From Concept to Implementation: Georgia’s Early Education Empowerment Zones

November 25, 2014

By Nnenna Ogbu

Last year, Georgia became one of twenty states to win funding from the U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services through the federal Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC) grant. In its $51.7 million winning application, Bright from the Start: Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning (DECAL) outlined a plan to reform Georgia’s system of early learning and development (ELD) to increase the quality of ELD programs and promote child readiness outcomes.[1]

Georgia’s plan for system reform contains twelve projects, each directly related to one of the five key foundational areas of an effective early learning and development reform agenda.[2]

Table 1: Georgia’s RTT-ELC grant projects[3]

Successful State Systems

High-Quality, Accountable Programs

Promoting Early Learning Outcomes

Great Workforce

Measuring Outcomes and Progress

Project 1: Grant Management

Project 2: Early Education Empowerment Zones (E3Z)

Project 3: Quality Rated (TQRIS) Access and Availability

Project 4: Quality Rated (TQRIS) Validation

Project 5: Early Learning and Development Standards

Project 6: Comprehensive Assessment System

Project 7: Statewide Family Engagement and Community Grants

Project 8: Center-Based Home Visitation

Project 9: Workforce Knowledge and Competencies

Project 10: Supporting Early Educators

Project 11: Kindergarten Entry Assessments

Project 12: Unified Data System

Source: Adapted from Georgia’s 2013 RTT-ELC application[4]

Identifying Potential E3Zs

The Early Education Empowerment Zones (E3Zs) are one of the key projects in Georgia’s plan for system reform. The four E3Zs will serve as case studies for implementing strategies specifically designed to improve the quality of ELD by fostering community collaboration. More specifically, the goals of the E3Zs initiative are to (1) increase the availability of high-quality ELD options for children with high needs, (2) integrate new or expanded initiatives in 3-star programs that are specifically focused on children with high needs, and (3) identify drivers for scale-up feasibility for each strategy.

The process for selecting the E3Zs began in March 2014 by identifying counties with the greatest need. State administrators ranked counties using county-level data points based on two sets of indicators. The primary indicators included information on:

  • 3rd grade Criterion-Referenced Competency Test (CRCT) scores
  • Percentage of enrollment filled by children who receive Childcare and Parent Services (CAPS) subsidies[5]
  • Overall poverty rate
  • Percentage of births to females with less than a 12th grade education
  • Percentage of eligible child care programs participating in Quality Rated, Georgia’s tiered quality rating system for child care providers[6]

The second set of indicators included information on:

  • Free and reduced-priced lunch eligibility rate
  • Percentage of children with a home language other than English
  • Premature birth rate
  • Lottery-funded Pre-K saturation rate
  • Percentage of 2- or 3-star Quality Rated programs

After ranking each county, state officials clustered counties together to create regions that could serve approximately 10,000 young children (ages 0-4) per zone. Eleven potential E3Z regions — consisting of as little as one county to as many as nine counties — were created across the state. These eleven regions moved onto the next phase, in which they hosted state officials for day-long community visits.

Selecting the Final Four E3Zs

The purpose of the community visits was to determine the region’s capacity to support change and improve ELD throughout the zone. A team of state, nonprofit, and foundation representatives conducted community visits between June and August 2014.  Community visits typically consisted of a brief overview of the ELC/E3Z projects, community stakeholder presentations, and site visits to ELD programs. Community participants included a wide range of organizations that interact with children from birth through age 8, including child care providers, Family Connection Collaborative, United Way, technical schools and universities, local civic clubs, local chambers of commerce, local school systems, Head Start/Early Head Start/Pre-K coordinators, local departments of public health and juvenile justice, and divisions of family and children services.  

Communities were reviewed on several criteria:  1) perceived capacity of its technical college or university to incorporate/expand early education instruction and support (including operating a lab school); 2) ability for Head Start/Early Head Start collaboration; 3) current or potential for a robust home visiting program; 4) level of participation in Quality Rated; 5) local foundation and business support; and 6) the ability of the zone to offer Georgia’s Pre-K in a variety of settings. Communities also received points if its Family Connection Collaborative listed early childhood education as a goal; had commitments from a civic club, Chamber of Commerce, and/or local public school superintendent(s); showed capacity to support new business; or had faith-based partner participation.[7]

Dr. Laura Johns, the E3Z System Architect and Director, met with community visit reviewers to determine recommendations, which were presented to the DECAL commissioner and deputy commissioners for final zone selection. The four E3Z were announced in mid-September 2014. They include two single-county zones and two multi-county zones:

  • Northeastern zone (Clarke)
  • Central zone (Bibb)
  • Northern zone (Catoosa, Whitfield, Murray, Gordon and Gilmer)
  • Southern Zone (Colquitt, Cook, Brooks, Lowndes, and Echols)
Figure 1: The Final Four E3Zs



Source: DECAL

Implementation and Evaluation in the E3Zs

The E3Zs encompass many of the projects within Georgia’s RTT-ELC grant by serving as case studies for implementation of targeted services. Overall, each E3Z will receive approximately $1.2 million in targeted resources to support a coordinated system reform partnership effort. Each zone will choose which services are best suited for their community and will work collaboratively to implement these strategies over the next three years. The ELD systems within the zones can expect to see:

  • Enhanced child care subsidy payments and a push to have 100% of child care programs participating in Quality Rated
  • Specialized professional development for early childhood educators
  • Screening, assessment, and referrals to promote child development
  • Non-competitive family engagement grants and training designed to increase the knowledge and use of family engagement principles, strategies, and parenting support  
  • Voluntary, center-based home visiting services coordinated through Great Start Georgia
  • Quality improvement grants for child care programs
  • Economic development incentives to attract high quality early education programs
  • A DECAL community coordinator to help implement initiatives

GOSA is working closely with DECAL to research and document the implementation strategies within each zone as well as to evaluate the effectiveness of different strategies within each zone. By the end of the three-year grant period, the initiatives that are successfully implemented in the E3Zs will serve as implementation models for other counties across the state.



[1] The Governor’s Office of Student Achievement previously published an education update as a brief overview of Georgia’s Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge grant. Click here to access the March 2014 education update. To learn more about each project in Georgia’s Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge grant, please refer to the stakeholder briefing hosted by DECAL in August 2014.


[2] The U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services detail the five foundational areas.


[3] To learn more about each of the projects to accomplish Georgia’s ELC agenda, including lead/participating agencies and project leads, please click here.


[4] Georgia’s full RTT-ELC application.


[5] CAPS is a DECAL program that subsidizes childcare for low income families. For more information on the CAPS program please refer to the DECAL website.


[6] The Governor’s Office of Student Achievement previously published an education update as an introduction to Quality Rated, Georgia’s Tiered Quality Rating and Improvement System for child care providers. Click here to access the October 2014 education update.


[7] Georgia Family Connection Partnership is a nonprofit, public-private intermediary that seeks to improve and protect the lives of Georgia’s children and family by unifying community resources. Read more about Georgia Family Connection Partnership here