Joint Professional Learning in Somerville and Springfield

Last week’s post described how both Somerville and Springfield have developed professional learning initiatives that bring together prekindergarten and kindergarten educators. The work of Somerville’s Kindergarten Readiness Group and Springfield’s Birth-Third PLC begins to suggest what the content of these workshops can be and what the participants get out of it. These examples also raise a number of helpful questions to consider when designing joint professional development experiences.

COMMON THEMES

“Demystifying What We Each Do For a Living.” In both Somerville and Springfield the PreK/Kindergarten collaborations began with discussions and cross-site visits in which the participants recognized many similarities in practice across settings. Public school teachers remarked that circle time and transitions felt familiar and expressed surprise in seeing the age range in the preschool programs; the community-based teachers found public kindergartens to be warmer and “more loving” than they are typically reputed to be and were impressed by the extent of literacy and writing activities they observed. Lisa Bakowski, the principal of the Boland Elementary School in Springfield, refers to this stage as “demystifying what we each do for a living.” In both communities, participants refer to their first meetings as leading to a cultural shift, an “opening up,” and laying a foundation of trust and relationships.

Sharing Teaching Practices. From the participants’ perspectives, the appeal of these meetings lies in the opportunities they create to share practices, to see different environments and classroom settings, and to learn more about the learning expectations and assessments found in each sector. At a recent Birth-Third conference in Springfield, a panel shared their experiences in the 2010-11 public/private PLC, and the teachers emphasized that they learned about many new ideas and lesson strategies that they brought back to their classrooms. Likewise, teachers at the Somerville Kindergarten Readiness Group readily share lesson ideas, ranging from using a storytelling bracelet in which each bead stands for a part of a story to a discussion of the use of turn and talks as children become developmentally ready to engage in this practice.

Motivation. The participants on the Springfield panel also emphasized the motivational impact of seeing a wider variety of classroom practice through the cross-site instructional learning walks. One veteran community-based preschool teacher shared the moving story of losing her entire classroom of materials, which had taken years to accumulate, when a large tornado hit Springfield last year. The teacher started over in a new classroom in a new building but felt demoralized professionally. She described the experience of seeing a prekindergarten teacher in an elementary school teach as a “refresher course” in all the strategies she had learned over the years but that in some cases had fallen by the wayside and needed to be brought back into the forefront of her practice. The visit provided her with new ideas and inspired her to begin re-incorporating a broader range of effective strategies into her teaching and helped her re-engage professionally. Conversely, teachers also found motivation in being visited by colleagues. As principal Bakowski explained, “We don’t know all the great things we are doing until we see it through others’ eyes.”

The kinds of topics under discussion by the members of Springfield's Birth-Third Professional Learning Community (some of these were changed due to snow days).
The kinds of topics under discussion by the members of Springfield’s Birth-Third Professional Learning Community (some of these were changed due to snow days).

Learning Standards. In addition to sharing lesson ideas, the teachers in Somerville and Springfield were eager to explore their respective standards and assessments. For the meeting in Somerville referred to earlier, the meeting organizers had excerpted and matched sections from the EEC and ESE standards documents so that small groups could identify similarities and differences across the two sets of preschool standards and then compare the preschool standards to kindergarten standards. The participants found these activities highly useful, in particular as many community-based preschool teachers were unfamiliar with the new Common Core-aligned Massachusetts frameworks. Community-based preschool teachers in both cities expressed much interest in learning more about kindergarten expectations. As one Springfield preschool teacher said,

“I feel like it would make me a better teacher to really know what is expected of my students. What do you really need to know for kindergarten? I think they are ready. I think I am getting them ready. But I’m not 100% sure, and I want to be. Learning about kindergarten makes me look at myself as a teacher.”

Snowball Effects. Project directors in both Somerville and Springfield emphasize that the public/private early childhood collaborations in their communities are having snowball effects. Once a platform for collaboration is established, it is leading to additional collaboration. Now that principals and preschool directors have established relationships, when a principal realizes that a struggling prekindergarten child is also spending half of his or her day in a community-based preschool program, the principal is more likely to pick up the phone and call the preschool director. During Springfield’s first iteration of public-private PLC in 2010-11, community-based preschool directors expressed an interest in learning more about autism, which led to a workshop by an autism expert from the Springfield Public Schools that benefited both public and community-based preschool teachers. Likewise, the collaboration around the Birth-Third Alignment Partnership in Somerville has led to the incorporation of community-based prekindergarten teachers into the public schools’ annual Teacher Talks event, in which prekindergarten teachers go from table to table, meeting with kindergarten teachers to discuss the children moving into kindergarten. This additional intelligence about rising kindergarteners has had a large impact on how kindergarten class lists are formed.

