A Champion for Early Childhood

Rebekah Dorman ’78
Photo by Gregory Wilson
Rebekah Dorman ’78
Twenty years ago, severe asthma kept Rebekah Dorman’s toddler in the intensive care unit for days at a time. Overwhelmed as she was, Dorman ’78 wondered what it must be like for other families with young children in the ICU, especially families who didn’t have the insurance or the emotional support she had.

Putting her concerns into action, she won funding to launch a stress management program for parents of children with chronic medical conditions.

The Cornell PhD in developmental psychology never stopped looking for ways to help families. Today, Dorman directs Invest in Children, a public-private partnership aimed at helping all children reach their full potential, administered by the Office of Early Childhood in Ohio’s Cuyahoga County. The 13-year-old multimillion-dollar program provides services from prenatal support to programs that get kids prepared for kindergarten. Dorman’s interest in childhood advocacy is motivated by a simple truth: “These are foundational years that you never get back,” she says.

Even at Brandeis, Dorman showed a talent for applying theory to practical problems, says Mick Watson, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, who remembers her as a top student in a seminar he taught. “She connected research and theory, and saw ways of explaining how they could be applied to real-life problems,” Watson says.

“The ultimate in my career is helping a parent and a child,” says Dorman. “This is what gets me up in the morning and keeps me doing the work.”

She has her work cut out for her. The latest figures from the U.S. Census Bureau show that last year more than 16 million American children — one in five — live in poverty.

But where others see intractable challenges, Dorman sees possibilities. She points to Invest in Children’s successes, such as its flagship universal pre-kindergarten program. Students entering Cleveland schools from this program score higher than others in the district on the kindergarten readiness assessment.

Moreover, Dorman’s leadership is drawing national attention. The author of two books and numerous professional articles, she serves as a consultant to the National Children’s Study, the largest and most detailed research project in history to focus on U.S. children’s health and development, and the Ohio Early Childhood Advisory Council.

Dorman credits economists like University of Chicago Nobelist James Heckman for underscoring the bottom-line benefits of early childhood programs just as new scientific research proves how critical the early childhood period is in brain development. “This has changed the conversation with policymakers and business leaders about the value of early childhood programs,” she says.

“We used to say helping young children was the right thing to do,” says Dorman. “Now we are also able to say it’s the smart thing to do.”

— Penny Schwartz, P’13