Helping Families Ensure Their Children Enter School Ready to Learn

ECS Still Celebrating Early Learning Gains

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In 1966 the Episcopal Diocese in Jacksonville opened a small child-care center in Springfield for children of low-income, inner-city mothers.

That first day, 16 children were enrolled.

Fifty-two years later, that one center has evolved into Episcopal Children’s Services, which serves about 59,000 children and their families in 14 counties through Voluntary Prekindergarten, Head Start, Early Head Start, subsidized child care and child-care referral programs, as well as professional development training for early childhood educators. Along the way, the nonprofit has become a leader in the early learning field.

“I always loved what Episcopal Children’s Services stood for — quality child care. We preached high-quality early learning,” said CEO Connie Stophel, who has worked there off and on since the early 1980s. “It was never about just putting your child in day care.”

Although Episcopal was founded by the diocese, it is independent and receives no church funds. The agency receives local, state and federal funds and counts on public support.

Episcopal’s primary fundraiser is the annual Children’s Champion Awards, which will be Feb. 22. This year’s honorees are John Delaney, University of North Florida president and former Jacksonville mayor; Nathaniel Glover, Edward Waters College president and former Jacksonville sheriff; retired pediatrician Richard Skinner Jr., a pioneer in identifying and treating dyslexia and other early learning delays; and Florida Blue, which focuses much of its philanthropy on children.

The event also serves as a celebration of Episcopal’s growth and community impact.

The past few years have been heady, with the addition of multiple Early Head Start and Head Start contracts in North and Central Florida. When Stophel became CEO in 2003, the budget was $3 million to $4 million, the current budget is $64 million, with 650 employees.

“I had a vision that it would one day be really, really big in Duval but never dreamed it would be big outside [in other counties],” said Stophel, who credits God for the expansion. “God takes you on a train. … You have to be willing to go on the ride.

“Most of it has been an amazing journey,” she said. “The growth has enabled us to serve more children. They need those services so much.”

Stophel’s predecessor was former Duval County School Board member Susan Wilkinson, who was Episcopal’s second CEO beginning in the mid-1980s.

“It was during this time that ECS realized how great the need is for an education-focused early childhood development program, particularly for low-income children,” Wilkinson said. “Connie … has done an extraordinary job maintaining the core mission of ECS while leading an amazing expansion both in families served, number of centers and locations.

“As I look at its humble beginnings to what it has now become, credit has to be given to strong leadership” from Stophel and the board of trustees and to the staff, she said. “Northeast Florida should be proud of ECS and the work it has done to give pre-school children a strong foundation for success as they enter kindergarten and first grade.”

The agency’s own foundation for success has been staying “focused on the primary mission of helping children,” said board chairman Derrick Smith.

Consistent quality programming and personnel “have been the hallmark,” he said.

Early learning leaders outside the agency agreed.

Jon Heymann is a former CEO of the Jacksonville Children’s Commission, which had child-care contracts with Episcopal Children’s Services.

“For the investment we made, which was a lot of money, they have never disappointed us. … Top-notch quality staff. We were always pleased,” he said.

Denise Marzullo,president of CEO of the Early Learning Coalition of Duval, which administers local VPK programs, said Episcopal is a leader in the community for early childhood development and learning.

“They are known by families and other community organizations as an outstanding provider of children’s services,” she said.

The results become evident daily and over lifetimes.

Early learning is critical because 90 percent of brain development occurs before age 5, Stophel said. Also, it has a massive “return on investment” because children who become successful adults do not need as many social services as children who become struggling adults, she said.

Episcopal uses the “latest research and proven best practices” to help children reach developmental benchmarks, according to the agency website. That means nurturing their physical and mental health, motor development, cognitive development and general knowledge, social and emotional development and language and communication skills.

To measure progress in those categories, children are tested in the beginning, the middle and the end of each school year and observed daily. The latest measurements — for fiscal year 2017 — showed gains in all age groups in all categories, according to the agency’s development tracking system.

Charles John, a 41-year-old Orange Park-based commercial photographer who was in Head Start as a child in Miami, said he is still making gains.

John, whose 5-year-old daughter is in her second year in Head Start, only recently realized the extent of Episcopal’s services and the impact Head Start has had on his life.

“I knew nothing about Episcopal or Head Start,” he said. “I knew nothing about what the program was all about. … I looked at it as just another day care.”

But he saw Episcopal hosting health and job fairs and other community events and soliciting parental involvement. That led to him taking a stronger interest and joining Episcopal’s Head Start Policy Council, where he now serves as vice chairman. He was among the Head Start parents who told their stories to Florida members of Congress on a recent Episcopal-sponsored trip to Washington.

“I started to realize Head Start was putting me in a position for leadership,” John said.

He realized Head Start did the same thing when he was a child, although he did not know it at the time. He was the only one of his seven siblings to attend Head Start and, as an adult, he is the one family member his parents and siblings seek out when they need help or advice. He is seeing similar traits in his daughter — she is solution-driven and empathetic to other people

“I’ve come full circle,” John said.

Beth Reese Cravey: (904) 359-4109