Professor Philip Fisher was recruited to Stanford to serve as founding director of the Stanford Center on Early Childhood. (Image credit: Ryan Zhang)

A generous gift to the Stanford Center on Early Childhood will advance the center’s work in early childhood and accelerate the exchange of expertise among researchers, policymakers, and front-line practitioners.

The Saul Zaentz Charitable Foundation is providing funding to expand a valuable large-scale data collection tool called the RAPID Survey, which tracks the experiences of young children, their families, and caregivers and is used by practitioners, government systems, and other stakeholders to address critical challenges for young children and the adults in their lives.

The foundation is also providing core support for the center and establishing two fellowship programs at Stanford aimed at preparing future leaders in early childhood learning: the Zaentz Fellows and the Zaentz Community Fellows.

“Advancing discoveries that shed new light on early childhood requires a holistic, multidisciplinary approach,” said Stanford President Richard Saller. “This gift will help Stanford bring knowledge to bear from across fields such as education, medicine, and psychology. We are thankful to the Saul Zaentz Charitable Foundation for working with us toward our shared goal of better understanding this critical period of human development.”

“Early childhood experiences set the foundation for all future educational outcomes,” said Daniel Schwartz, the I. James Quillen Dean of the Graduate School of Education (GSE) and Halper Family Director of the Stanford Accelerator for Learning. “The Saul Zaentz Charitable Foundation’s generous support will further enable the Stanford Center on Early Childhood to advance research and innovation in the field, while simultaneously increasing its ability to share the state of the art with stakeholders and providers. Additionally, the new fellowships will provide resources to Stanford students pursuing careers in early childhood. It is a catalytic gift for the center and for the field of early childhood education.”

The Saul Zaentz Charitable Foundation is named for the late Saul Zaentz, a successful record company executive and independent film producer whose films earned multiple Best Picture Academy Awards. The foundation’s philanthropic activities focus on educational advancement and include programs to advance early childhood education and improve K-12 graduation rates.

“Stanford’s entry into the early learning space in America is a welcome and important addition to the growing recognition that as a nation, we must all come together and fully support our youngest learners and their families if we are to achieve our goal of building a society in which everyone has an opportunity to prosper. Saul Zaentz Charitable Foundation is thrilled to collaborate with Stanford University on this important work,” said Elliot Steinberg, president of the foundation.

The Stanford Center on Early Childhood launched in November 2022 following a multi-year effort to develop a world-class hub on early childhood at the GSE. This effort was led by Schwartz, who is also the Nomellini & Olivier Professor of Educational Technology. As a part of the Stanford Accelerator for Learning, the Stanford Center on Early Childhood benefits from the GSE’s cutting-edge expertise in learning as well as Stanford’s globally recognized strength in innovation and collaboration across disciplines. Stanford recruited Philip Fisher, the Excellence in Learning Professor of Education, to become the founding director of the center prior to its launch.

“What happens in early childhood has lifelong effects on learning and behavior,” said Fisher. “The Saul Zaentz Charitable Foundation’s support will allow SCEC to expand its focus on equity, community leadership, and partnership with front-line practitioners and families leading change in their communities. It will allow us to bring the very best minds together in service to caregivers and the needs of young children everywhere.”

Joan Lombardi, adjunct professor and co-chair of the SCEC Leadership Council, added, “Families with young children and those who care for them are facing uncertainty and increasing challenges. They both need our ongoing support. Communities all across the country are stepping up to create more responsive early childhood systems, and innovation and new leadership are emerging around the world.”

The RAPID Survey Project

The foundation’s gift will allow the Stanford Center on Early Childhood to continue elevating the value of the RAPID Survey Project to the field of early childhood, focusing on the lived experiences of families and childcare providers.

The RAPID Survey Project launched nationally in April 2020 to gather information about the well-being of young children and their caregivers during the COVID-19 pandemic. With its ability to capture and widely share monthly snapshots of families’ experiences, RAPID represents a major shift in early childhood research, which has too often been difficult to understand and access. The project has generated invaluable data and insights for policymakers, nonprofits, and researchers during the pandemic and become a key resource for addressing achievement and resource gaps in the pandemic’s wake. To date, more than 19,000 families from all 50 states have shared their experiences through RAPID.

The Stanford Center on Early Childhood sees even greater potential for the platform. Increasingly, RAPID is being sought by community and state leaders who are invested in understanding the real-time experiences of families of young children and the early childhood workforce to develop and improve responsive early childhood systems of care.

Preparing a new generation of early childhood leaders

The foundation’s gift will also establish two complementary fellowship programs aimed at preparing future leaders in early childhood.

The Zaentz Fellows Program will support GSE master’s students who are preparing for careers in early childhood, initially in the areas of policy and organizational leadership, with fellows selected from incoming classes of graduate students beginning in 2025. The second program, the Zaentz Community Fellows, will recruit multi-disciplinary, early childhood practitioners from community-based organizations, media, government, philanthropy, and the early childhood education sector and support their professional development.

Decades of sparse investment have created significant challenges in the early childhood field, including a lack of career ladders in the policy and nonprofit sectors; difficulty filling critical leadership positions at the local, state, and national levels; and a dearth of high-quality training for practitioners. Both the community and graduate fellowship programs will contribute to growing a diverse, experienced pool of talent for the early childhood sector.

Fellows from the two programs will have opportunities to collaborate with each other and faculty members, deepening their learning experiences and accelerating the exchange of ideas between academia and the broader early childhood learning community already underway at the center.

“This philanthropic support will allow the Stanford Center on Early Childhood to expand the urgent work of incorporating community voices into research and policymaking while growing a network of talented, diverse early childhood professionals,” said Miriam Calderon, chief policy officer of Zero to Three and member of the Stanford Center on Early Childhood’s Leadership Council. “These are key ingredients for strengthening the alliances between communities, researchers, and policymakers that are crucial for improving early childhood outcomes.”