Early Education

At lab school, Butler and IPS students both learn lessons

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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.”

 

Early readers

Tennessee wants to boost third-grade literacy. Here’s why it’s looking to early childhood education as the answer.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen speaks at the University of Memphis about reading and early childhood education.

Calling reading the “equity issue of our time,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Thursday that Tennessee will increase its literacy rates when it improves the quality of its early education programs.

The state has been waging war on illiteracy for years but is zeroing in on pre-K and other early education programs as the best vehicles to get 75 percent its third-graders reading on grade level by 2025. Currently less than half of its students are there.

Beginning this year, the state attached more strings for local districts to receive pre-K funding, tying the amount received to the quality of programming instead of the volume of students.

But McQueen said the state still has a lot to learn about developing young readers, and data is key.

“Before kids get to third grade, we have very little information statewide with whether or not those students are on track,” McQueen said. “We have very little data statewide to know where we should be putting investments.”

The state is seeking to fill that void by working with local leaders to better track its youngest students to determine what’s working best. In Memphis, Porter-Leath is taking the lead in that effort. The nonprofit organization opened a major pre-K center this year to serve as a teacher training hub to bolster the quality of all of the city’s pre-K classrooms.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
From left: Sandra Allen of LeBonheur Center for Children and Parents, Rafel Hart of Porter-Leath, Sharon Griffin of Shelby County Schools, and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

McQueen was part of an early reading panel discussion hosted in Memphis by Tennesseans for Quality Early Education and the PeopleFirst Partnership. The event featured Shelby County Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin, state Rep. Mark White, Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell and Tennessee first lady Crissy Haslam, who has championed literacy during her husband’s administration.

Since launching its Read to be Ready initiative last year, Tennessee has invested $30 million in summer reading camps and another $4.2 million in a coaching network to support teachers with literacy instruction.

The stakes are high because reading is foundational to lifelong learning — and is critical to closing the achievement gap.

“When kids are not reading on grade level by third grade, they are four times less likely graduate high school,” McQueen said. “Kids scoring in the lowest proficiency level on literacy almost never catch up. Guess who is in that bottom level? Students who are African American. Students who are Latino. Students with disabilities. Students who are English language learners.”

(Very) early education

Bank Street heads to East New York to help child care providers play to their strengths

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Sherease Alston sings along with children at her child care center, Little Minds at Work.

One little girl would simply repeat anything that was said to her, rather than answer basic questions like, “How are you?” Another toddler seemed more active than the other children — maybe too active. But Sherease Alston, who has run a child care center from her living room for the past six years, was often met with skepticism when she would share her observations with parents.

The hard part isn’t noticing when a child may have a developmental issue, she explained. It’s getting the child’s parents to recognize it, too.

“It’s hard for parents to see sometimes because they’re in denial,” she said.

A cold call from a leading education school helped change that. With the help of the new Guttman Center for Early Care and Education at the Bank Street College of Education, Alston came up with a strategy to help parents see what she sees. Now, she asks them to log their children’s behavior at home, so those logs can be compared against ones kept by the daycare, Little Minds at Work.

“It was easy to see once it was all documented,” Alston said. “It was an easy tool to use to open that door for our parents.”

New York City is in the midst of a massive push to expand access to early childhood education — and to make sure quality keeps up. Site evaluations and teacher training have been a centerpiece of the city’s free pre-K program, which now serves 70,000 4-year-olds and is expanding to enroll 3-year-olds, too.

The city is slated to bring its pre-K model to children as young as six weeks old, with plans to transfer responsibility for publicly funded childcare programs from the Administration for Children’s Services to the education department. Making that shift will require the city to turn its attention to a vast network of providers like Alston — those who are already working with infants and toddlers in their communities.

That’s where the Guttman Center is focusing its attention. Working with providers on the ground in low-income neighborhoods, the Center wants to help them solve problems and improve their care.

“We really wanted … to have the input of the community, acknowledge the exceptional range of abilities that already exists, and partner with them,” said Director Robin Hancock. “The beauty of having all these perspectives in the classroom is people are constantly hearing from other corners in the field.”

Across the country, early childhood advocates have taken a similar approach, working to meet providers where they are — and build on their strengths. In Colorado, for example, community organizations have trained the aunts, neighbors and other caregivers who form an often invisible network of care. The state has also paid special attention to helping Spanish-speaking providers earn early childhood credentials.

In New York City, the scale of the challenge is huge. ACS currently oversees programs that serve about 20,000 children ages 3 or younger. A recent report by the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs found that home-based providers especially struggle with a labyrinth of safety and compliance requirements, understanding what is developmentally appropriate for very young children, and enduring long hours for low pay.

Guttman’s work represents one step in helping child care workers navigate those issues. The first cohort of providers was drawn from East New York — one of two neighborhoods (along with the South Bronx) where the city is launching its pilot for free pre-K for 3-year-olds this fall. The Guttman program was created for even younger children, from infants to 2-year-olds.

Providers meet on Saturdays every other week for a semester, and coursework centers on topics like building partnerships with families and caring relationships with students. Group discussions are paired with on-site coaching.

“The goal really is for them to be able to look at their own practice and to understand what’s working and what is not,” said Margie Brickley, a program director for the Bank Street Graduate School of Education, who helped develop the Guttman curriculum.

Ultimately, the program hopes to create a community of support for providers who often find themselves working in isolation. Already, some have opened up their sites to visits from other providers to observe good practices in action and share ideas.

“The first 36 months of life are critical for cognitive development and we’re building the foundation for learning,” said Johannah Chase, then an associate dean at Bank Street. “It’s part of the reason why we’re putting so much of our energy into child caregivers.”

Kiara Dash, an assistant at Little Minds at Work, reads to Thravis Ealey. (Photo: Christina Veiga)

On a recent morning at Little Minds at Work, five squirmy toddlers and an infant gathered on a rug made of giant foam puzzle pieces. Sunlight streamed in through two windows facing a quiet residential street. The group sang about their feelings and assistant Vanesha Mayers playfully wiggled one boy’s fingers and toes as they counted to 20.

Before joining the Guttman program, Alston said she took a more academic approach to working with the very young children in her care — which often led to frustration for both her and the kids. Guttman helped her refocus her curriculum around play and building relationships.

“That was an eye-opener,” she said. “They helped me understand their needs.”

Brickley said Alston’s struggle is common. Often, providers simply “water down” programs meant for older children even though infants and toddlers have very different needs.

On the other hand, Alston said she is adept at juggling the business and regulatory aspects of her business — something she can help other providers learn.

Hancock, the center’s director, said the program was built to recognize providers’ different abilities and fill gaps as needed. That tailored approach respects the knowledge providers already bring to the table, she said, and helps create a culture of trust.

“We really want to make sure to help providers build confidence that they are experts,” she said. “They know their environments and they know their children best.”

Correction: This post has been updated with the correct spelling of Johannah Chase’s name.