Samuel J. Meisels, founding executive director of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska, appeared before the NU Board of Regents on Wednesday to report on the work and early successes of the university-wide institute as it approaches its third anniversary.
The Buffett Institute was created in 2011 and became operational in June 2013 when Meisels became the Institute’s founding executive director. Shaped by the shared vision of the University of Nebraska and philanthropist Susie Buffett, the Institute focuses on early care and education, especially for children in greatest need. By applying the best of what is known about the science and benefits of high-quality early experiences, the Institute seeks to make a difference in young children’s lives.
“No other university in the country – public or private – has made as large a commitment to the field of early care and education as the University of Nebraska,” Meisels said. “The opportunity presented here is nothing short of remarkable, and we are grateful for the support of the university and board of regents these past three years.”
Together with its university colleagues and partners across the state, the Institute is addressing an urgent and growing need for high-quality early childhood programs and services. According to First Five Nebraska, approximately 42 percent of Nebraska’s children from birth through age 5—in both urban and rural areas—are considered at risk for failing in school (based on U.S. Census data for household income level).
NU President Hank Bounds said the Institute aligns with the “cornerstones” for excellence he has outlined for the university, including goals related to research and innovation and leveraging partnerships to achieve shared goals.
“The University of Nebraska has a responsibility to put our resources and talents to work to transform lives in Nebraska and around the world,” Bounds said. “The Buffett Early Childhood Institute, together with talented faculty and staff on our four campuses and partners across the state, is positioning us to be a global leader in improving the lives of vulnerable young children and their families.
“We are incredibly fortunate to have attracted someone of Sam Meisels’s caliber to lead the Buffett Institute through its early years. The Institute is already an important success story for the University of Nebraska and I’m excited about what Sam and his team will achieve moving forward. I can think of few more important missions for our university than to help ensure every child in Nebraska achieves his or her full potential.”
Meisels opened his presentation to the NU Board of Regents with a synopsis of research demonstrating the link between high-quality early learning experiences and later success in school and in life. Evidence confirms that the most effective time to impact a child’s future is from birth through age 8, Meisels said.
Research has informed the development of the Institute’s two signature programs—the Achievement Gap Challenge and the Early Childhood Workforce Development Program. The signature programs guide the daily work of the Institute in the areas of applied research, early childhood practice, public policy, and outreach. Highlights from Meisels’s presentation include:
- Achievement Gap Challenge – The Institute has launched the first initiative of the Achievement Gap Challenge, the Superintendents’ Early Childhood Plan. Funded through the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties, the Superintendents’ Plan is a groundbreaking approach to serving children from birth through Grade 3 in the Omaha metro area. The most comprehensive 0 – 8 initiative in the nation, the Superintendents’ Plan impacted 12 elementary schools representing six school districts, 500 educators and early childhood professionals, and 4,000 children at the full implementation schools during the 2015 – 2016 academic year.
- Early Childhood Workforce Development – The Institute is working with higher education faculty and state agencies to develop a statewide action plan for addressing Nebraska’s critical early childhood workforce needs. Two studies help inform the efforts. The Nebraska Early Childhood Workforce Survey will soon provide the most thorough overview to date of the state’s early childhood workforce (birth – third grade). The Higher Education Inventory, completed last fall, offers the first ever comprehensive review of early childhood preparation in Nebraska.
- Greater Nebraska – The Institute has visited 24 communities in Nebraska, meeting with community and education leaders, higher education faculty, early childhood professionals and others to learn about needs across the state. Buffett Institute leadership and early childhood leaders in the Panhandle are working together to develop strategies that support young children in the 11 western-most counties in Nebraska.
- Campus Partnerships – The Institute is collaborating with early childhood faculty across disciplines and campuses. Announced in 2016, the Buffett Institute Graduate Scholars program is the first financial support program for advanced doctoral students at the University of Nebraska that focuses on young children and their development. The Institute also is working with the NU Foundation to establish endowed, tenured community chair positions on each of the NU campuses, with positions providing leadership in teacher preparation (UNK), child mental health (UNL), obesity prevention (UNMC), and child welfare (UNO). The Institute is working with UNL and UNMC faculty, along with the Nebraska Department of Education, Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, and private agencies and foundations to develop the Nebraska Early Childhood Integrated Data System. Finally, the Institute has collaborated with NU faculty on research grants. Iheoma Iruka, director of research and evaluation, is co-principal investigator on an NU team that was awarded a $6.5 million federal grant to study Nebraska early childhood practices and policies and lead a national network committed to improving children's outcomes.
- Public Education and Outreach – The Institute has worked with policymakers, education and community leaders, and early childhood professionals to help build public understanding of early care and education needs in Nebraska. To gauge Nebraskans’ views on the topic, the Institute partnered with Gallup on the largest public opinion poll ever conducted about early childhood in Nebraska. With more than 7,100 respondents statewide, the survey revealed that the vast majority of Nebraskans value and support early care and education and believe more needs to be done to prepare young children for success in school and life.
Meisels also noted the Institute’s success in securing $10 million in additional new funding from public and private sources and said the Institute has hired nearly 30 staff to undertake programs and applied research. Another 20 early childhood professionals affiliated with the Institute are working in Omaha area schools.
The Buffett Institute will continue to partner with others to strengthen early care and education in Nebraska and share lessons learned in Nebraska throughout the nation, Meisels said.
“The Buffett Institute’s vision is to make Nebraska the best place in the nation to be a baby, and over the past three years, we’ve become convinced that this can happen,” Meisels said. “Nebraska is a special place, and the ideal location for doing this work. We have resources, we have leadership, we have a willing populace and legislative and policy environment, and we have a university commitment second to none.”