LEARNING FROM EARLY EFFORTS

The joint professional learning projects in Somerville and Springfield raise for the field the kinds of structural design decisions that leaders of public/private early childhood education collaborations face. These design decisions stem from the overall purpose of the collaboration (e.g., standards alignment, assessment literacy, lesson design and teaching strategies, improving developmentally appropriate practice, and so on).

  • What should the balance of teachers and leaders be?
  • How often should the groups meet?
  • What activities should they carry out? How can partnerships structure activities to make the most of valuable professional development time?
  • Will a community-wide group best serve a community’s needs or is a pilot in a few neighborhoods preferable?
  • Is it more important to expand the number of participants/schools/centers or to extend the work of a few groups more deeply into the analysis of assessment results and lesson study?
  • And importantly, how do representatives from schools and centers share their experiences with their colleagues who do not attend?

Future posts will pursue how partnerships in Massachusetts and other states address these as well as the critical underlying question:  What is the sought-after impact and how will we monitor progress in achieving it?

Top Image:  An activity planning web from Somerville’s Kindergarten Readiness Group. Mixed groups from different programs/schools outlined units based on four different books.

This post was completed as part of a contract between the MA Department of Early Education and Care and Cambridge Education (where David Jacobson worked at the time). Contract # CT EEC 0900 FY13SRF130109CAMBRID. 

Learning from Exemplars: PreK-3rd in Union City, NJ

Somerville is graciously sharing a video of David Kirp’s talk about the Union City, NJ success story: https://vimeo.com/89543325.

In addition to Kirp’s book, Improbable Scholars see PreK-3rd’s Lasting Architecture: Successfully Serving Linguistically and Culturally Diverse Students in Union City, New Jersey (Marietta and Marietta) and Education Reform Starts Early: Lessons from New Jersey’s PreK-3rd Reform Efforts (Mead). 

 

Bridging the Public/Private Divide

Joint Professional Learning for Preschool and Kindergarten Teachers

Birth-Third is about improving the quality of education and care at three developmental levels—ages 0-3, 3-5, and 5-9—while improving alignment across these levels. A central alignment challenge is the divide between preschool and K-3 education, and particularly between community-based preschool and public elementary schools. Preschool teachers have important information about children that often does not make it to the children’s kindergarten teachers, and conversely preschools may lack up-to-date information about the kindergarten experience and kindergarten expectations. Further, both preschool and kindergarten teachers are working on meeting new standards in ways that match their children’s developmental needs—taking advantage of how children best learn—yet they typically do this work in isolation from each other.

Addressing this divide requires creating systems, sharing data, and convening leadership groups. Further, communities on the forefront of Birth-Third work often provide joint professional development for teachers and leaders working in public and private early education settings, a strategy highlighted by recently-proposed federal preschool legislation.

One of Somerville’s Kindergarten Readiness Group meetings this year gives a sense of what joint public/private professional development can be like. In this meeting of approximately 30 preschool teachers, preschool directors, and kindergarten teachers, small groups compared preschool standards from the EEC (Department of Early Education and Care) to the Common Core-aligned ones from the ESE (Department of Elementary and Secondary Education). They then collaboratively sketched out pre-kindergarten and kindergarten lessons that explicitly target English Language Arts standards and that incorporate opportunities for choice and play. In a subsequent meeting teachers extended this cross-site work by sketching out curriculum units based on specific books.

Likewise, Springfield has created a Professional Learning Community in which pre-kindergarten and kindergarten teachers visit each other’s classes and participate in joint professional development on a variety of topics, including the Common Core standards, social-emotional learning, using data, and kindergarten readiness. Both communities have managed to hold these workshops despite the logistical hurdles that this kind of collaboration entails, and in both communities there is a forceful, “of course we should meet, this is so natural and makes so much sense” quality to the participants’ comments about the experience.

Springfield's early education PLC at the Boland Elementary School
Springfield’s early education PLC at the Boland Elementary School

Both Somerville and Springfield are in relatively early stages in the design and execution of these activities, yet their work thus far begins to suggest the kinds of design decisions joint public-private professional learning entails. This week’s post discusses the role of joint professional development in the context of recently-proposed federal legislation and introduces the activities currently underway in Somerville and Springfield. Next week’s post highlights a number of common themes that are emerging from the work in these two communities and identifies a set of key questions that this kind of direct teacher-to-teacher collaboration raises.

