Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children

A grant program of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (ESE) served as a catalyst for projects focused on early education, early literacy, special education inclusion and other areas, according to a recent report. Most of the 44 participating districts also benefited from the vertical P-3 teams they created to carry out the work. For many, this represented the first time they had collaborated across grades. (See “Improving the Early Years of Education in Massachusetts: The P-3 Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment Project.”)

The federally financed P-3 Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment Project — which funded projects in 2009, 2010 and 2011 —  was designed to help districts align efforts to improve the three critical areas, with a special focus on children with disabilities. Grant amounts ranged from $10,000 to $26,000.

“In Massachusetts, P-3 efforts build on numerous programs focused on improving early literacy as well as programs that target students with disabilities and English Language Learners.  Related developments include a working group at the Executive Office of Education on P-3 education, the introduction to the Massachusetts Legislature of An Act Relative to Third Grade Reading [Proficiency], the establishment by the Department of Early Education and Care of a Quality Rating Improvement System, the selection of third grade reading proficiency as a priority goal by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, and the publication of a widely-read report by Harvard literacy expert, Nonie Lesaux, entitled ‘Turning the Page: Refocusing Massachusetts for Reading Success,’” a 2010 report commissioned by Strategies for Children.

The project’s impact exceeded its small size, the report concludes. “It is clear that in this case a targeted state grant did in fact effect district level change,” it notes. “Many of these projects were quite significant in scope relative to the size of the grants.” The report also cites an “ongoing need to continue to align curriculum, assessment and instruction” across the early years and across departments. Issues that participants identified include “gaps in expectations between prekindergarten and kindergarten and/or between kindergarten and first grade and misaligned and/or inadequate curricula and formative assessments.”

Projects addressed:

The report also describes the projects of a number of districts. Holyoke, for instance, made early childhood literacy a priority in its Level 4 district turnaround plan and is establishing an early childhood literacy task force as part of a citywide effort that includes outreach to community-based early education providers, businesses, community organizations and families. Worcester developed a four-day summer professional workshop for public school P-3 teachers and community-based providers.

Watertown holds regular “critical conversations across grades about teaching practices and learning outcomes.” Springfield established local partnerships between public elementary schools and neighboring, community-based preschool providers. “The main activity of these local partnerships would be instructional learning walks in which teachers would visit each other’s prekindergarten programs, observe classes, and conduct the debriefing conversations based on these observations,” the report notes.

“Factors that contribute to the impact this grant program has had include a climate in education circles supportive of P-3 efforts, easily identifiable needs at the district and school levels related to early grades instruction, the broad design of the grant program that allowed districts to identify their own needs, and the desire to make good use of state funds and maintain a good relationship with the ESE. Regardless of the precise combination of local factors that motivated different districts to carry out this work it is clear that in this case a targeted state grant did in fact effect district level change,” the report concludes.

“There is a need and in fact a hunger to focus on the early grades and in particular to focus on alignment across the early grades, grades that may not have received as much attention of late due to the pressure on the part of administrators to devote attention to the testing grades.”