CLI Early Education Center at F.W. Gross Case Study

Victoria ISD's Journey in Preparing Students for Success Early
Children planting  at CLI

The following case study is the result of a series of interviews Center for School Actions conducted with key leaders at Victoria ISD and CLI between January - April 2022, with the goal of giving districts interested in School Actions an in-depth view of what the work looks like in practice from planning through implementation. Learn more about CLI Early Education Center at F.W. Gross.


Audio file

ANN: Hello everyone, my name is Ann Avila and I’m the Innovation Specialist for Victoria ISD, and I’m joined by my colleague, Dr. Katie McConnell, the Associate Director of Texas State Initiatives at the Children’s Learning Institute. We are here today to share about the CLI Early Education Center at F.W. Gross, a new early childhood campus in Victoria ISD that launched in 2021 with support from the School Action Fund to meet the needs of our learners and families. 


Audio file

ANN: The idea for an early childhood center was based on two factors: first, our Kindergarten readiness scores and second, the limited childcare options for families in the area. With low achievement data and student readiness, we saw an opportunity to reach children early and better prepare them for long-term academic success. This opened a door to reach young learners who were being watched by family members and gave them opportunities to start school early. Victoria families needed a safe and accessible place for their youngest children to grow and learn.

Once we came up with the vision for an early childhood center, we knew we needed to listen to community voices and engage them fully in the visioning process. Several families were members of a community group called Southside Community Coalition. We attended their meetings where we presented the ideas and garnered insight and ownership of the idea to ensure we were aligned in our vision and goals for the center. We began exploring resources and trusted partners who could help us realize our vision for our families and students. Fortunately, TEA’s School Action Fund grant provided critical funding and support to create an 1882 partnership with a provider outside of the district with deep early childhood expertise.    

Ahead of SAF support, we ran our first Call for Quality Schools to identify a provider with a high-quality ECE curriculum and a track record of success. We outlined our hopes and dreams for a quality educational experience for our youngest learners, but we didn’t get the responses we wanted because we weren’t specific enough about the kind of partner we wanted. Once we received the SAF grant, we ran a second Call for Quality Schools that included more specific and rigorous partner requirements. With the support of our TA provider, we conducted partner research and campus visits that helped develop a clearer vision for our center. Our second Call for Quality Schools helped us secure Children’s Learning Institute (CLI) at UTHealth as our partner.

We selected CLI for their reputation as leaders in early childhood education and research in the state. They had extensive consulting experience around developing curriculum, conducting professional development, and coaching teachers. When our committee met, we were thoroughly impressed with CLI’s excellent reputation around the state, but they had never operated a school before. Still, we saw this School Action Fund grant as a unique opportunity to build the district’s early childhood capacity and replicate CLI’s model and curriculum across the district through professional development and coaching. 

KATIE: From CLI’s perspective, building systems in early childhood education is what we do! We were really attracted to the opportunity to establish and run an early childhood center in Victoria, which would serve as a culmination of two decades worth of CLI product development, programs, and training. We saw this center as a manifestation of our core vision.

Their extensive experience made CLI the best partner to own the entire education process and program. We were both new to this work as Victoria ISD was serving as first-time authorizers and CLI as first-time operators. We started our partnership with some intense and long contract discussions. As new partners, we wanted to ensure clear expectations, roles and responsibilities. It took us 6 months to align on contract terms. These contract negotiations ensured that we had clarity and specificity upfront, but we needed to communicate often and build the trust necessary to ensure our partnership would be successful and sustainable.

This was new territory for all of us, but one of CLI’s core values is to do pioneering work. To do that kind of work well, you are rarely on steady ground. We both understood that this work would require constant collaboration and compromise. Once the contract was finalized, we met weekly to create our plans for staffing, teacher professional development, and our program pilots with an understanding that we would be flexible and pivot, if needed. 

ANN: Our flexibility proved to be critical to our success as we had to delay the opening of our campus, because we weren’t at a point to successfully launch. There were still structural and legal pieces that we needed to solidify, and we needed more time to hire staff and engage the community to ensure adequate enrollment. As part of this work we confirmed roles in this partnership - the district took on the building and facilities management as well as monitoring and compliance, while CLI took on the academic programming and operations of the early education center. CLI was also responsible for hiring the school leadership team, while the district selected teachers and paraprofessionals from applicants within Victoria ISD. 