How Joint Professional Learning Fits

Joint public/private professional development is required by recently proposed federal legislation, the Strong Start for America’s Children Act sponsored by Senator Tom Harkin and Representatives George Miller and Richard Hanna.  According to the EdCentral Early Ed blog, this bill would require prekindergarten providers to carry out the following types of collaboration with public school districts, including the third and fourth items regarding alignment and joint training:

  1. Coordinate and enter into strong partnerships with local school districts or other local early childhood programs, including Head Start programs;
  2. Transfer records for each participating child to the public school where they attend kindergarten;
  3. Work with elementary schools to ensure continuity in teacher instruction and expectations for children’s learning and development;
  4. Organize and participate in joint training, including school transition-related training for elementary school and pre-K program staff;
  5. Engage families and elementary school teachers and principals in discussions of educational, developmental, and other needs of children entering kindergarten; and
  6.  Help parents, including parents of dual language learners, understand instructional and other services provided by the kindergarten (“Building Bridges between Pre-K and Kindergarten”).

The collaborative activities suggested by this list—sharing student data, developing transition activities, aligning learning expectations, and joint professional development—are key components of the approaches pioneered by exemplary Birth-Third communities such as Union City, NJ, Montgomery County, MD, and Bremerton, WA. In Massachusetts, all of the first five Birth-Third Alignment Partnerships support some form of collaboration between community-based preschools and public schools. In Boston, Lowell, and Pittsfield, the public-private collaboration occurs through leadership meetings and/or coaching relationships, whereas the focus in Somerville and Springfield includes direct teacher-to-teacher collaboration.

Birth-Third Alignment in Somerville and Springfield

Honey
Somerville Family Learning Center’s Honey Schnapp introducing the theme, Using Play to Meet Standards

The Kindergarten Readiness Group in Somerville. Somerville’s Alignment Partnership is managed by the Somerville Public Schools and an Alignment Advisory Group that includes members from different public and private agencies. The group has hired Suzanne Gibbons as the coordinator of the Alignment Partnership’s activities. After an intensive period of analysis and planning at the beginning of the grant, the alignment group homed in on a literacy focus and four primary strategies: the kindergarten readiness group, a pilot literacy coaching project involving eight preschool classrooms (plus a language and literacy course for an additional 20 teachers), training for community-based providers in Teaching Strategies Gold assessment, and an informational website for families.

The Kindergarten Readiness Group was formed last spring and set about establishing relationships and a forum for communication and collaboration by exploring similarities and differences between prekindergarten and kindergarten. After an introductory meeting, the members conducted hour-long cross-site visits, with community-based preschool teachers visiting public school classrooms and public school teachers visiting community-based classrooms. The members then met to debrief on their experiences and impressions, finding many more similarities than differences. They also worked on developing a transition form to be used by preschool teachers across the city to provide information on their rising students to kindergarten teachers. In the eyes of many participants, these meetings established a climate of trust and an eagerness to continue working together. The partnership’s organizers saw in the Kindergarten Readiness Group an opportunity to address an emerging focus on literacy during the 2013–14 academic year. They planned a series of four meetings for 2013-14, focusing on two related topics: (1) aligning and meeting standards and (2) incorporating play, choice, hands-on activities, and inquiry in student learning experiences. The organizers summarize this year’s theme as Using Play to Meet Standards.

Special Note: See Catherine Tighe’s article in the Huffington Post, The Common Core in My Classroom: A Teacher’s View. Catherine teaches Kindergarten in Somerville and is a member of the Kindergarten Readiness Group.

Springfield’s Birth through Grade Three Professional Learning Community. The preschool provider, Square One, is the lead partner and fiscal agent of Springfield’s Alignment Partnership. Square One has assembled a “Leadership Steering Committee” to guide the work of the Alignment Partnership and has hired Cindy Recoulle as the project coordinator and Joan Paris as the project consultant. The Springfield partnership has developed a strategy centered on selecting a community-wide preschool curriculum and identifying standards to focus on across public and private settings, including common developmental domains in Teaching Strategies Gold and shared social-emotional standards. The partnership will provide professional development and outreach around these domains and standards (including through the PLC meetings), identify common formative assessments to use across preschool settings, expand teacher-to-teacher observations, and share kindergarten assessment data with pre-kindergarten providers. Springfield summarizes its strategy under three categories: Curricular and Assessment Alignment, Teacher and Adult Caregiver Capacity and Quality, and Data Use and Strategic Planning.

Discussing data in a Springfield PLC meeting
Discussing data in a Springfield PLC meeting

With its Professional Learning Community (PLC) meetings, Springfield is reviving a structure the community first established during the 2010-11 academic year as part of a grant funded by the ESE (the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education). During that year, three local partnerships were formed, each consisting of an elementary school and community-based providers, including YMCA preschools and Head Start programs. In addition to shared professional development workshops, the partnerships conducted cross-site instructional learning walks. As in Somerville, the participants identified more similarities than differences, and according to both organizers and participants these meetings established relationships and built trust. Over time the group added more structure and focus to the learning walks, developing a reflection form and checklist and targeting oral language development and how teachers facilitated transitions from activity to activity. Due to funding and leadership changes, Springfield had to suspend the meetings after the 2010-11 year, but the group’s leaders have been eager to re-establish the PLC through the EEC Alignment Partnerships. (For more information on Springfield’s public/private collaboration, see Improving the Early Years of Education in Massachusetts, p. 39.)

