Early Childhood

At lab school, Butler and IPS students both learn lessons

LabSchoolPhoto
Butler junior Briana Ulba works with students at the Lab School as part of a college class that meets at IPS School 60.

Aspiring teacher Bridget Spitale was watching a lesson about adjectives when she realized taking college classes in an elementary school worked.

She was assisting in teacher Mary Ellen Estridge’s classroom while she was talking with her kindergarten and first grade students about adjectives. Estridge moved to telling a story and the way the lesson unfolded was a breakthrough for Spitale’s understanding of effective teaching.

“It was an eye-opening moment,” said Spitale, a Butler junior from Hammond.

The lab school, also known as Indianapolis Public School 60, is a collaboration between the university and the school district and follows a unique curriculum inspired by an Italian educational strategy known as Reggio Emilia. Children are placed among a variety of physical materials that are used to help them experience and understand the concepts they learn.

That morning Estridge told the story of a drive she went on with a friend along a bumpy road in a red car.

“She took a long red wire and constructed a red car from it,” Spitale said. “Then she took another wire and used it to make the long, bumpy road. She continued the story using the wire to describe the adjectives she was using, and it made them come to life.”

Participating in that lesson helped clarify in Spitale’s mind how the Reggio instruction method is a different and, she feels, more vibrant way for young children to learn.

“When I was that age, I was given a worksheet and told to circle all the adjectives,” she said. “It’s the difference between non-engaged learning and the Reggio inspired practice. The students were very into the story. It was very visible.”

What began as a small experiment in 2011 with a handful of Butler-run, Reggio model classrooms for kindergarten and first grade in a corner of School 60 is quickly expanding. IPS accelerated a plan to phase out the traditional neighborhood school that initially shared the building, growing the Lab School to grades K to 3 this year, along with preschool classrooms run by Butler and by St. Mary’s Child Center.

There are now about 200 students that are part of the lab school program at School 60, and the goal is to expand at least to K-5 ,and possibly to K-8, by adding a grade per year. The agreement to run the school gives Butler considerable leeway compared to other IPS schools. The university helped select the principal, Ron Smith, and populated School 60 with eight Butler grads among its nine classroom teachers.

In return for providing a high-quality school option, the university gets a real-life laboratory for its teacher training program. Butler undergraduates can both visit the school as part of their coursework and, in some cases, work as teaching assistants and hold classes at the school.

Cathy Hargrove, a Butler faculty member in the college of education who spends most of her time at the lab school, said it has enhanced the teacher training program.

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IPS School 60 began its conversion into the Butler Lab School in 2011.

“They are immediately able to go out and see everything applied and working in the lives of children in the classrooms,” Hargrove said.

Reggio Emilia-inspired schools are still rare in the U.S. The concept comes from an Italian city of the same name that rethought its educational approach while rebuilding its school in the wake of World War II. Because the school was in ruins, much education took place outdoors and ordinary household items were frequently used as teaching tools. In 1991 it was named one of the 10 best schools in the world by Newsweek magazine.

The method is sometimes compared to another Italian instructional approach for young children — Montessori schools. In fact, Reggio borrowed some concepts from Montessori, including an emphasis on hands-on learning and allowing students to make choices about what and how they learn. But Reggio is considered less rigid and more collaborative than Montessori’s very individualized philosophy.

Among the admirers of the approach is Ena Shelley, Butler’s education dean and an early childhood education expert. Shelley has traveled to the town of Reggio Emilia repeatedly and helped spark interest in the instructional style locally at St. Mary’s and some school districts, including Warren and Lawrence townships.

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Butler education professor Cathy Hargrove, left, spends most of her time teaching undergraduates at the Lab School.

In elementary teacher training, Reggio-inspired approaches are heavily incorporated at Butler. So when Hargrove is explaining a concept to her Butler students during class at the lab school, it isn’t awkward to ask the teacher in the next room if she can borrow a couple students to demonstrate a mini-lesson.

The children are already learning the same concepts in the same style at the lab school that Hargrove is teaching to the college students.

