For quality pre-K, look for more than the ABCs

Children get a literacy boost from centers with a structured curriculum, well-trained staff, and good communications between teachers and families.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Take a tour of Children’s Village, a highly regarded child-care center in Philadelphia’s Chinatown neighborhood, and some of the elements that make it a high-quality program are immediately evident.

In Room 303, a group of 3- and 4-year-olds is absorbed in a variety of activities, playing with toys, listening to recorded music and stories, or engaged in drawing, making and building things.

The spacious room where they spend their day is divided into well-equipped stations filled with intriguing educational material. Each one – block-building, dance and gross motor skills, art, dramatic play, and science – has accompanying materials that encourage specific kinds of learning.

With the help of teachers Noelle Woytko and Kevin McClellan, the children had earlier created “play plans,” writing their names and drawing pictures of what they would do next. The plans encourage children to think ahead and to verbalize their ideas.

There is also a library, where the children can borrow books to take home. Even though most of the children have not yet learned to read, chairs are labeled with the children’s names, and many other objects are labeled as well.

But the strengths of the center go far beyond what impresses a visitor at first sight.

Foundations for quality care

“A place may seem to be clean and have lots of bright plastic toys, but that is not always an indication of quality,” cautioned Shawn Towey, the child-care policy coordinator for Public Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY), a Philadelphia-based child advocacy organization.

Research on pre-K programs that achieve long-term literacy gains has found several important factors: a well-structured, high-level curriculum, well-educated teachers who have taken early childhood education courses, small class sizes, and solid teacher-parent relationships.

Children’s Village has a Keystone Stars 4A rating, meeting the highest Pennsylvania child-care standard; the A stands for “accredited” with a national pre-K association.

The Keystone Stars ratings – ranging from one to four stars – provide a uniform set of standards that a child-care facility must meet in its educational environment, management, and community relations. The ratings make it easier for families to compare programs: The more stars, the higher the standards. A number of studies show a high correlation between these standards and the development of literacy skills in later years.

The Stars standards set a bar for everything from the teachers’ qualifications, to how effective the staff is in communicating with parents, whether teachers have continuing education and planning time, and what benefits employees receive to help reduce staff turnover.

In the highest-rated programs, at least half of the lead teachers have a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education, and all have at least an associate’s degree. (Publicly funded pre-K programs in Pennsylvania like the Children’s Village require that all lead teachers have bachelor’s degrees.)

All Keystone Star-3 and Star-4 pre-K programs are required to base their curriculum on a comprehensive 100-page set of state “Learning Standards for Early Childhood.” These standards include language arts, mathematical thinking, art and music, scientific thinking, and learning through play.

This document takes a broad view of educational growth: “Young children learn best when they are able to construct knowledge through meaningful play, active exploration of the environment, and thoughtfully planned activities,” it says. But it also emphasizes the need to support language and literacy development throughout the program.

A focus on communication

The Children’s Village uses several curricula, including “Blueprint for Early Literacy,” according to executive director Mary Graham. The staff has had extensive and recent training in teaching literacy, she said.

Children drawing pictures and verbalizing what they want to do next may not seem to be a literacy activity, Graham said, but it is.

Many people think of literacy as “just being letters,” she said. “But it’s also language – children talking with each other and with the teachers, developing cognitive concepts. … It begins with verbal communication.”

Parent participation is also a big element at Children’s Village, said Ellen Saint Clair, a development director at the school. At the start of the school year, mothers and fathers can spend the first two hours of the day at the center with their children, to prepare them for being there alone. Parents are invited to breakfast with their children any time they choose.

At all Keystone Star-4 facilities, there must be daily updates to parents on how a child is faring, sit-down conferences at least twice a year, and a discussion of the transition to kindergarten as that date approaches.

Teacher and child

Towey, of PCCY, said she believes that the key to high-quality pre-K is the character of the interaction between the teacher and the child, which is often influenced, she noted, by the teacher’s level of education and how long he or she has been teaching. Several studies of literacy readiness back up that contention.

According to the Stand for Children Leadership Center, an education advocacy organization, some of the features of effective teacher-child interaction include the use of varied teaching strategies; a responsive, back-and-forth interaction style between teachers and children; an emphasis on both oral language and print awareness; and attention to developing self-regulatory skills.

All those features are part of the design of the Children’s Village, said Tonja Whitehead, the center’s education director. “The teachers are very involved in paying attention to the individual needs of the children and getting to know what will help them develop.”

Pre-K programs that meet all the standards for a Star-3 or Star-4 program do well in preparing children for literacy in elementary school, early education advocates say. A recent report by the Pennsylvania Office of Child Development and Early Learning (OCDEL) found that in 2012-13, the percentage of 4-year-olds who had age-appropriate language, math, and social skills more than doubled after they took part in a high-quality pre-K program.

And the benefits of high-quality pre-K care go well beyond those preschool years, advocates say.

“We know that there is a good return on investment in putting money into high-quality pre-K,” said Michael Race, a spokesman for Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, a child advocacy group. “It will reduce education costs later on. … Children will be at less risk of repeating grades and have an increased chance of graduating high school.”