United donors and members have raised and invested more than $6 million in the area to increase access to quality child care and preschool for underserved children, empower parents with the tools they need to be their child’s first and best teacher and support the development, attraction and retention of the child care workforce.

Research consistently underscores the profound impact of high-quality early childhood education, Gellerman said. It improves cognitive abilities and emotional development, builds a foundation for lifelong learning, makes learning outcomes more equitable, reduces poverty and improves social mobility from generation to generation.

And yet, these critical experiences are not available to all children, and are particularly lacking for those in disadvantaged neighborhoods, she said. In these areas, too many children enter kindergarten underprepared to succeed.

“Child care and early education is very complicated,” she said. “There’s so many issues, like affordability. It costs almost as much as in-state college tuition for one year in child care. Parents have to come up with that money.

“Then there’s the workforce issue, where we pay a minimum wage,” Gellerman said, noting people could make more money at McDonald’s than for child-care centers. “We’re having a hard time recruiting and retaining talent because of that.

“And you have the complexities of all the regulations you have to follow; the different regulations for each state, and the lack of funding to subsidize good quality care,” she said. “We just feel we’re in a space where we could do small wins and go for the gold.”

Coalition goals

The new United Way coalition would identify key challenges and help find solutions, and how to bring resources to achieve them.

“It’s the period of time when the child is developing the most, and it gets the least support from the public,” Gellerman said of local, state and federal funding. In Q2030 surveys, improving early childhood education was the second highest topic to spur transformation in the region, she said. “It could be a game-changer.”

Stewart’s job (started six weeks ago) is not to raise the money.

The QC-wide coalition would include people from businesses, schools, colleges, child-care centers, providers, and lawmakers.

Moline Mayor Sangeetha Rayapati at a new Head Start at the Esperanza Center, 335 5th Ave., Moline, in August 2023 (photo by Jonathan Turner).

Gellerman praised Moline Mayor Sangeetha Rayapati for using federal funds to help open a new Head Start center for 50 kids ages 3-5 at the Esperanza Center (335 5th Ave.).

The $50,000 in city funding for the Esperanza Center came from $500,000 in federal ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) dollars, approved by the city for early childhood education. Across Moline, the city has helped create 272 new child-care slots at centers.

“This is huge,” Rayapati said in August. “This particular child care was closed down because of the pandemic, so what better place to spend some of our ARPA dollars?”

“We can’t say that we care about workforce development if we don’t make it easier for families to get to work, or for individuals to get to work,” she said. “And we can’t say we care about education if we don’t give children the right start in life.”

Getting the best start

Stewart wants to make the QC known as an area where kids can get the best start, which will help attract and retain families to live here. New coalition goals will include improving child-care quality; elevating the work staff; and improving public awareness to support children.

Cassie Stewart is a former Davenport school principal and Muscatine teacher (photo by Jonathan Turner).

Improving pre-K education has a domino effect to boost high school graduation rates (which averages 79% in the QC). United Way says students reading by 3rd grade are four times more likely to graduate high school.

“If we became known as a community that cares so much about their kids, that we have a unified commitment to early education – what that says to our college students,” Gellerman said. “If they want to have children, isn’t that the community you want to live in? If you have a business, isn’t that the community you want to be in?

“Because people want to live here, that we care that much about our kids,” she said. “We make sure everyone has what they need to be successful.”

“I’m inspired by the commitment of Women United,” Stewart said. “This mighty group relentlessly works to help every child in every Quad Cities neighborhood enter kindergarten ready to thrive.”

Women United has a current three-year fundraising goal of $675,000 and $189,000 has been raised to date. They put together a “Born Learning” curriculum to help parents become their child’s first and best teacher, Gellerman said.

“This is free to parents,” she said, noting United Way offers a free six-week (once a week) training program for that. Since 2015, 10,174 QC families have participated in Born Learning – they get a free tablet with children’s books on it, Gellerman said.

During the training, United Way provides free child care and food. Women United has also funded professional development efforts for child-care staff.

There continues to be a shortage of qualified child-care staff in the area, Gellerman said.