Next Week: The what and why of joint professional development and learning from Somerville’s and Springfield’s efforts thus far.

This post was completed as part of a contract between the MA Department of Early Education and Care and Cambridge Education (where David Jacobson worked at the time). Contract # CT EEC 0900 FY13SRF130109CAMBRID. 

High-Quality Early Education and Care Bring Health Benefits 30 Years Later

From the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute:

Long-term Health Benefits for FPG’s Abecedarian Kids

With substantial implications for health care and prevention policy, FPG is reporting today that children who received high-quality early care and education in FPG’s Abecedarian Project from birth until age 5 enjoy better physical health in their mid-30s than peers who did not attend the childcare-based program.

The findings appear today in Science and are the result of FPG’s collaboration with Nobel laureate James J. Heckman. Not only did FPG and Heckman’s colleagues determine that people who had received high-quality early care and education in the 1970s through the project are healthier now—significant measures also indicate better health lies ahead for them . . . [more]

 

A Community Commitment: Berkshire Priorities and the Pittsfield Promise

The accident of birth is a principal source of inequality in America today. American society is dividing into skilled and unskilled, and the roots of this division lie in early childhood experiences. Kids born into disadvantaged environments are at much greater risk of being unskilled, having low lifetime earnings, and facing a range of personal and social troubles, including poor health, teen pregnancy, and crime. While we celebrate equality of opportunity, we live in a society in which birth is becoming fate. (J. Heckman, Giving Kids a Fair Chance, 2013)

On January 23rd John Bissell opened a meeting of community leaders in Pittsfield, MA with this quotation from the Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman. Bissell is a banker, and he and a number of community leaders in Berkshire County had recently been reading Heckman’s book, Giving Kids a Fair Chance. This group of community leaders is on the leading edge of a movement to mount concerted community-wide campaigns focused on Birth through Third Grade (Birth-Third) efforts, and third grade reading proficiency in particular. In Pittsfield this work is directed towards a singular community goal, referred to as the Pittsfield Promise: 90% reading proficiency on the third-grade MCAS by 2020. In 2012, Pittsfield won the National Civic League’s All-America Grade-Level Reading Award, and it was recently named one of 37 communities to be named a 2013 Pacesetter community by the Grade-Level Reading Campaign. (Springfield too has achieved both distinctions.)

In the context of the range of Birth-Third Alignment Partnerships underway in Massachusetts, Berkshire County’s campaign represents a good example of a robust community-wide approach that includes community outreach, direct supports to families, and work to improve preschool access and quality. The following list gives a sense of some of the main Pittsfield Promise activities:

  • Literacy events (e.g., Story Walks—staged walks across towns and parks from one large poster of a page from a book to another, accompanied by library readings of the featured books)
  • Book giveaways and storytelling sessions (e.g., literacy bags for newborns, books for mothers through the WIC program, pediatrician and nurse promotion of reading through Reach Out and Read)
  • Quality improvement efforts for early childhood providers (e.g., training in assessments, coordination with Berkshire Readiness Center trainings)
  • Home visiting programs
  • A media campaign (e.g., cable TV shows and newspaper articles)
  • Access to quality preschool (e.g., community funding tied to quality indicators)
  • PreK-12 alignment (e.g., a PreK/K professional learning community)
  • Resource mapping and community engagement (e.g., “asset-based community development” in collaboration with Berkshire Community College and neighborhood initiatives)
  • Data analysis/communications (e.g., A State of the Young Child Report in collaboration with the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission)
Three Berkshire United Way Birth-Third Leaders (from left): Nancy Stoll (Director of Community Engagement and Evaluation), Karen Vogel (Early Childhood Coordinator), and Kris Hazzard (President and CEO).
Three Berkshire United Way Birth-Third Leaders (from left): Nancy Stoll (Director of Community Engagement and Evaluation), Karen Vogel (Early Childhood Coordinator), and Kris Hazzard (President and CEO).

Berkshire County has established a governance structure, a strategic plan, and a network of working groups to drive and coordinate these Birth-Third activities. The Berkshire United Way serves as the “backbone organization” of the partnership, leading, coordinating, and staffing the work. The MA EEC Alignment Partnership grant supports Berkshire United Way in organizing these activities, in particular through the person of its Coordinator of Early Childhood, Karen Vogel. Over the past year, Berkshire United Way has participated in a five-city network led by Strategies for Children and Harvard professor Nonie Lesaux. Influenced by this experience, Berkshire United Way’s Birth-Third leaders are increasingly focused on marshaling the community’s resources in a strategic fashion that will yield the most impact.