“Collaboration with the classroom teachers is essential,” she said. “It’s not just an isolated lesson. We’re teaching into the curriculum being used at the school.”

Because the lab school is still new, Butler has only begun to use it as a selling point for its teacher training program, but it’s already made an impact for some students.

Anissa Hakim, a senior from Elkhart, looked at a lot of options — including transferring — after deciding a career as a pharmacist wasn’t for her. Teaching was one of her ideas for a new career, and she was won over when she learned about the lab school while checking out Butler’s education school.

“It kept me here,” she said. “I knew we had a lab school and it would be a unique experience. It was a factor in keeping me at Butler.”

 

leading the state

Three things we heard at a gubernatorial candidates forum on early childhood

PHOTO: Ann Schimke | Chalkbeat
Jared Polis, the Democratic candidate for Colorado governor, and Lang Sias, the Republican lieutenant governor candidate, spoke at forum on early childhood issues.

Stark differences in how Colorado’s two would-be governors plan to tackle early childhood issues were clear at a candidate forum Monday evening.

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, the Democratic nominee, envisions free full-day preschool and kindergarten for all Colorado children — a sweeping and pricey expansion of what’s currently available.

Republican lieutenant governor candidate Lang Sias, who stood in for gubernatorial candidate Walker Stapleton, said Republicans would focus public funds on narrower programs that benefit the poorest children.

Currently, Colorado funds early childhood programs for some of its young children. The state provides half-day preschool to 4-year-olds with certain risk factors, but the program covers only some of those who qualify. In addition, the state reimburses districts for just over half the cost of full-day kindergarten, leaving districts to pay for the rest or pass on the cost to families through tuition. Last spring, lawmakers expanded the state income tax credit for child care costs, but most families still need to come up with hundreds or even thousands of dollars a month.

Monday’s event at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science represented a rare opportunity to hear candidates address early childhood issues, which are often overshadowed on the campaign trail by topics such as housing, roads and health care. While the forum highlighted some of the big early childhood ideas championed by each campaign, it also left plenty of unanswered questions.

Stapleton, Colorado’s state treasurer, was originally slated to speak at the forum, but backed out citing family obligations. Sias, a state representative from Arvada and a member of the House Education Committee, spoke in his place.

Polis and Sias didn’t debate each other at Monday’s forum, or otherwise interact. Polis went first, giving a short statement about his early childhood platform then answering several questions posed by moderator Bill Jaeger, vice president for early childhood and policy initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign. Sias followed suit.

The event was sponsored by Constellation Philanthropy, a group of funders focused on early childhood issues. (Constellation is a Chalkbeat funder.)

Here are three things we learned from the forum:

The candidates have different ideas about which young children need help and how to provide it

In discussing his plans to create universal full-day preschool and kindergarten, Polis talked about using a public-private financing mechanism that’s sometimes called “social impact bonds.”

In this kind of financing — also called “pay for success” — private investors or philanthropists pay up front for social programs and get repaid with interest if those programs save public money by reducing the need for costly services such as special education or reading remediation. If a project doesn’t yield the hoped-for savings, the investors lose some or all of their money.

Polis said if he wins in November, he’ll immediately “work out how to partner with philanthropy to create more early childhood education for all income levels.”

Currently a version of social impact bonds is being used to pay for full-day preschool for some students in the Westminster school district north of Denver, a fact Polis mentioned Monday. Still, the financing mechanism is relatively untested in Colorado’s education sphere and it’s unclear how it might be scaled to pay for something as ambitious as statewide full-day preschool and kindergarten.

When talking about the Republican ticket’s early-education priorities, Sias described early childhood education as “incredibly important” but “very inequitably distributed.”

“We want to focus our public spending on those who are least able to afford it on their own,” he said.

He cited a proposal for education savings accounts that allow families to set aside money tax-free for educational expenses, including early childhood education.

“We realize that is more focused on middle-class and above families,” he said, “but by targeting that money using that program, we feel we will have more available to target the folks at the bottom of the spectrum who really cannot avail themselves of that opportunity.”

Education savings accounts don’t typically work for low-income parents because they have no extra money to set aside for future expenses.

