Early Education

Pre-K advocates pursue small strategies toward big goal

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

A coalition of pre-K advocates are moving forward with a collection of small strategies that they hope will result in every child being prepared to start kindergarten.  They are regrouping after losing a second referendum in November to fund universal pre-K with an increased sales tax.

“We have to be pursuing multiple strategies at the same time,” said Kathy Buckman Gibson, one of the leaders of the effort at the Chamber of Commerce. “Putting all our eggs in one basket is not going to move the basket sufficiently and as quickly as we feel we need to.”

Advocates contend that only 30 percent of students currently enter kindergarten are prepared for school and universal pre-K would fix that.  But the referendum to fund pre-K last November lost, in part due to criticisms that a sales tax disproportionately falls on the poor and that the revenues might be used to lower the property taxes of the rich.

Pre-K advocates at the non-profit People First and the Memphis Chamber of Commerce brought in stakeholders from across the city a little more than a month ago to discuss their next steps. The meeting included nearly 50 interested politicians, non-profits, philanthropists, professors, church and business leaders to brainstorm and discuss new ideas. Although they’ve stopped short of calling what came out of the meeting a full-on strategy, they are now pursuing several possible ways forward, including identifying new funding, raising standards for daycare centers, and even returning to voters to ask for more funding.
New sources of funding
One potential source of funding fell through two weeks ago. The Shelby County Commission voted down a proposal to spend $2.8 million to fund pre-K for 500 children that had been cut as a result of losing Race to the Top funding.
Commissioner Steven Mulroy believes some form of that proposal could still pass if it’s bundled with other initiatives favored by commissioners who are currenlty on the fence. Even if it doesn’t pass this budget cycle, Gibson said that pre-K advocates will be paying close attention to the makeup of the board after the coming election and could return again.
At the most recent Shelby County Commission meeting, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson argued once again that it’s no coincidence that only 30 percent of third graders are proficient in literacy and 30 percent of 7th graders are proficient in math: only 30 percent are prepared for kindergarten.
The importance of commission funding, isn’t just local, according to advocates; it could bolster an application for a new federal program that funds pre-K expansion.
“By demonstrating our commitment to pre-K funding at the local level, we’ll be able to leverage that funding at the federal level, so more than 500 children would be able to receive pre-K instruction,” Mulroy said.
But there are two major hurdles for accessing the millions of dollars in funds that have been made available through the US Department of Education through a program intended to seed the expansion of pre-K. The first problem is that the funds are supposed to pass through states not local districts. Gov. Bill Haslam has made it clear that he won’t support any expansions of pre-K funding in Tennessee until a new pre-K study from Vanderbilt is released.
So supporters are hoping that they can negotiate a political work-around, so that several of the large municipal districts in the state, such as Shelby County and Nashville, can apply for the funds directly, rather than applying through the state. But even if this worked, the funding is only temporary and they would have to look for more funds again in four years.
If supporters can cobble together some funding and put together a more detailed proposal for tax-payers, Cardell Orrin, the Memphis director of Stand for Children, thinks they could even go back to voters a third time to ask for a permanent source of funding
“Some people think that people just don’t support pre-K,” Orrin said. “I don’t think any of the data shows people don’t want pre-K. I think they would support it if you developed the details of how you’re going to distribute the money.” He also thinks voters want to know the plan for what will happen to the private pre-K providers.
“The issue is caught up in a vicious cycle of politically polluted waters,” said Keith Norman, president of the Memphis NAACP, who blamed political opponents for spreading misinformation about how the money would be spent during the November pre-K referendum. “I don’t think that [the referendum] was understood by the general population.”
Leveraging Day Care and Head Start
Supporters are also looking to take advantage of federally-subsidized private daycare for working parents. If the daycares functioned more like pre-K classrooms, they wouldn’t need to find as much funding.
They are planning to push for tougher certification standards for daycares at the state level: the current three star rating system is more focused on child safety, they say, than preparation for school. They also believe that if parents were better informed, they would put their children in higher quality daycares.
“We have to do some real awareness with parents about selecting places that will really help their child be prepared,” said Barbara Prescott of People First. “We have thousands of children in child care, but only 30 percent are reaching kindergarten with pre-literacy skills.”
“We want all those daycares that are in the community to be a part of the solution as well,” said Andre Dean, an advocate from the Chamber of Commerce. “We’re not trying to put anyone out of business or recreate the wheel. But we want to raise the levels and standards.”
There is also some hope that improvements in the local administration of Head Start — a federal program for children below the poverty line that includes preschool as well as nutritional and health services — will help. Shelby County’s contract to administer Head Start expires on June 30. Representatives for Shelby County Schools could not confirm that the school district will be the new administrators of the program on July 1. But pre-K advocates are hopeful that, if the school system does take control as many are expecting, they will do a better job at preparing students for kindergarten.
“If it is Shelby County Schools,” Prescott said. “They really would be looking toward having entities deliver services that would be…more focused on children reaching kindergarten with the pre-literacy and pre-numeracy skills that would set them up for success.”
More than 20 Head Start workers protested looming layoffs at Monday’s school board meeting.  Read our story here.

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.