Pittsfield Promise’s early literacy campaign raises a number of interesting and important questions regarding:

  • How a community mobilizes and coordinates commitment and action tied to a single goal
  • How communities balance diverse strategies including community awareness, direct support to families, improving preschool access and quality, and collaborating with the school system
  • The role of a community funder in spearheading change and the associated benefits and challenges
  • How to assess impact and results across a broad array of initiatives

This initial post on Pittsfield Promise’s efforts first describes the basic structure and scope of the Birth-Third work underway in Pittsfield, including the partnership’s recent evolution and reassessment of priorities. A subsequent post will trace the development of Pittsfield Promise’s institutional commitment to early learning and third-grade reading, to be followed by deeper investigations into on-the-ground implementation and practice.

Strategy and Structure (Phase 1)

A recent meeting of the Early Childhood Think Tank serves as a good introduction to the work of the Pittsfield Promise. The Think Tank is a group of early childhood providers and partner organizations that has played an integral role in the Pittsfield Promise. The meeting began with a discussion of a marketing campaign in the city that would emphasize the importance of early childhood education and the critical role of families. The Think Tank has worked with the Pittsfield Promise communications committee to frame the appropriate messages, and Berkshire County Readiness Center Director Doug McNally was there to note how he could support the campaign through his monthly cable TV show. The Think Tank then discussed the goals of a State of the Young Child report that will present data regarding poverty and other risk factors in the county. 37.1% of Pittsfield children under five live in poverty, a percentage that is growing. The purpose of the report is to inform policymakers as well as provide a common framework of indicators that early childhood providers can draw on in order to send consistent messages to the broader community, including funders.

Karen working group
Early Childhood Coordinator Karen Vogel (pen in hand) and other members of the Early Childhood Literacy Impact Council.

The Think Tank then reviewed a PreK to K inventory list that Karen Vogel, the Coordinator of Early Childhood, had developed. This inventory integrates Massachusetts’ two kindergarten readiness tools, Work Sampling and Teaching Strategies Gold, and is intended to become a transition form used by all preschools in the county (see draft here). The meeting also included a proposal to re-constitute the Early Childhood Think Tank as an umbrella governance organization in the county, overseeing not only the Pittsfield Promise but also similar efforts currently being seeded throughout the county. Doug McNally of the Berkshire Readiness Center concluded the meeting by announcing high participation rates by preschool teachers in recent early childhood development classes and sharing dates for future professional development opportunities.

In order for a community-wide commitment to move from vision to implementation to impact, communities need to establish a governance structure, a plan targeting high-leverage priorities, and mechanisms to implement and monitor the plan (see this Birth-Third Framework for more on infrastructure). Overseeing the Pittsfield Promise is a group of approximately 60 community leaders who in 2011 committed to the 90% reading proficiency goal by 2020. Pittsfield Promise meets quarterly, while a smaller group of leaders, the Berkshire Priorities, meets monthly, in effect serving as the steering committee for the larger Pittsfield Promise group. The work is guided by a strategic plan that began in July 2012 and is currently in Year 2 of implementation. The strategic plan outlines five core strategies:

  • Strengthen the infrastructure of Berkshire Priorities to drive achievement of the Pittsfield Promise.
  • Create strong community awareness of the importance of literacy as pursued by Pittsfield Promise.
  • Create collaborative partnerships to align, integrate and leverage community resources to achieve the common goal of the Pittsfield Promise – by 2020, 90% of Pittsfield students will achieve reading proficiency as demonstrated by third grade standardized tests.
  • Leverage direct and indirect community resources to advance early childhood literacy.
  • Engage and connect parents, families, and other caregivers to opportunities to infuse literacy and inclusion in their everyday life.

The Pittsfield Promise has designed structures and mechanisms to implement these strategies in a coordinated fashion. The community has established six committees, staffed and coordinated by the Berkshire United Way (currently with support from the EEC grant). These committees play a critical role knitting together numerous agencies, community leaders and volunteers, including the Berkshire Readiness Center, the Berkshire Health systems, early childhood providers, libraries, museums, the mayor’s office, and so on. Sue Doucette, the early childhood coordinator for the Pittsfield Public Schools, sits on several of the preschool committees and working groups and supports alignment between the community-based providers and the public schools. Pittsfield Promise has begun working with two of the elementary schools in Pittsfield, but alignment efforts with the public schools have been hampered by leadership instability in the district (four superintendents in four years) and labor-management tensions.[1]

Importantly, Berkshire United Way’s Karen Vogel attends all of the Pittsfield Promise committee meetings and thus is able to update each on the progress of the others and make connections across their various spheres of work. The exact structure of these committees is evolving as the community tries to streamline and mesh their work.  The following list is likely to change but nonetheless serves to indicate how Berkshire County/Pittsfield Promise has initially structured its work: Family Engagement, Communications, Staff Enrichment, Data and Inventory, PK – 12 Alignment (which includes a focus on PreK and K assessments and transitions), and Out of School Time.

