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Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative Set to Announce Winners

The April 27 event hosted by former New York mayor Bill de Blasio marks the fourth year of the Early Education Initiative

The Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative at the Harvard Graduate School of Education announced the finalists for its 2023 Zaentz Early Education Innovation Challenge. Now in its fourth year, the Challenge recognizes groundbreaking ideas and strategic approaches that have the potential to enhance the quality of early education and raise awareness of the significant role early education plays in our society.

"We are thrilled to offer the Zaentz Innovation Challenge for the first time since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. After launching our inaugural Challenge in 2018, we have never ceased to be inspired by the applications received, the people we have met, and the powerful discourses their ideas have sparked," said Nonie Lesaux, co-director of the Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Co-director Stephanie Jones added: "In the wake of the pandemic's harm to children and families, we need innovation and policy solutions at all levels o the early education system — now more than ever — to support the workforce and promote children's healthy development. After reviewing this year's submissions, we are inspired by the finalists' commitment to innovations and solutions that will contribute to the nation's systems-building work toward high-quality early education and positive outcomes for all children."

The finalists were chosen from approximately 100 ideas submitted by organizations and individuals across the United States. Most applications came from individuals and teams affiliated with early learning centers and schools, state and local early education agencies, education nonprofits, policy and advocacy organizations, educational technology entrepreneurs, and universities.

The 11 finalists in the 2023 Zaentz Early Education Innovation Challenge submitted to one of two different Challenge tracks: Envision and Accelerate. These finalists are:


Reading Race in Picture Books | EmbraceRace: A free, video-based curriculum that helps caregivers use picture books to support healthy, developmentally appropriate racial learning for children from birth to 5 years old, with the aim of ensuring that books become much more powerful tools in the hands of caregivers working to nurture children who are thoughtful, informed, and brave about race. (Massachusetts)

Building a Comprehensive Approach to Providing Behavioral Health Supports in ECE Settings | Neighborhood Villages, Jewish Family & Children's Services, and East Boston Social Centers: A model for centralized delivery of behavioral health supports for Early Childhood Education providers in Massachusetts. (Massachusetts)

Early Childhood Teacher Corps | For Providers By Providers: An approach to addressing the critical teacher shortage that limits access to high-quality early education in New Orleans. This program leverages AmeriCorps funding and program design to introduce people to the field of early education as teacher's assistants in high-need, high-quality partner early learning centers. (Louisiana)

OutdoorObserver: A trans-media tool that integrates augmented reality (AR) to provide caregivers and teachers with tools to guide their children through self-directed, place-based learning experiences while exploring community garden and public park environments. (California)

Brightside Up Kitchen: A collaborative and interactive approach to supporting family child care providers through cooking classes and trainings that promote sensory exploration of healthy foods while respecting each child's developing taste. (New York)


Hairiette's House | Big Hair Hairiette: A systems-level, story-based intervention designed to increase literacy proficiency in children under age 8. Hairiette's House embraces and supports the most important adults in the lives of children: parents/caregivers and teachers. (New York)

Parent Leadership Program | Families First: Through this program, parents are empowered to bring their lived experiences raising young children in the community to advise the institutions and policies that are most important in children's lives. The program consists of a series of six 90-minute trainings after which parents can apply their skills via a six-month Community Impact Project at a local early childhood and family-focused agency. (Massachusetts)

BOND Program | Bright By Text: A free messaging program that empowers new parents of infants to make their mental health–and that of their baby–a priority. This program leverages targeted text messages to address early relational health, parent well-being, self-care, parent/child bonding, connections to mental health resources, and ample encouragement for new parents. (Colorado)

Journey to Nia | Anahsa Consulting: A professional development (PD) experience that teaches early childhood educators and leaders how to center Black joy and eradicate anti-Black racism in early childhood. The PD experience increases adults' knowledge of anti-Black racism and its impact on Black children birth-five years old while building their capacity to work toward creating joyful and equitable experiences for Black children in their earliest years. (New York)

Mini Meditations for Kids | Global Tinker: A series of audio recordings and accompanying hands-on, paper-based projects–rooted in mindfulness and arts therapy–designed for children ages 3-5 who have experienced trauma or been diagnosed with depression and anxiety. (New York and California)

Creating Synergy Through Peer Mentoring | Fairfax Futures + McFarren Avilés and Associates: A relationship-based leadership model that aims to attract, grow, and retain early childhood educators through a peer mentoring framework. This program includes a scalable and sustainable "roadmap" that provides ongoing recognition and leadership development to participating mentors. (Virginia)

The finalists will pitch their ideas at Harvard Graduate School of Education on April 27, 2023, from 4 to 6 p.m. ET, at the Askwith Hall. The pitches will also be live streamed online. The event will be hosted by former New York City mayor Bill de Blasio

Judges and a live audience will evaluate the pitches and determine the Challenge winners. Judges include Junlei Li, Saul Zaentz Senior Lecturer in Early Childhood Education and co-chair of the Human Development and Education Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education; Lisa van der Pool, Executive Vice President of Media Strategy at Inkhouse, a public relations firm just outside of Boston, Mass; Casey Peeks, Director of Federal Policy at Children's Defense Fund and a Zaentz Fellowship alumnus; Mora Segal, Managing Director at A-Street, an investment fund focused on investing in evidence-based, equitable education solutions; and Laura Perille, CEO of Nurtury, an early education organization dedicated to serving the children and families of Greater Boston.

For more information on the Zaentz Early Education Innovation Challenge, please visit its website or follow the Initiative on Twitter.


Zaentz also announced its Certificate in Early Education Leadership (CEEL) classes for the summer and fall. The CEEL online modules bring together leaders from across the education field to expand their leadership toolkits. Classes cover three broad topics: the science of early learning, leadership and teaching and learning. You can register online here.


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