Buffett gift establishes early childhood institute

jbrehm2, January 31, 2011 | View original publication

Buffett gift establishes early childhood institute

What if the gap between what we know to be optimal conditions for child development and what actually happens to many at-risk children and their families could be closed?

What if a public university could leverage its land-grant mission by working with partners across the state to put the science of early childhood education into practice?

And what if all children – no matter their backgrounds – had equal opportunities for success?

Because of a generous gift to the University of Nebraska from Omaha philanthropist Susie Buffett – a gift the university has committed to more than match – these goals are now well within reach for Nebraska. The University of Nebraska has the opportunity to be a national leader and model for public universities in addressing early childhood.

Buffett's gift will establish the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at NU, a university-wide, multidisciplinary research, education, outreach and policy center that will help transform the approach to early childhood development and education in Nebraska and across the nation. The institute will be dedicated to promoting the development and success of children from birth to age 8, focused especially on those who are vulnerable because of poverty, abuse, or developmental, learning or behavioral challenges.

Through the institute, NU and its partners across the state will create a new model for the engagement of public higher education in early childhood, according to NU President James B. Milliken.

"The need for this Institute has never been more clear – and the potential to transform the lives of children has never been greater," Milliken said. "Too many children today are affected by an achievement gap that impacts their ability to succeed in school and later in life. This gap often is rooted in opportunities lost during the early years. We must do more to ensure our youngest children – especially those who are at risk – have equal opportunities for health, happiness and success. The University of Nebraska, a land-grant university with significant history and expertise in early childhood education, is well-positioned to help achieve this goal."

Milliken added, "The fundamental premise underlying the Buffett Early Childhood Institute is that all children, regardless of socioeconomic status or other limitations, can realize their potential. We believe this institute and others like it can be game-changers in early childhood development and education."

Annual support provided by Buffett's founding gift will be more than matched by university, private and federal sources to leverage an investment greater than a $100 million endowment, Milliken said.

He praised Buffett for her leadership and dedication to early childhood. Through the Sherwood Foundation, based in Omaha, Buffett has invested in social justice initiatives that promote equity and enhance individuals' quality of life. The Sherwood Foundation and the Buffett Early Childhood Fund, which Susie Buffett chairs, support early childhood initiatives in Nebraska and nationally, such as Educare Centers for low-income families. Though Buffett's gift will not be used for university facilities, a key element of this new partnership will include building several new Educare Centers in Nebraska modeled after the successful centers in Omaha and elsewhere. The Buffett Early Childhood Institute will be a core partner in the ongoing work of the Educare Centers, providing assessment resources as well as graduate teachers from its early childhood education programs.

"Susie Buffett is a truly inspiring philanthropist whose work has had a powerful impact on Nebraska and the nation," Milliken said. "We could not be more grateful for her commitment to and confidence in the University of Nebraska. It is thanks to her guidance and generosity that the university now will be able to build on the work of our faculty and others in the field and take efforts in early childhood to another level."

Early childhood development and education is one of the six academic priorities of the Campaign for Nebraska, which was announced in October 2009. Buffett serves on the voluntary leadership team for the campaign.

Buffett said her commitment to early childhood education evolved from her belief that while equal opportunity is the great American promise, too many children are missing out on that promise because they enter kindergarten already behind – and often struggle to catch up well into adulthood.

"Science and common sense tell us that children are born learning," Buffett said. "So investing in the early years makes sense in order to create a more level playing field for all our children. This is an ambitious goal that will require a statewide collaborative effort. Nebraska's only public university, charged with serving the state through teaching, research and outreach, is the right institution to take the lead."

A number of other early childhood centers and institutes around the country are conducting important research and making significant contributions to the field, and the Buffett Early Childhood Institute will complement their work, Milliken said. But the Buffett institute will be unique in a number of ways.

The institute will focus on the developmental span from birth to age 8 – the period during which research shows children make their greatest gains in cognitive, behavioral, language and social-emotional growth. This focus ensures that the work of the institute will foster seamless transitions between children's developmental stages.

The Buffett institute will integrate teaching, research and outreach from disciplines spanning all four campuses, with a particular emphasis on using research to inform public policy in immediate, practical ways. Faculty from child and family studies, educational psychology, teacher education, educational administration, special education, psychology, nutrition, sociology, public health, communications, pediatrics, economics, architecture and other disciplines will be involved. University centers that will be involved include the Center for Research on Children, Youth, Families and Schools at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the Munroe-Meyer Institute at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, UNMC's College of Public Health, and the colleges of education at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and University of Nebraska at Kearney.

Finally, the institute will focus on transferring its successes to a national scale, so that while Nebraska children and families benefit immediately, the work of the institute ultimately will have a national impact. Nebraska, a small state where the public and private sectors are longtime and effective collaborators, is ideally suited for such a "scale-up" strategy.

"We plan to develop a model for involvement of the 21st-century land-grant university in a fundamental aspect of the life of the state, and we hope that our approach will be successful and replicated across the country," Milliken said.

Milliken said he hopes this new approach to early childhood education – in which the University of Nebraska puts its resources and energy and especially the intellectual power of its faculty and students to work to solve a great challenge facing the state – will serve as a new model for how public universities approach the field.

"The Buffett Early Childhood Institute can be an exemplar for similar efforts across the country," Milliken said. "This is one of the most exciting promises of the institute in a national context, because it has implications for the well-being and success of children around the country."

The institute will be led by an executive director who is a recognized leader in the field and national board of directors, and will include three interrelated divisions:

* A research program will advance the science of early childhood by developing evidence-based solutions for the challenges facing at-risk children. The research program will leverage the success of existing early childhood centers, such as UNL's Center for Research on Children, Youth, Families and Schools, which since 2003 has generated more than $40 million in grants for educational research – a return of more than $23 per dollar invested by the university.
* An education and professional development program will ensure that early childhood teachers and providers in Nebraska and elsewhere have access to research-based information and support in implementation so that best practices are put to work for the children who need them. Working with partners across the state – such as the Nebraska Department of Education, the two Educare Centers in Omaha (adjacent to Kellom Elementary School and Indian Hill Elementary School) and Building Bright Futures-Early Childhood Services – the education and professional development program will focus on developing the next generation of the early childhood workforce. New endorsements or certificate programs related to early childhood may also be developed.
* An outreach and policy program will ensure that information on the best practices for children, families and schools is made available to practitioners and policymakers. A primary purpose of this program will be to inform Nebraska and, ultimately, national policy goals.

"This public-private partnership literally institutionalizes the work Susie has been doing across the country for the past decade and takes it to a new level," said Daniel Pedersen, president of the Buffett Early Childhood Fund. "The university's leadership in prioritizing the cause of our most vulnerable children, setting a new example for what a land-grant university can contribute, and helping Educares take root beyond Omaha – well, all that added together is simply awesome."

Clarence L. Castner, president of the University of Nebraska Foundation, said, "Susie Buffett's gift exemplifies the reason for the Campaign for Nebraska: to create unlimited possibilities in areas that are important to Nebraska. I can't think of many things Nebraskans value more than creating a better future for our children."

Buffett's gift brings the total commitment to the Campaign for Nebraska significantly closer to its $1.2 billion goal, according to Castner. The campaign is scheduled to be completed in 2014.