The Pittsfield Promise represents a deliberate decision made in 2011 to begin with a focus on Pittsfield and then expand outward to include the whole county. The anticipated move toward an all-county scope has begun in recent months, and the January proposal to reconfigure the Think Tank as a county organization mentioned above has been accepted. The county-wide umbrella governance group is now called the Early Childhood Literacy Impact Council.

Strategy and Impact (Moving to Phase 2)

Berkshire United Way's Kris Hazzard talking with board member and Early Childhood Impact Council co-chair, Michael Barberi.
Berkshire United Way’s Kris Hazzard talking with board member and Early Childhood Impact Council co-chair, Michael Barberi.

A common theme emerging across the five Birth-Third Alignment Partnerships in Massachusetts revolves around the need to set priorities, a challenging task given the breadth of potential Birth-Third improvement activities. Partnerships need to develop focused strategies that can be feasibly implemented, that will lead to demonstrable impacts, and ideally that build momentum for continued commitment and investment. As relatively new or newly-convened partnerships, Somerville and Springfield spent the first months of their EEC grant determining promising strategies that could be implemented given the scope of the two-year grant and with the available resources. While Berkshire County’s partnership, given its history, already had a plan and a set of initial activities in place, its leaders felt the need to (re)assess priorities in year two to ensure the Birth-Third work is having the greatest possible impact.

According to Berkshire United Way president Kris Hazzard, Berkshire Priorities’ re-assessment, as mentioned above, has been influenced through its participation in a five-city network convened by early childhood advocacy organization Strategies for Children. This network was formed in the aftermath of the National Civic League’s All-America Grade-Level Reading award in 2012. Five Massachusetts cities applied for and attended the awards event: Boston, Holyoke, Pittsfield, Springfield, and Worcester. While at the event in Denver the communities decided to form a network, which the advocacy group Strategies for Children has convened and supported.

Over the past year this network has worked with Harvard professor Nonie Lesaux, author of the influential report, Turning the Page: Refocusing Massachusetts for Reading Success. As a result of this collaboration, the Pittsfield Promise is moving towards placing relatively more emphasis on activities that are delivered at sufficient dosage to improve child outcomes in significant ways. The idea is to devote relatively more time and attention to expanding home visiting programs and increasing participation in quality preschool programs (while continuing efforts to deepen the involvement of the public schools in the Birth-Third work).

Geographic Breadth and Strategic Focus

Beginning with a focus on the city of Pittsfield, Berkshire Priorities has set an ambitious goal and mobilized its community around this goal through an interlocking network of community groups, committees, and working groups. Berkshire United Way’s current strategy is to expand beyond Pittsfield, continue engaging community members around early literacy, and push for increased access to high-impact (and relatively expensive) home-visiting and preschool services. The next post on Berkshire Priorities and Pittsfield Promise will explore how the county has built its commitment to third-grade literacy and how Berkshire United Way is supporting this work through two approaches to community change: asset-based community development and results-based accountability.


[1] Incoming superintendent Jason McCandless has expressed interest in making early childhood education a strategic priority.

 

This post was completed as part of a contract between the MA Department of Early Education and Care and Cambridge Education (where David Jacobson worked at the time). Contract # CT EEC 0900 FY13SRF130109CAMBRID. 

Early Childhood Links of Interest

Teaching Children to Calm Themselves, a most-emailed article from the New York Times.

Finland’s Approach to Child Care and Preschool Programs, a post from Strategies for Children’s Eye on Early Education. The more exemplars we have for motivation and advocacy, the better. See the linked Washington Post interview as well.

The Boston K1DS Project: Implementing a New Curriculum in Community-based Preschools

On a recent visit to the Paige Academy preschool in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, a group of students sit clustered on the rug in front of teacher Sister Paige.[1] Sister Paige leads the students in counting up to 10, with the whole class yelling the even numbers and whispering the odd ones. After a follow-up activity with puzzle shapes, she transitions the group to centers. In one small group children play with letters, picking out the ones in their names. In another, four kids “read” picture books. Sister Paige spends part of the time on a stool observing the children and taking notes on index cards.

Around the corner in another room, Sister Vishali flashes paper plates with different numbers of dots on them as the children in her class “click photos” in their minds, trying to instantaneously identify the number of dots (see photo above). The students are doing an activity of the Building Blocks math curriculum in which students practice “subitizing,” instantly judging the number of items in a set. Subitizing is an important skill that supports composing and decomposing numbers in later years. Following a routine with which they are clearly familiar, small groups of students bound up to get in line for the restroom when they hear the letter that begins their name. Near Sister Vishali is a large posted sheet of chart paper outlining the schedule of small group centers for the day for both her class and Sister Paige’s.

