The Office of Child Development Celebrates Its 30th Anniversary

by Christina J. Groark and Robert B. McCall

The Pathways to Kindergarten Success, or Ready Freddy program, helps prepare students and their families for the transition to kindergarten.

In the mid-1980s, a survey was conducted at the University of Pittsburgh that determined that hundreds of faculty members were interested in children, youth, and families. However, they were scattered across the University landscape and often worked in isolation from both their academic colleagues and professionals in the community.

Collaboration across disciplinary barriers might enrich University projects with complementary perspectives and skills, and academic information might be put to better use for the welfare of children and families if projects were conducted collaboratively with community professionals. These premises led the University and the community to jointly create the Office of Child Development with financial contributions from the University, the Heinz Endowments, and The Buhl Foundation. It was to be an all-university unit, although ultimately it was administratively housed in the School of Education. It would create, facilitate, and serve collaborative projects that eventually would be owned and operated by the participants.

OCD emphasized true University-community partnerships; indeed, many of the early projects were instigated by community funders, policymakers, and agencies. The office then designed, funded, implemented, and managed the projects the community desired. Of course, OCD also created its own projects. The office’s vision was broad—improve the lives of children and families—rather than a specific content area, so it moved from topic to topic as society’s needs changed. Soon it became apparent that if a project needed an independent convener of collaborators to plan a project, it also needed an independent manager once the project was funded. So the OCD often became that manager, and it grew to have an annual budget of approximately $8 million and a staff of approximately 50 employees plus numerous students.

FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: Students collect children's books for the Langley Book Drive. Workers for the Ready Freddy program at Pittsburgh Public Schools' Arsenal PreK-5.

Many of its major projects have endured to this day in one form or another; a testimony to their value in the university and community. For example, the Office of Child Development convened faculty who created the Pittsburgh site of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development’s Study of Children’s Lives, one of the nation’s largest and most influential and continuing longitudinal studies of the effects of early care and education programs. It brought together physicians, early intervention specialists, and social workers to create the Alliance for Infants, the nation’s first organized community outreach to at-risk children, which still operates as an independent agency.

The OCD initiated and operated Family Foundations, one of 17 Comprehensive Child Development Programs across the country, which now operates as a consortium of five Early Head Start programs. It organized the county’s application to have a Healthy Start program to reduce infant mortality, which was awarded $30 million to start, and still operates. The office staffs’ the Family Support Policy Board, a collaboration of parents, stakeholders, and 25-30 family support centers that has received national recognition.

FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: Alumna and research graduate Kelly Martin leads Simple Interactions (SI), an approach to professional development for adults who serve youth. OCD Co-directors Bob McCall and Chris Groark. At the Clairton after-school program.

The community’s Early Childhood Initiative asked the University and the OCD to create a model early childhood care and education center for low-resource children in two Pittsburgh communities. These centers ultimately achieved the highest quality ratings in the state.  Further, the office became the Technical Assistance Center for Western Pennsylvania, improving the quality of early care and education facilities.

The office created the Pathways to School Success project, also known as Ready Freddy, which prepares parents, teachers, and children for kindergarten, a program that has been implemented in numerous schools in Pittsburgh and around the country. And the office has worked with Russian colleagues to transform an orphanage to be more family-like and caregivers to behave more parent-like that improved children’s physical and behavioral development and that led to mandated changes in institutional care throughout the Russian Federation.

And recently, the OCD collaborated with faculty from the School of Education to demonstrate a substantial need for materials and assistance in promoting positive racial identity among young African American children for a report, titled Understanding PRIDE (Positive Racial Identity Development in Early Education) in Pittsburgh.

These are but a few of the hundreds of the Office of Child Development projects conducted with hundreds of collaborators that have improved the lives—sometimes saved lives—of children and families in Pittsburgh and beyond. Thanks to all our partners for a fabulous 30 years.

Christina J. Groark is co-director of the Office of Child Development and an associate professor. Robert B. McCall is co-director of the Office of Child Development.