Across the country, K-12 schools are spreading their wings by working in the early education space. It’s an approach that promises to help more young children succeed as they transition into elementary school.
One example in the suburbs of Omaha, Neb., is Belleaire Elementary School, where providing a good education includes working with families before children are old enough to go to school.
“Belleaire is one of 10 schools in the Omaha metropolitan area that are rethinking the scope of early childhood education,” an EdSurge article says. “Traditionally, early childhood education focuses on serving children before they reach kindergarten. But more recently, researchers have begun to think about early childhood education as encompassing the first eight years—years that are critical for neural development and where early interventions can have a profound impact in later years.”
This is all part of Omaha’s Superintendents’ Early Childhood Plan, a $2.5 million per year initiative that’s funded by a tax measure.
Because of the plan, Omaha’s school leaders “have to think about infants and toddlers as part of the school community and reach out to their families early. They need to train educators in the field of child development and psychology.”
“Schools also need to make sure that events are welcoming for families of very young children. At Pinewood Elementary School in Omaha, for example, school leaders have installed changing tables in some bathrooms to allow parents of infants and toddlers to comfortably attend events.”
“The plan is the largest demonstration of the birth to grade three model in the country— supporting numerous initiatives including free professional development for teachers and consulting services for schools that have specific goals related to early childhood, like improving the transition from pre-K to kindergarten.”
The plan has had a positive impact: “there have been 9,000 home visits to children under the age of 3 and 3,000 parent-child group meetings. Children are starting to come to school more prepared: 13 percent more pre-K students and 16 percent more kindergarten and first-grade students were up to the average range on test scores in the second year the Superintendents’ Plan was in effect compared to the first year.”
Kim Bodensteiner, associate director of program development at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute, which helps implement parts of the program, “says that what’s going on in Omaha can certainly be replicated, but it requires flexibility, to meet the needs of each unique school and family.”
Massachusetts isn’t replicating Omaha’s approach. But the state’s historic Student Opportunity Act, which invests $1.5 billion into education, requires K-12 school districts to choose evidence-based interventions to close the achievement gap. On the list of interventions that districts may choose from is “expanding early education and pre-kindergarten programming within the district in consultation or in partnership with community-based organizations.” This is an exciting opportunity to create new partnerships across Massachusetts.
Here at Strategies for Children, we are reaching out to school superintendents to highlight this opportunity. One advantage many Massachusetts school districts have is that they can form partnerships with a number of thriving community-based early education organizations and coalitions that already exist.
Early learning partners have a lot to offer. They are already experts at reaching out to families with young children. They are able to build trust with parents. And they have a clear view of children’s strengths and challenges, information that can be shared with K-12 teachers. In addition, collaborative partnerships with community-based early education providers can prevent any unintended consequences of in-district preschool expansion, such as the reduction in supply of child care for infants and toddlers.
In addition, K-12 educators in Boston, Holyoke, Lawrence, Lowell, New Bedford, Northampton North Adams, Somerville, and Springfield could build on the fact that their cities were awarded Commonwealth Preschool Partnership Initiative (CPPI) grants, funding to expand access to high-quality preschool. Student Opportunity Act funding could be used to expand and deepen the work begun under the CPPI grants.
As this work moves forward, districts and states should pay attention to how Omaha, Massachusetts, and other cities and states form partnerships that create birth-to-third grade pathways that help lead children to lifelong success.