Sister Paige’s and Sister Vishali’s classrooms are two of 14 community-based preschool classrooms participating in Boston K1DS, a project to implement the school district’s prekindergarten model in community-based programs.  Boston’s prekindergarten model has recently been found to lead to the biggest gains in vocabulary and math of any large-scale program in the United States to date and smaller but significant gains in executive function skills as well. As a result it has been profiled in Time Magazine, the Christian Science Monitor, and Education Week. These findings feature prominently in a recent summary of the U.S. evidence base on preschool outcomes as an example of a highly effective combination of a “developmentally focused” curriculum and intensive coaching. The Boston K1DS project is thus a novel collaboration in which a school district works hand-in-hand with community-based providers to implement a proven, developmentally-appropriate curricular approach to improving child learning.

EEC Commissioner Tom Weber touring the Boys and Girls Clubs of Dorchester with Vice President of Programming, Mary Kinsella.

Boston K1DS is a collaboration between the Boston Public Schools (BPS), Thrive in 5 (Boston’s early childhood collaborative), the MA EEC, and private funders (see here for the complete list). This collaboration is a more expensive initiative than the other Birth-Third Alignment Partnerships in the state, drawing on Boston’s larger pool of resources.  Boston and Thrive in 5 each received $200,000 grants from EEC (over two years). The Barr Foundation is the primary funder of the project, Boston Public Schools is contributing funding as well, and Thrive in 5 is raising additional funds. The project includes a formal evaluation by a Harvard research team. Importantly, BPS and the other partners have committed to expanding the project to include additional community-based preschools if the project yields results comparable to the outcomes in BPS classrooms. Further, most of the lead teachers are receiving an increase in salary to compensate them for their participation in the project and to promote teacher retention. After first describing the BPS prekindergarten model and the context of the project, I describe the components of the K1DS project in more detail.

Boston’s Prekindergarten Model

The Boston preschool model has its roots in a 2006 decision by Boston Mayor Thomas Menino to expand prekindergarten in Boston elementary schools and to develop an early childhood department to support the improvement of prekindergarten and kindergarten teaching and learning. Prekindergarten for four-year-olds in Boston is referred to as K1 and kindergarten as K2. Early in his tenure as early childhood director, Jason Sachs undertook an assessment of prekindergarten teaching and learning using the ECCERs, CLASS, and ELLCO tools, all of which are observation-based measures of classroom quality. This assessment identified the need to improve quality. As a result of this finding, Sachs and his expanded team began development of a K1 curricular model.

The model they developed is anchored by an integrated curriculum composed of the Opening the World of Learning (OWL) curriculum for literacy and the Building Blocks curriculum for math. K1 teachers were supported in implementing this curriculum with professional development, an integrated scope and sequence, a binder of detailed materials, extensive coaching, and professional development on Making Learning Visible, an approach to observing and documenting student learning. Meanwhile, numerous elementary schools underwent NAEYC accreditation during the years in which the K1 model was being implemented. Of 79 elementary schools, 22 are currently accredited and 41 either are receiving or have received accreditation support. The early childhood department continued to assess quality in K1 classrooms using classroom observation tools, conducting regular audits by outside experts to inform the provision of coaching and professional development support.

The above-mentioned Harvard evaluation found that the K1 model was implemented with a high degree of fidelity (over 70%) and that it led to the groundbreaking gains in student learning mentioned above. Sachs attributes the success of the K1 model to (1) its “laser-focus” on a developmentally appropriate, effective curriculum supported by intensive coaching and professional development, (2) a well-compensated teaching staff all of whom have bachelor’s degrees, and (3) the impact of the NAEYC accreditation process.

Boston K1DS: The Context

Thrive in 5’s Executive Director, Jane Tewksbury, explained the rationale behind Boston K1Ds in a letter to the Boston Globe during Boston’s recent mayoral election campaign,

“Boston K1DS is one way to carry out both candidates’ early education agenda that doesn’t rely on the system building its way out of the not-enough-K1-classrooms problem. Supported by a partnership between Boston Public Schools, Thrive in 5, the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care, United Way, and the Barr Foundation, Boston K1DS provides the same curriculum, assessments, and teacher professional development as a traditional K1, but in community-based preschool classrooms. It meets the needs of working families who need full-day, year-round care; improves the quality of community-based early education programs; and increases compensation for early educators, who earn on average just $33,000 a year, far less than the $70,000 average salary of a BPS teacher.”

Getting ready to paint at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Dorchester.
Getting ready to paint at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Dorchester.

