Better Know a Network: sparks!

sparks! is an emergent network in La Crosse County, located in western Wisconsin. The network was founded after receiving a grant from the State of Wisconsin in 2015. This funding came through a state-level initiative granting money to 10 communities across the state. Part of the inspiration for these grants was to encourage businesses to understand the importance of early childhood, to create relationships between public and private-sector organizations around early childhood. However, this funding for sparks! ran out in February 2018, leading the network to seek new funding from more local sources. The first champions of the coalition included both state-level entities and more local groups. On the state level, the Department of Children and Families was the leading champion. Locally, sparks! found widespread and diverse support from school districts, medical providers, businesses, the HeadStart organization, and the local library. sparks!’s vision at its start was not to directly engage with the community through programs, but instead, start a conversation within the community around early childhood. They wanted to bring everyone to the table and figure out how to collaborate as a community on the issue of early childhood and bring that to the table for businesses, schools, parents, and more.

While the sources and amount of funding for sparks! have changed since its inception, the original missions and goals of the network have not changed significantly, as they are still mainly focused on early childhood, especially early literacy. When the initial grant for sparks! ran out, the network needed to find a new source of funding to keep the coalition running. They were successful, managing to secure a $100,000 grant from a local group called the Franke Foundation. With the money, they were first able to purchase thousands of books for young students to read over the summer, including with each book a card that gave parents tips for discussing the book with their kids. sparks! understood that parental engagement is vital to early literacy because someone has to encourage children to read and discuss literature outside of school. 

sparks! has succeeded in partnering with local organizations such as restaurants, childcare centers, and also groups such as Compass and Better Together. They have engaged businesses in several ways, including sparks! signage at the businesses. They also distributed activity cards to restaurants and childcare centers. These cards include topics or “sparks!” to help parents engage their kids, whether it is literacy games at a restaurant or doing activities on the ride home from childcare. The network has also partnered with existing collective impact initiatives in the La Crosse area, such as Better Together, a partnership focused on mental health, and Compass, which conducts periodical community needs assessments that gather data for sparks!. This variety of partnership coordination has been an excellent success for sparks!. They have been able to become plugged into their community at a very high degree while implementing successful strategies to engage not only businesses and organizations but also parents of the children they are seeking to serve.

On the topic of community engagement, sparks! has also done a great job with outreach, given their limited funding. While the lack of a large budget has precluded them from being able to conduct in-depth or large-scale marketing and research efforts, the network has succeeded in performing on-the-ground outreach. They have been helped with this through their strong relationships with community partners. They have participated in parent focus groups, conducted booths at the local library, a local family expo, and coordinated a museum launch for children. Also, they ran commercials, PSA’s about early childhood, and garnered news coverage for sparks! and its importance. Part of this coverage was gained by conducting several public showings of the film No Small Matter, a documentary focused on the importance of quality preschool education.

Being an emergent network, sparks! faces challenges that prevent them from reaching higher levels of engagement and awareness within their community. One major issue is, as mentioned above, funding. sparks!’s lack and uncertainty of funding mean they are unable to perform mass marketing or awareness efforts, aside from inserting questions regarding sparks! into the Compass community needs assessments. The lack of this research is essential because it prevents sparks! from gauging awareness in the community, producing key pieces of data, and fueling policy or advocacy efforts at the state or federal level. While these challenges are daunting, sparks! has already shown great successes with limited funding. Their work to engage the community, from businesses to schools to other collective impact groups and, most importantly, parents have been a success.