DC Early Learning Collaborative 

2023 Legacy Award Honoree


The DC Action Board of Directors is delighted to announce that the first winner of its Legacy Award is DC Early Learning Collaborative (DCELC). DCELC pools public and private resources to increase investments in children, families and communities, to improve their well-being. Initially founded in 1990 by a coalition of business leaders, government agencies, and community organizations, what we know today as DCELC took shape in 2006 as the Pre-K for All DC campaign. The leadership of Carrie Thornhill, Maurice Sykes, and Sia Barbara Kamara, with their commitment to social justice,  profound knowledge of movement building, and extensive early childhood education experience, were integral to creating and passing two pieces of historical and nationally recognized District of Columbia legislation–Universal Pre-K for All and Birth-to-Three for All DC.

Kimberly Perry, executive director of DC Action, who serves on the Under 3 DC executive committee alongside DCELC, said, ”They are national trailblazers in early childhood education. DCELC has set the standard for what an equitable early childhood system should look like, from child care to Pre-k. Our Under 3 DC campaign is only successful because we stand on the shoulders of the vision DCELC set for us decades ago. Learning from and working alongside them is an honor and a joy.”

The DC Action Legacy Award was created to recognize an organization or individual who has had an extraordinary impact on the lives of children and youth in the District and demonstrated an exemplary influence on advocacy. With civic leader Carrie Thornhill’s more than 50 years of advocacy in education, housing, and community development; DC Hall of Fame member Maurice Sykes’ many decades of leadership in early childhood education in public schools and shaping programs at the university level; and the internationally recognized, early childhood education shape-shifter Sia Barbara Kamara who served in the Carter Administration and four DC mayors as executive director of the DC Office of Early Childhood Development (OECD), it should be no surprise that the District is on a path to a comprehensive, equitable and high-quality early childhood system for all children. 

Highly principled in how they operate, creative in getting things done, savvy in making necessary connections, and visionary in their thinking, the DC early learning community stops to listen when DCELC speaks. The community watches in awe at the respect they gain across the District, whether in high-level meetings where they take government officials to task or while talking with early educators during early childhood education site visits. Their coalition-building skills are unmatched, even in a rapidly changing city. 

Kathy Hollowell-Makle, executive director of the DC Association for the Education of Young Children, said, “For over 40 years, DCELC has recognized that access and affordability to high-quality early childhood education is a social justice issue for District families. They've worked tirelessly to ensure access to early education is available to all young children in the District. Early educators, advocates, and families of young children are immensely grateful for their pioneering work in the field."

DCELC has led the way in changing how the early learning community views itself. Instead of limiting Universal Pre-K for All advocacy and organizing efforts to the most underserved neighborhoods, they saw the value and importance of building an engaged constituency across the District after seeing significant interest and participation in early childhood education programs grow since the 1970s. Available data and their firsthand knowledge helped them understand that every working family–especially moms–would benefit from the legislation that focused squarely on improving school readiness. 

Their grassroots and grasstops activism, which included “edu-tours” for partners and policymakers, and savvy branding brought early childhood education to the policy center stage in 2006 when the District elected a new mayor and several new members of the DC Council. They built a diverse list of champions along the way to the legislation’s passage in 2008. Understanding that the science illustrating the importance of early childhood development wouldn’t be enough to sway public officials, they presented the economic boost that would benefit the city. 

DCELC didn’t blink when babies and toddlers were left off the Universal Pre-K bill in an attempt to get it across the finish line with the council. This move started what we now know as Under 3 DC. The campaign has relied on the Universal Pre-K campaign blueprint along the way to gain momentum and build a constituency of early childhood program directors, educators, community-based organizations, health professionals, advocates, and engaged parents to move the DC Council to pass Birth-to-Three for All DC ten years later. 

Unfortunately, just as they began to roll up their sleeves with the early learning community to “find the money” to fully fund Birth-to-Three, the pandemic struck, sending the District’s early childhood community reeling. DCELC shifted its focus and led the fight to get child care centers and homes the resources they needed to stay in business and maintain a workforce to serve the children of families working outside the home. And as COVID vaccinations were made available to DC public and charter school educators, they played an essential role in a rapid response Under 3 DC campaign to reverse Mayor Bowser’s decision to deny early childhood educators that same availability. 

When the pandemic continued and a workforce crisis ensued, DCELC’s ear and footprint in the community shaped the push and timing of the fight for early childhood educator pay equity. With the permanent increase in teacher pay attached to a December 2023 deadline for educators to have Child Development Associate credentials or more (as included in Birth-to-Three), they are once again leading the charge to move educators to become self-advocates and find a way to the finish line by building necessary networks and connections at area universities and with child care associations to make their achievement possible and create more high-quality programs. 

DCELC is not looking to ride off into the sunset anytime soon. Its leaders are volunteers, but they remain committed to dedicating their time and immeasurable expertise to building a comprehensive, equitable, high-quality early childhood system for all children in the District. When asked what DCELC plans to focus on in the future, Mr. Sykes said, “Quality is what we need to focus on now. According to OSSE, less than 20 percent of programs are in compliance (on quality).” 

The District’s early learning community has its marching orders—time to get to work.


About the DC Action Awards

Meet all of the 2023 Honorees