Commissioner Tom Weber
Photo: Strategies for Children

In 2011, Massachusetts was awarded a four-year $50 million federal Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge grant. On October 23, the early education and care community gathered at the Federal Reserve Bank in Boston to reflect on the state’s progress and on its goals for the future.

According to EEC Commissioner Tom Weber, the Early Learning Challenge grant sped up the momentum in Massachusetts for enhancing and building early education and care programs. Now, Weber says, the state has to prepare for the future, ensuring that current efforts are sustainable and that best practices are institutionalized.

“Typically I have a very hard time describing what I do to my three-year-old and five-year-old,” Weber told the audience at the Race to the Top — Early Learning Challenge Leadership Summit held at the Federal Reserve Bank in Boston. But on that morning, he was able to tell his children, “I’m going to go to work with Peep and Curious George.”

Curious George, a conference participant, and Peep. Photo: Strategies for Children

The two WGBH television show characters joined Weber and close to 100 participants for the summit to accomplish four goals:

– Gathering as a community to celebrate the progress that Massachusetts has made in improving early childhood programs;

Building more knowledge about the innovative work being done at the state and local level thanks in part to federal Race to the Top funds;

Strengthening the network of early education and care providers by connecting people in small groups and through social media; and

Promoting the use of digital tools to enhance instruction and learning in early childhood settings.

JD Chesloff, the chair of EEC’s board, welcomed summit participants as did Matthew Malone, the commonwealth’s secretary of education. Weber spoke and introduced a new video celebrating the progress of early learning in Massachusetts.

The Massachusetts Early Learning Plan: A Panel Discussion

Moderated by Kara Miller, the host and executive editor of WGBH’s Innovation Hub, this panel discussion featured six speakers discussing a roundup of programs and practices from providers, funders, cultural institutions, and higher education.

Anne Douglas, assistant professor and the director of UMass Boston’s Post Master’s Certificate Program in Early Education Research, Policy and Practice.

Douglas explained how her program helps early education and care providers improve, in part by working with them to make changes based on their experiences in the field. Douglas told the story a family child care provider who struggled at her job at first, but now has her master’s degree. At UMass, she is working on a plan to build leadership by creating a mentorship program that pairs novice early education and care providers with more experience peers.

Jeri Robinson, vice president, education and family learning at the Boston Children’s Museum.

Robinson discussed the importance of engaging families through cultural institutions, saying that Massachusetts is the only state to include museums and libraries in its Race to the Top plans. We wrote about some of those efforts here and here. In the past, Robinson explained, the Children’s Museum saw its job as engaging children, but now it seeks to engage families by offering activities and insights, many of which can be replicated and used at home so that the museum experience stays with families even after they leave the museum and keeps parents engaged with their children.

Sunindiya Bhalla, community impact director, United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley.

“Make any moment a brain building moment,” Bhalla said, continuing the theme of family engagement and explaining how research on brain development – such as the 700 neural connections made each second in children’s early years – can be translated into practice. Parents who are setting the table or putting dishes away, can have young children count spoons. Everyone, Bhalla said, can go outside and count stars. Bhalla also pointed to the recent New York Times article about a new study that “has found a language gap as early as 18 months, heightening the policy debate.”

Terry O’Neill, district support specialist for Early Childhood, Lowell Public Schools.

In Lowell, some 500 to 600 children of the city’s 1,400 kindergarteners have no preschool experience, O’Neill said, discussing how Lowell uses kindergarten assessments to understand where children are and what they need from school. The city uses the Massachusetts Kindergarten Entry Assessment system and is focused on developing a shared understanding of what school-readiness means.

“Everyone wants children to succeed, but we can’t wait until third grade.” O’Neill has been leading PK-3 alignment efforts for several years in Lowell, and sees collaboration and cross-silo work as critical towards ensuring all children succeed in the early grades.

Andy Churchill, executive director, Pioneer Valley Educational Readiness Center.

Readiness Centers are like “party planners,” Churchill said, explaining how his organization is helping to build the state’s educational infrastructure. The centers are in the business of figuring out what teachers need and then assembling the resources to meet those needs. Officially, the centers provide professional development to educators in preschool, after-school, K-12 and higher education settings, according to the state’s Executive Office of Education.

Asked about the biggest gaps he sees, Churchill pointed to the gap between the early childhood community and the K-12 community. He pointed to a crucial discussion in Springfield, where people are figuring out how to talk about school readiness using common language so that children experience a more seamless transition from preschool settings to kindergarten and the early grades.

Wendy Valentine, senior director of community impact, United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley.

Early education and care programs don’t just need goods and services, Valentine explained. That’s why the United Way in partnership with EEC provides grants to improve program quality – bearing in mind that quality means different things in different places, from adding storage or playground equipment to translating parent handbooks into other languages.

Asked if these investments in quality are sustainable, Valentine said that quality lasts, and she pointed to the ongoing impact of better-trained teachers and physical improvements as simple as a fence that creates safe spaces for children to play.

Afternoon Breakout Sessions

Sessions in the latter half of the program featured WGBH staffers, among others, who explained how digital tools such as games, apps, other media, and technology can be used in early childhood settings, while, as the summit program says, “ensuring we don’t feed kids empty calories.”

As Bill Shribman, senior executive producer of WGBH Digital Kids, explains in this video from TEDx, “putting the kid in the game gives them a different investment in the game.” And games can be used to expose children to everything from math to world events. He says something as common as the rapid growth of smart phones with cameras is making it easier than ever for teachers to encourage children to go on “treasure hunts for letters” or be “citizen scientists.” Shribman has found that something as basic as these cameras may end up being our most powerful app for education.

The summit celebrated worthy accomplishments. Now, Massachusetts has to ensure that its rich and diverse efforts lead to future progress that helps the state’s youngest children thrive.