New Women United grants

Women United recently announced $200,000 in new grants. They fundings went to:

  • Community Action of Eastern Iowa
  • EveryChild
  • SAL Community Services
  • YMCA of the Iowa Mississippi Valley

“Access to quality child care and kindergarten-readiness programs are essential to ensure that every child starts on their educational journey with confidence,” said Amy Crist, co-chair of Women United. “These grants have been made possible by our generous Women United donors and dedicated members, symbolizing our unwavering commitment to ensure every child enters kindergarten ready to thrive and on a path to read by third grade.”

The donor network Women United has 300 members and has its Power of the Purse fundraiser Oct. 26 at Davenport’s Rhythm City Casino.

“These dollars exemplify the impact of people-powered change,” Gellerman said. “Women United members are at the forefront of advocating for quality child care and early learning in the Quad Cities, actively supporting their convictions with their generous time and contributions. These strategic investments will not only bridge gaps in early childhood education but also pave the way for brighter futures and more equitable opportunities for the children of the Quad Cities.”

As a principal, Stewart would see kids in kindergarten who had never been to pre-school or a library, she said. “They’re coming in already starting behind and it’s hard to make that up when 90% of their brains have developed.”

“If they hadn’t done pre-K, those first couple months are just teaching them how to do school,” Stewart said. “That takes a lot of time. With kindergarten standards, they’re set pretty high. We don’t have a lot of time at the beginning of the year to teach kids how to do school when you’re supposed to be teaching them their numbers, shapes and colors. It has a huge impact on the teacher in the classroom, trying to manage the classroom.”

Schools are still dealing with post-COVID learning loss among many kids, she said.

Current third graders were at home at the end of their kindergarten year, then schools were hybrid in 1st grade, which focus on foundational skills, Stewart said.

Chad Everitt, a United Way volunteer reader, reads with a third-grader at Rock Island Academy, as part of National Read Across America Day.

“You’re learning how to read and by 3rd grade, you’re reading to learn,” she said. “Even when we came back, you had masks, so you’re learning about phonics and the shape of your mouth when you make sounds. That’s attached directly to the science of reading. You miss that foundation and you’re trying to teach kids how to form their letters and sounds.”

“We’re going to see the impacts of COVID still, these 3rd-graders, the schools have been doing a great job trying to fill in the gaps,” Stewart said, noting Madison School’s reading proficiency was lower.

Students of color have lower reading levels overall, Gellerman said. The Women United funding goes more to low-income populations that need more support.

“I have a passion for early childhood and for the Quad Cities,” Stewart said. “to be able to feel like I could impact that in a different way, rather than being in a building and managing what happens in that one building is exciting for me.”

Forty percent of all money raised by United Way goes to education, Gellerman said.

Some families don’t qualify for child-care assistance and they can’t afford to pay for it, Stewart said.

There are 23,000 children under age 6 in Scott and Rock Island counties, and of the 3,000 kids who start kindergarten each year, one-third of them haven’t had any pre-K education, Gellerman said.

Power of Purse details

The Power of the Purse event Oct. 26 will raise funds to support early education and kindergarten readiness for kids in the Quad Cities. The event takes place from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at Rhythm City Casino, 7707 Elmore Ave., in Davenport.

“It will take all of us. And, when we make that vision a reality, we will absolutely change the trajectory of a generation and our region,” Stewart added.

A previous Women United Power of the Purse fundraiser.

Power of the Purse attendees will hear from keynote speaker Rachel Giannini, who was featured in the acclaimed documentary “No Small Matter.” Released in 2019, “No Small Matter” explores one of the fastest growing issues for working families in America – access to high quality, affordable child care.

“In this documentary, she was really engaging, passionate, articulate and inspiring,” Gellerman said. “She can really share how easy it can be, how simple it is to make sure your kids are ready for kindergarten.”

Rachel Giannini will be the keynote speaker at the Oct. 26 event.

“She can share that message in a very inspiring way, a very tactical way – you can walk away with information you can tell people, or apply it to your own life,” she said. “She’s very bubbly.”

“Every child deserves an opportunity to thrive,” Giannini said in a United Way release. “But, when a child lacks the support and nourishment needed to grow, it can affect the entirety of their lives. It’s critical we act now, as the smallest moments can have the most significant impact.”

Tickets to the event can be purchased for $100 each, or $750 for a table of eight, available HERE.

For more information about Women United, visit its website HERE.