KATIE: We faced another challenge in identifying and hiring a qualified school leader as our initial candidate did not work out. Despite this relatively rocky start, we were very fortunate to have a former CLI team member, Laura Prendergast, volunteer to relocate to Victoria in mid-March last year to help set up and run the school on a temporary basis. Laura brought an extensive education background and really helped with the project management to get the center ready for opening.  Laura initially came on board to help prioritize student recruitment and staff hiring. Laura planned family engagement activities and met with community partners to help market the center. During the summer prior to our school opening, Laura was critical in ensuring the center’s operational readiness, doing everything from creating the master calendar to drafting emergency handbooks. She also ensured the school and staff were adequately prepared to adopt and implement CLI’s approach to early education: designing plans for curriculum implementation as well as professional development and year-long teacher learning cycles. Without Laura’s leadership as the interim principal, we wouldn’t be where we are today. 

ANN: Our School Action Fund planning year required a lot of flexibility, communication, and most of all trust. We learned the importance of collaboration and compromise to help realize our shared vision for an early childhood education program that would cultivate our youth’s genius and build the skills necessary to help them find their personal “and”. We launched CLI Early Education Center at F.W. Gross in the Fall of 2021.

We believe our investment in this School Action process has not only catalyzed lasting change for our students and families but also for the wider district.


Audio file

ANN: When our opening enrollment of 153 students fell well short of our goal of 318, our adaptability and communication as partners helped us diagnose the issue and move forward. Our launch taught us that we needed to collaborate more to create opportunities to market the Center as a quality option in order to recruit families and meet enrollment targets. 

KATIE: We also needed to be flexible when thinking about hiring and developing the teaching team. Like all districts around the country, Victoria suffered a teacher shortage of 60 teachers in the aftermath of COVID. On top of that, the CLI model requires the use of paraprofessionals in each classroom given the benefits of lower teacher-to-student ratios. As a result, we were competing with traditional district schools for talent and ended up having to hire every teacher that applied. While we were fortunate to be fully staffed, we realized that our teaching team did not have the prerequisite knowledge necessary for teaching CLI’s early education model. In October, we decided to adapt our professional development to ensure all teachers were equipped with foundational mindsets and skills needed to lead a CLI classroom: one where learning is thoughtful, engaging, and fun. We worked to help teachers unlearn traditional ECE mindsets so that they could think outside the box to help children learn through play.


Audio file

KATIE: We’ve continued to support teachers and paraprofessionals in their development and adjustment to CLI’s model through on-site coaching. Our coaches work with teachers on a daily basis, building relationships and differentiating their support according to teachers’ needs. During these sessions, coaches model lessons and help teachers build the foundational skills necessary to foster joyful, experiential learning for every student. 

ANN: We’ve seen the success of this work first-hand in our monitoring visits, which help us assess the quality and compliance of the educational program. During recent compliance visits, we were excited to see teachers implementing ECE programming and creating a safe and nurturing environment for their students. It’s also refreshing to hear parents talk about what it’s like to have their kids at F.W. Gross, where everyone feels a part of a family. The School Action Fund program has afforded us the opportunity to think through how we can adopt some of these successful systems and structures at our district-managed campuses. Bringing these kinds of monitoring practices to our other SAF campuses has helped build internal systems and clear expectations that allow our schools to flourish. 


Audio file

ANN: As a district, opening an Early Education Center was an important part of our broader strategic plan to better prepare our students for academic success early in their lives. We believe our investment in this School Action process has not only catalyzed lasting change for our students and families but also for the wider district. The iterative nature of this work has helped us analyze ways to constantly improve our offerings to better serve our families. At F.W. Gross, it’s an ongoing learning experience. For example, we’re currently addressing technology barriers to better reach families and facilitate the enrollment process. Our collaborative partnership with CLI has been critical in allowing us to continuously improve the Early Education Center at F.W. Gross.

The School Action Fund grant and our partnership with CLI have afforded us additional benefits outside of the Center itself. Teachers have received invaluable professional development and coaching that we hope to share district-wide. We believe these teachers can  lead professional development for their peers at other schools and foster a district-wide ecosystem of continuous improvement.

KATIE: As an operator, TEA’s School Action Fund program has helped us understand what it takes to run a school and how to navigate stakeholders and resources throughout a district. We’ve also learned the importance of hiring the right principal to lead the school: someone who is invested in CLI’s approach to early childhood education. 

ANN: It’s been our pleasure to share our successes and lessons learned with you and we wish you the best in your own journey with TEA’s School Action Fund Program.

We believe our investment in this School Action process has not only catalyzed lasting change for our students and families but also for the wider district. 

Want to stay up-to-date on what's happening at CLI Early Education Center at F.W. Gross? Click the button below to visit the campus website.