The candidates would take different approaches to strengthening the early childhood workforce

In a field marked by low pay and tough working conditions, recruiting and retaining qualified teachers is a chronic problem. The candidates had ideas about how to bulk up the workforce.

Sias advocated for a residency program to help turn out new early childhood teachers, similar to what he’s previously proposed to help address the K-12 teacher shortage. He said such programs are data-driven, helping retain teachers for longer periods and improving student results.

He also floated the idea of recruiting midlife career-changers to early childhood work — “folks north of 50” — and hinted that they would work in the low-paid field.

“Is that an opportunity to tap into … folks who would like to fill those spots who maybe don’t have the same set of issues that millennials do in terms of how long they want to stay and how long they need to be committed, and frankly how much they need to be paid?”

While some middle-aged people do enter the field, mediocre pay, a maze of state regulations, and the growing push to boost providers’ education levels could make it a tough sell.

Polis talked about creating partnerships with colleges to beef up the credentials of people who currently work in the early childhood field.

He said it’s important to “bridge the skills gap” for those whose hearts are already in the work. He didn’t address how he could dramatically expand preschool and kindergarten simply by focusing on the existing workforce, where turnover can be as high as 40 percent annually.

Neither candidate talked about how he would boost compensation for early childhood workers, whose median pay in Colorado is $12.32 an hour, Jaeger said.

Both candidates agree that Colorado can do much better by its youngest residents

When asked how Colorado is doing overall in supporting young children and their families, both candidates agreed that the state has a long way to go.

Sias emphasized that low-income children continue to be left out. Polis talked about the lack of uniform access to full-day kindergarten.

Both candidates expressed interest in working with bipartisan coalitions on solutions.

“There’s so many people in our state who want to do right by their kids,” said Polis. “It’s really going to take folks from across the spectrum coming together.”

Sias, who argued for a combination of business-minded acumen and public money for early childhood, asked the audience to partner with lawmakers in finding what programs work.

He said he and Stapleton are “more than willing to work across the aisle with folks that we like and respect, and have knowledge in this area.”

Early Childhood

Jeff Bezos says he will use his riches to open Montessori preschools

PHOTO: Nick Hagen
A student in a Detroit Montessori program. Jeff Bezos announced today on Twitter that he would be pouring $2 billion into two major initiatives, including “a network of new, non-profit, tier-one preschools in low-income communities.”

The latest effort to improve early childhood education for poor children comes from the richest man alive: Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

Bezos announced today on Twitter that he would be pouring $2 billion into two major initiatives, including “a network of new, non-profit, tier-one preschools in low-income communities.”

The preschools, Bezos wrote, will be free for students and inspired by the Montessori approach, in which children direct their own learning in an environment that is prepared for them to explore. Montessori instruction has traditionally been available only in private schools, but new efforts to make the model more accessible have taken hold, and recent research suggests that it benefits children from low-income families.

Bezos also signaled that he intends to apply his famously stringent standards to the new schools. The hands-on CEO reportedly still reads emails from Amazon customers and has been known to berate executives when the customer experience suffers. At the preschools, he wrote, “The child will be the customer.”

Much about the initiative is unclear, from what “tier-one” means to where, when, and how many schools will open. Bezos’s announcement did not acknowledge the current bipartisan movement to fund preschool more widely, so it’s unclear whether his network might ever seek public money or how it might interact with — or even crowd out — existing efforts to expand preschools.

It’s also not clear how much transparency to expect from Bezos’s effort, which he called the Day One Fund. A number of wealthy individuals, including Mark Zuckerberg, have organized their giving through a limited liability company, rather than a nonprofit. This approach does not require disclosing who receives grants and allows the organizations to give to political causes and invest in for-profit companies.

Research has pointed to long-run benefits of early childhood education programs. One recent study found that the benefits extended to multiple generations — the children of children who participated in the federal Head Start program were more likely to graduate from high school and attend college.

In addition to preschools, the Day One Fund will tackle homelessness, according to Bezos, who crafted his giving strategy after asking his Twitter followers how he should spend his wealth.