Interest in supporting community-based preschool to implement the BPS K1 model predates the EEC Alignment Partnership grant. One early education program, the Boys and Girls Clubs of Dorchester, had already begun implementing the model in one of its preschool classrooms. The demand for K1 seats by families in Boston is high, and BPS has been running out of room to expand K1 classrooms in its elementary schools. Further, the creation of BPS’s K1 program created competition for community-based preschools. Parents have incentives to move their 4-year olds into a K1 if they get into a school of choice in order to secure a place, leaving fewer 4-year olds in community-based preschools. Community-based preschools provide full-day, full-year care for families. In the neighborhoods targeted by Boston K1DS, most families rely on vouchers from the state to cover the cost of preschool, and full-day, full-year care is a resource many families need. Community-based providers argue that the loss of 4-year olds makes it harder for them to maintain their enrollments and cover the cost of serving younger children. This tension is part of the context in which the collaboration between BPS and community-based providers is taking place, a tension that plays out in other EEC Alignment Partnerships as well.

The EEC Birth to Grade Three Alignment Partnership grant created an opportunity for BPS to collaborate with Thrive in 5, a partnership encouraged by the EEC, the Barr Foundation, and other funders. From Thrive in 5’s perspective, Boston K1DS supports its long-term vision of creating a pipeline of programs that are prepared to become community-based K1s. This project supports Thrive in 5’s goal of aligning child experiences, teacher professional development, and assessment tools across community-based and BPS programs. Thrive in 5 aims to develop a replicable model, a clearly defined product, married to the QRIS system that can be widely adopted to improve community-based preschool quality while garnering the financial support of funders.

Boston K1DS: The Model

Theory of Action

This graphic, created by Sachs and the Boston K1DS evaluators, summarizes the Boston K1DS theory of change. The stated goals of Boston K1DS are as follows: “(1) retain highly qualified staff, (2) implement an evidence-based literacy- and math-rich curriculum, and (3) maintain full-day/full-year services that working parents depend on.” BPS began the K1DS project by soliciting interest from community-based preschool programs. An important stipulation was that the lead teachers in each classroom have a BA, as seen in the following eligibility criteria:

  • Licensed by the MA Dept. of Early Education and Care;
  • Must be located in the “Circle of Promise” or East Boston (relatively low-income neighborhoods);
  • Be NAEYC-accredited or willing to pursue accreditation;
  • Education, lead teacher: minimum BA degree, with 4-6 courses in early childhood education and three years of EC teaching experience. Assistant teacher: minimum AA in early childhood or CDA, and one year of teaching experience.
  • 1:10 teacher-student ratio;
  •  Programs must operate on a full-day, year-round basis;
  •  At least 80% of enrolled children must be Boston residents.

The Early Childhood Department conducted site visits and identified programs that would participate in the project, yielding 9 K1DS classrooms in addition to the already-implementing Boys and Girls Clubs of Dorchester classroom. Thrive in 5 identified an additional four classrooms for a total of 14. At this juncture the lead teachers in the BPS 10 classrooms are receiving a compensation increase for their participation; due to the initial funding constraints of the grant, the Thrive in 5 classrooms are not. BPS and Thrive in 5 are currently attempting to raise money for the teachers supported by Thrive in 5 as well. See here for a list of participating programs.

Beginning last spring, participating teachers were provided with instructional materials, and BPS held whole group professional development in the integrated BPS K1 OWL and Building Blocks curricula. In addition to the whole group workshops, BPS coaches provide customized on-site support to all the teachers, a crucial component of the project’s support structure. Concurrently, BPS and Thrive in 5 are holding monthly meetings for the directors of the participating early education and care programs. These meetings also play a critical role in the project. They serve as a forum for administrative decision-making, coordination, and problem-solving, and in addition BPS has used them to showcase BPS and non-profit resources that are available to the community-based programs. The directors have expressly requested using meeting time to focus on curriculum fidelity, which is seen by K1DS leaders as an indication of the directors’ commitment to the project. As is the case in Somerville and Springfield, the directors meetings have led to the development of trust and stronger relationships and “spillover” collaboration beyond the scope of the K1DS project.

BPS has developed an effective, developmentally-appropriate prekindergarten curriculum. The district has also developed the internal capacity—a coaching staff—that supports well-compensated, educated teachers in implementing this curriculum. Boston K1DS is a pilot to determine if the model, in conjunction with a compensation boost, can be implemented in community-based classrooms with similar results. Future posts will explore the implementation of the K1 curriculum, the perspectives of participating teachers and directors, coaching practices, and other aspects of the K1DS project.


[1] All the adults at Paige Academy are referred to as Sister and Brother and their first name.

This post was completed as part of a contract between the MA Department of Early Education and Care and Cambridge Education (where David Jacobson worked at the time). Contract # CT EEC 0900 FY13SRF130109CAMBRID.