Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children
Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children

Understanding the importance of the birth-to-third-grade continuum, school districts are leading efforts to strengthen programming and create better alignment between preschool and grade school programs.

One example is California where some school districts are reaching beyond their K-12 responsibilities to “to meet the needs of the youngest low-income children who live within their district boundaries – infants and toddlers,” according to an Edsource article.

These efforts are happening against a backdrop of state support. Last month, Governor Jerry Brown signed a fiscal year 2016 budget that “includes over $300 million in increased investments and important policy developments for early care and education,” according to the nonprofit advocacy organization Early Edge California.

But there’s still a lot of work for to be done, and not enough funding to do it. 

Faced with Limited Funding School Districts Still Invest in B-5 Population

Moira Kenney, executive director of the First 5 Association of California, tells EdSource that K-12 school officials are increasingly aware that the achievement gap “between low-income students and their more affluent peers – begins at birth… and is difficult to address if districts wait until children enter kindergarten.”

One daunting challenge is funding, especially since caring for infants and toddlers requires more staffing — and because there are multiple and scattered funding streams, some of which have been level-funded.

“Districts throughout California can tap into state funds for child care to support migrant workers, teenage parents, and low-income families. But few districts are doing so because the funding is not keeping up with the costs of the programs,” EdSource explains.

“Only the Pajaro Valley Unified School District near Santa Cruz and six county offices of education are using money from the state Migrant Childcare and Development program. The funding runs for six months – from May through October – when the parents are working in the fields.”

The article adds: “The district almost could not open the infant and toddler sections because of the costs of running the program…. Facing a $100,000 operating deficit, Pajaro Valley is keeping the entire center open – at least for 2015… as district staff seek grants and other support.”

Another source of funding is Cal-SAFE, a state program that “subsidizes child care costs for high school-age students who are parents.”

“But statewide, only 44 districts and county offices, down from 158 before the recession, are providing a Cal-SAFE program for their teenage parents, said Trudy Adair-Verbais, director of Child Development Programs for the Santa Barbara County Office of Education, who has been monitoring participation in the program.

“One of the primary reasons for the decrease, Adair-Verbais said, is that funding for the Cal-SAFE program used to be restricted to that program. Now the funding is part of districts’ Local Control Funding Formula and can be used for any educational purpose. In addition, she said, funding has been capped at 2007 levels, forcing districts to cut back or use other funding sources to keep up with a rising minimum wage and employee health care costs.”

Fortunately, philanthropies are helping. EdSource says: “Spurred by research that shows the importance of early life experiences in the development of the brain, The David and Lucile Packard Foundation is providing $500,000 each year for 10 years to Oakland Unified, Fresno Unified and the Franklin-McKinley School District in San Jose to develop early education programs.”

The Franklin-McKinley district plans to “open a child care center, run by Educare, a nationally recognized child care provider, for 200 students from infancy to age 5.” But because there won’t be enough slots to meet the demand, Franklin-McKinley “is using its own funds and funding from First 5 to train neighborhood daycare providers in how to stimulate young children mentally and physically.”

The Fresno Unified school district “will be providing a website with recipes, physical education activities and other projects to engage young children… The district will also teach parents how to provide positive guidance to children, tell stories, respond promptly to verbal and nonverbal communication and build language.”

“Many cultures and populations don’t send their children to daycare or preschool,” Deputy Superintendent Ruth Quinto told EdSource. “We want to get authentic parent engagement.”

San Francisco’s Pre-K-to-Third-Grade Bridge 

In San Francisco, there’s the Golden Gate Bridge and there’s the Pre-K-to-Third-Grade Bridge.

“In 2008 the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) confronted a problem that has been growing for decades. It boasted the highest academic performance of any large urban district in California, yet its achievement gap was widening, as too many African American, Latino, and low-income students fell far behind their classmates,” Paul Nyhan writes in a recent report from the New America Foundation called, “The Power of a Good Idea: How the San Francisco School District is Building a Pre-K to 3rd Grade Bridge.”

The district started by “strengthening its public pre-K program. Doing so generated support among successive superintendents and district leaders, and allowed early learning leaders to expand the strategy to a growing network of schools.”

Among the partners in this effort are the “Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, Mimi and Peter Haas Fund, First 5 San Francisco, and Stanford University.”

How do you build a bridge between pre-K and K-3? By working on multiple fronts.

“Perhaps the district’s most significant change was to elevate the director of the Early Education Department two levels to a cabinet-level position, giving her more leverage in decisions and a higher profile,” the report notes.

The district’s other key strategies include

• building support among principals “who are critical for successful implementation”

• setting high standards, then building capacity in a small group of schools

• integrating “all aspects of elementary school into a PreK–3rd system, including special education and out-of-school programs”

• creating “a comprehensive model for PreK–3rd professional development that relies on collaboration and self-directed inquiry”

• adding tools to pre-K programs such as “a Results-Oriented Cycle of Inquiry approach used across the district, where a principal, site administrator, or coach works with a team of teachers on using student data to inform lesson planning,” and

• developing “an English language arts curriculum that could be integrated across all five grades, with plans to implement a dual language curriculum”

One ongoing challenge is forming partnerships with community-based pre-K providers. As Nyhan writes, “The district’s work to connect with community-based providers is in the early stages,” and the district “hopes to build on a promising and collaborative approach it is developing with Kai Ming Head Start, which has been open to partnering with the district.”

It’s a sweeping effort that’s trying to make substantial and lasting changes.

“What we are talking about fundamentally is that too many of our children enter preschool with no books in their home, living in high crime neighborhoods where parents are struggling to make ends meet. We are trying to impact that child before he or she ever crosses over our kindergarten threshold,” Superintendent Richard Carranza says in the report.

The report itself concludes: “Amid all the budget work, alignment, and professional development of the last six years, the greatest achievement of the district’s PreK–3rd approach may be how it has begun to change the school district’s culture of K–12 to P–12. By the beginning of 2015, pre-K was no longer a separate program, but instead was becoming an integral part of the public school system. It was also beginning to spark greater alignment and better student outcomes across the P–20 continuum.”