Buffett gift establishes new early childhood institute

An early childhood education major helps a Ruth Staples Childhood Development Laboratory student examine an evergreen on East Campus. The gift from Susie Buffett will tap into NU's early childhood expertise, including UNL's Ruth Staples Lab.
An early childhood education major helps a Ruth Staples Childhood Development Laboratory student examine an evergreen on East Campus. The gift from Susie Buffett will tap into NU's early childhood expertise, including UNL's Ruth Staples Lab.

A gift from Omaha philanthropist Susie Buffett will allow University of Nebraska experts to reach out and assist at-risk children and their families.

Announced Jan. 31, the gift will establish the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska. The institute will be a multidisciplinary research, education, outreach and policy center designed to help transform current approaches to early childhood development and education in Nebraska and nationwide. It will focus on children from birth to age 8, especially those who are vulnerable due to poverty, abuse, or developmental, learning or behavior changes.

"Too many children today are affected by an achievement gap that impacts their ability to succeed in school and later in life," said James B. Milliken, NU President. "We must do more to ensure our youngest children - especially those who are at risk have equal opportunities for health, happiness and success. The University of Nebraska, a land-grant university with significant history and expertise in early childhood education is well positioned to help achieve this goal."

Annual support provided by Buffett's founding gift will be more than matched by university, private and federal sources. Milliken said all combined, the investment by the various funding sources will be an endowment of more than $100 million.

The institute will capitalize on expertise available on the four NU campuses. Centers that will be involved include UNL's Center for Research on Children, Youth, Families and Schools; the Munroe-Meyer Institute at the University of Nebraska Medical Center; UNMC's College of Public Health; and the colleges of education at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and University of Nebraska at Kearney.

Other partners from UNL will include the College of Education and Human Sciences; Ruth Staples Child Development Laboratory; Barkley Memorial Center; and the Center on Children, Families and the Law.

"Early childhood education is an exciting field because it's all about the future. Nebraskans talk about the importance of the 'good life.' If we want our citizenry to experience that good life, we have to start early," said Marjorie Kostelnik, dean of UNL's College of Education and Human Sciences. "This institute will bring together the very best researchers, early childhood experts, families and community decision-makers, all of whom are dedicated to enhancing the lives of children and their families. And it will do it in innovative ways that will ultimately provide models of best practices for Nebraska, the country and the world."

The Buffett gift and matching funds will be used to hire a nationally known director for the institute; hire directors for research, education, and policy and outreach; recruit and retain faculty; support new research and scholarly study; support a scholarship fund to help education expenses for early childhood educators; support curriculum development; bolster policy and outreach efforts to the public; and create a national clearinghouse and media resource center, as well as a new early childhood scholarly journal.

University officials have yet to determine where the institute will be located. The location will likely be announced after an executive director is hired.

Buffett's gift will not be used for university facilities. However, the partnership will include building three new Educare Centers in Nebraska.

Educare Centers are early learning schools designed for low-income families. The centers are among the early childhood initiatives supported by the Sherwood Foundation and the Buffett Early Childhood Fund - both chaired by Susie Buffett.

There are 12 Educare schools running in the United States, including two operating in Omaha. The centers require master-degreed supervising teachers, bachelor-degreed lead teachers and appropriate adult/child ratios in each classroom, small group sizes, parent and family engagement activities, and rigorous evaluation.

Early childhood development and education is one of the six academic priorities of the Campaign for Nebraska, which was announced in October 2009. Buffett serves on the voluntary leadership team for the campaign.

Buffett said her commitment to early childhood education evolved from her belief that while equal opportunity is the great American promise, too many children are missing out on that promise because they enter kindergarten already behind - and often struggle to catch up well into adulthood.

"Science and common sense tell us that children are born learning," Buffett said. "So investing in the early years makes sense in order to create a more level playing field for all our children. This is an ambitious goal that will require a statewide collaborative effort. Nebraska's only public university, charged with serving the state through teaching, research and outreach, is the right institution to take the lead."