An Interview with IECAM Project Director Dawn Thomas

Who are the people behind the data at IECAM? Over the next few months, this interview series will help you discover the names, faces, and personalities of IECAM staff—those who work to provide the Illinois early childhood community with the numbers, charts, and maps you see on the website.

To kick off this initiative, IECAM’s Resource and Information Specialist Brenda Koenig interviews IECAM’s Project Director Dawn Thomas. Read on to learn how she contributes to the well-being of young children and their families in the state.

How did you get involved with IECAM?

I was in the process of working on my doctorate in early childhood special education when IECAM’s then director, Dr. Susan Fowler, stopped by my office to ask me if I was interested in working with state and federal data. I was intrigued as she described IECAM and even more so when I got on the actual website. What was so compelling to me was that it was a new project and one of the first of its kind in the nation. I had been working on a longitudinal research project in the Department of Psychology but wanted to get back into early childhood work.

Tell me a little about your background.

My passions have included teaching children with special needs and working with families in poverty since high school (a long time ago….). I graduated from the University of Illinois and began teaching children who were deaf and hard of hearing. At that point, deaf education was done in self-contained classrooms and I worked with children who were 3 years of age all the way up to high school!

Head shot of Dawn Thomas, IECAM project director

I stopped teaching for a few years while I was raising my two daughters. When they were in elementary school, I came back to the university community to work for a federal training project teaching Head Start staff how to work effectively with preschool children with disabilities. I worked with that project for 12 years and loved every minute of it! It was there that I got to know the Head Start community. I keep in touch or still work with many of the same people in Head Start! We joke around and say that once you get Head Start in your blood, you never get over it! I think that is true.

In 2003, the Bush administration overhauled its training program for Head Start/Early Head Start programs, so I went to work for two different federal projects at the university (Disabilities Research Institute and Pathways Longitudinal Research Study) for a few years. And then, in 2008, Susan Fowler invited me to apply for the coordinator of the newly developed IECAM project, and I’ve been here ever since!

What initially interested you in the project?

This is an interesting question! I think what really “hooked me” was that IECAM was a way to work with data (since I was finishing up my doctorate) and make a difference for young children and their families in Illinois. It has become important for me to always keep in mind that every data point that IECAM staff analyze or geocode (for mapping) represents a child, a family, or a program with staff—all working for the same outcome for young children. We are not just talking about data points, we are talking about people with real needs and challenges in life.

What have been some standout accomplishments over the years?

I believe the standout accomplishment is the growth of our IECAM staff. IECAM started with two full-time staff and two part-time staff in 2006. Since that time, IECAM has grown to eight staff members who come to the project from various disciplines. It is their different perspectives that enhance the work IECAM does for the state. In addition to an early childhood specialist, we have SQL and GIS programmers, data analysts, librarians, and folks in media and communications. While these different views on children, education, and data make for lively staff meetings, they also enrich everything we do and try to do on our web site.

Group photo of Dawn and IECAM staff with U.S. Capital building in the background

The data IECAM offers — and how it’s presented — also has grown exponentially since 2006. We started with the capacity to search for tabular data at the county and township level, as well as mapping those same geographic regions overlaying demographic parameters (e.g., poverty). The website now has the capacity to search multiple geographic regions and early childhood programs and then contrast them with demographic factors such as poverty. In 2021, IECAM will have a new user interface. Users will be able to use this interactive platform to further customize graphic reports for a wide variety of community measures.

All of this is possible because of each and every staff member and graduate student who have brought their expertise to this project!

What have been some challenges?

I believe our biggest challenges have involved acquiring data. Illinois is rich in early childhood data from lots of sources, from the State Board of Education, Department of Human Services, Department of Public Health to the federal Office of Head Start. We decided early on that the best way to gain trust with those agencies and other stakeholders around the state was to form relationships with them. I can honestly say that we have tried to foster a relationship-based practice in every aspect of data collection, preparation, and fulfillment of data requests. We have tried to sit at the “table” with users of IECAM, advocates for children and families, and state agencies. I truly believe that any challenges we have faced or will face is helped or even solved by sitting and talking with our Illinois partners.

IECAM is housed at the University of Illinois. What makes this a good home for the project?

When IECAM was first developed, it was important for the funders (at the time, ISBE, IDHS, and private foundations) to place this project in a university setting that could provide good fiscal oversight, access to diverse faculty and expertise, and an objective perspective on the data. This has proven to be a good decision, because in addition to the benefits of a university setting, IECAM is able to work collaboratively with other early childhood projects.

For instance, IECAM is part of the Early Childhood Collective (ECC), which also includes the Illinois Early Learning Project, the Illinois Early Intervention Clearinghouse, the Early Intervention Training Program, and the Military Families Learning Network. Although this collective is made up of projects with various purposes, we all serve young children and their families. This provides for a rich level of resources and partners.

What is on the horizon for IECAM?

We are anticipating a new user interface with up-to-date features and even more data types. The state is poised to develop a more integrated data system and we are excited to be a part of that endeavor!

Do you mind sharing something personal (hobbies, family information, etc.)?

Something personal about me? I have two beautiful daughters and two adorable grandchildren. If we were in the office and you walked by, you would see a growing picture album on my door! And, most likely, you wouldn’t be able to stop me from talking about how bright Madeline is and how Phoenix is just now starting to walk. Since we are working remotely, most likely you would need to simply listen to me describing their antics—over Facetime or Zoom, of course. I love to read dystopian novels (don’t judge me!) and listen to music, especially worship and ’70s rock.