Building an Early Learning Community Starts With Alignment

In a national effort to increase the likelihood that all children will achieve educational success by the end of third grade, leaders from 13 cities joined the National League of Cities (NLC) in New Orleans earlier this fall.

As part of NLC’s Early Learning Network, these cities — Cleveland, Ohio; Denver, Colorado; Dubuque, Iowa; Grand Rapids, Michigan; Las Vegas, Nevada; Louisville, Kentucky; Madison, Wisconsin; New Haven, Connecticut; Oakland, California; Orlando, Florida; Philadelphia; Phoenix; and Tempe, Arizona — are working to link programs and services that surround young children and their families. The goal is to design policies to ultimately build early childhood systems that are responsive and supportive to the needs of young children and their families.

Because every community’s early care and education system includes a diverse mix of public and private initiatives, an effective and equitable alignment process begins with a commitment to work across sectors to assess current needs, identify shared goals and adjust actions in a highly coordinated manner. Aligning early care and education systems for young children can take a variety of forms and functions. What is essential is that city leaders and their community partners come together collaboratively to determine what early childhood alignment may look like in their community and how to achieve it. In focused practice, alignment efforts on behalf of young children from birth to age eight go well beyond the classroom to include strengthening connections within communities, addressing barriers to opportunity and linking families to a broad range of supports.

Through almost 20 years of work with cities, the NLC Institute for Youth, Education, and Families (YEF Institute) has seen the focus shift over the years — from Pre-K to K-3 transitions to Infant-toddler and a holistic view of the continuum from prenatal to third grade. In order to have an Early Learning Community, four building blocks need to be in place: community commitment, leadership and public will; quality services that work; neighborhoods where young children and families can thrive; and policies that are supportive and responsive.

However, in many communities the services and programs we put in place look more like a patchwork quilt than a system. This lack of alignment in the system can make it difficult for families to navigate. It leaves gaps that children and families fall through.

As a result of the YEF Institute’s work with city leaders and their early childhood stakeholders, NLC has found eight common elements of strengthening their early care and education systems.


The cities and local early childhood coalitions are intentional in their partnerships and are including more than just usual suspects. They have collaborative governance structures and are engaging in the civic process, looking for entry points and understanding the power structures and influence levers within their city and community.

Early learning cities are putting families at the center and while keeping a strong focus on equity. They value and support the early childhood workforce. Early learning cities are sustaining improvements by advancing and promoting policies, practices and programs and services with support.

The YEF Institute’s Early Childhood Success program works with cities, to improve city leaders’ capacity to reach across their communities, align programs, design policies and build systems that are responsive and supportive of young children and their families. Additional information about the eight elements of alignment and examples of cities taking action may be found in Equitable Early Care and Education: An Alignment Framework.

Learn more about NLC’s Early Childhood Success program here.

Nancy Lim bigAbout the author: Nancy Zuech Lim is a Program Manager in NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education and Families.