Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children

A school district in Wisconsin is trying something innovative with its use of federal Title I funds for children younger than kindergarten age. Instead of focusing only on 3- and 4-year-olds, as school systems often do, the Appleton Area School District (AASD) created a Birth-Five Coalition to develop al district-wide plan for the communities youngest children.

“The school district’s Birth-Five program emerged as a response to concerns over school readiness of incoming kindergartners in the district and growing attention to the need to improve kindergarten through third grade reading performance. The district was striving to get all of its students reading on grade level by third grade and recognized this would be impossible when children were already entering kindergarten with significant gaps.” notes a brief “Financing a Birth to Five Program” from CLASP (Center for Law and Social Policy).

“District personnel recognized the importance of the first five years of life, but also recognized that their education expertise lay outside the earliest learning years. The AASD determined that it could be most effective by expanding parent and community awareness of existing early childhood programs and services for children under five.”

The initiative includes a Books for Babies program for parents delivering babies in local hospitals, parent education workshops, home visits, Even Start Family Literacy, early childhood special education and Title I preschool. Five elementary schools with large numbers of low-income and/or families for whom English is not the primary language have Birth-Five site resource coordinators.

Although Title I funds are central to the initiative, Appleton also supports its early childhood work with IDEA funds as well as ARRA (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) grants. The use of one-time ARRA funds raises questions about sustainability, but CLASP reports Appleton expects to be able to protect the early childhood programs. The district uses $960,000 in Title I funds for early childhood, almost half its grant, to serve about 235 young children and their families. For more information on using Title I for young children see CLASP’s 2010 document “FAQ: Using Title I of ESEA for Early Education.”

“A district wide birth-five early childhood initiative is relatively uncommon. While many school districts are looking to the years before kindergarten to begin early learning investments, most are not looking earlier than age three. Appleton’s commitment to a comprehensive birth-five approach demonstrates district personnel’s awareness of the critical importance of the first three years of life and recognition that school districts can be partners and contribute to building larger community-wide comprehensive early childhood systems,” the CLASP brief concludes. “Their initiatives commit resources to meaningful linkages across health services, family support, early intervention, and early learning. They have engaged partners across settings including the school district, child care, and Head Start. Appleton demonstrates that a school district can take the lead in facilitating early childhood systems building in local communities to best use resources and meet children and families’ needs.”