Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children

What if children started getting ready for kindergarten a few years before they were old enough to go?

Turns out, the children and their parents are better off, as David Jacobson writes in a new Kappan magazine article, “A powerful convergence: Community schools and early childhood education.” Jacobson is a principal researcher and technical assistance adviser at the Education Development Center here in Massachusetts, as we’ve blogged before. He is also the author of The P-3 Learning Hub blog.

What is a community school? It’s a place where school leaders work with community organizations, health care providers, and others to give students an education — and connect them a full range of services, from afterschool programs to dental care. These schools can become “centers of the community” that “are open to everyone – all day, every day, evenings and weekends,” according to the Coalition for Community Schools.

Community schools are also having a huge impact on early education, as Jacobson explains in his Kappan article: 

“In many cities and towns across the United States, elementary schools are forging deeper partnerships with families and community organizations well before children arrive at kindergarten. The aim of this work is to improve children’s experiences and family engagement and support along the entire continuum from prenatal care through grade 3 and beyond.

“This potent combination of educational supports and family services is the single best strategy we have to address pernicious opportunity gaps and raise achievement for low-income children.”


Chicago is a Pioneer

The history of this approach includes the 1960s when policymakers used federal funding to launch the Chicago Child Parent Centers — classic examples of birth-to-third-grade alignment. As the Chicago Public Schools website explains, this program “is an early childhood preschool model that emphasizes aligned education and services in high needs communities, for children from pre-kindergarten through the primary grades.”

University of Minnesota researcher Arthur Reynolds studied this model and found, Jacobson says, that participants had “significantly higher academic achievement through high school, advanced further in their education, and had higher earnings as adults. They were less likely to need special education services, be involved in the juvenile justice system, commit crimes as adults, or experience abuse, neglect, or depression. A cost-benefit analysis of the program yielded a return on investment of $10 for every $1 invested.”

“Several years ago,” Jacobson adds, “Reynolds and his team updated the child-parent center model as a school reform strategy. Becoming implementers as well as researchers, the University of Minnesota team now supports 35 sites in three Midwestern states with tools, guidance documents, and technical assistance.”


Cincinnati, Omaha, and Oregon’s Multnomah County

Jacobson’s article also profiles community schools in three other places: Cincinnati, Ohio; Omaha, Neb., and Multnomah County, Ore. Their goal is to “to tackle persistent poverty, family instability, the hollowing out of the middle class, and the demand for a more highly skilled workforce.”

“All schools in the Cincinnati Public Schools district are community schools, known as Community Learning Centers (CLCs), and most have full-time resource coordinators.”

The CLCs have “expanded to serve also as hubs for children and their families before they enter kindergarten… increasing the number of preschool programs housed in elementary schools, giving younger children access to the same supports as K-12 students, including health clinics and vision and dental services.”

In addition, “a nonprofit has begun piloting early childhood resource coordinators at CLCs, assigning them to reach out to families with young children and organize networks of early childhood providers that are anchored by an elementary school CLC.”

In Multnomah County, the Schools Uniting Neighborhoods (SUN) Service System supports 86 community schools across six districts. This work includes adding preschool classrooms, offering a three-week, summertime early kindergarten transition class, and sending kindergarten teachers to do home visits.

“Facilitators in these schools reach out to families with young children before their children start school and engage them in school activities such as play-and-learn groups in school buildings. SUN is now working with these schools on how they will begin collaborating with the family childcare providers located near each participating elementary school.”

And in Omaha, educators are working with the Buffett Early Childhood Institute to implement the Superintendent’s Plan. It provides: home visits for children from birth to age 3; family facilitators who provide an array of supports and guide families through “the transition to high-quality preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds;” and facilitators “support families as children transition into aligned, developmentally appropriate kindergarten through 3rd-grade experiences.”


Pursuing a Strategic Future

The common strategy in all these efforts: combine community schools with a P-3 (prenatal to third grade) approach. By doing this, Jacobson writes, “child-parent centers and a number of communities have achieved some of the best results for low-income children we have on record, and many other communities are now adopting these reforms and designing new structures to deepen and expand this work.”

The potential is exciting.

“It is hard to imagine another set of reforms that has more potential to significantly raise achievement and social-emotional competence for low-income children, support family stability, and build stronger communities. Among the many challenges we currently face, it is hard to imagine many priorities that rank higher than these.”