Early Childhood

U.S. Sec. of Education pushes for Haslam to apply for pre-K money

Education secretary Arne Duncan addresses the crowd outside Cornerstone.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said Tuesday that Gov. Bill Haslam should apply for federal money available for prekindergarten expansion, the Chattanooga Times Free Press reported.

But a spokesperson for Gov. Haslam’s office told Chalkbeat earlier this month that the governor will not apply for the grant.

The comments came during a cross country bus tour Duncan is taking. He stopped in Memphis and Nashville Wednesday.

Gov. Haslam has said that he will not work to expand pre-K until at least next year, when a Vanderbilt University study on the effectiveness of the state’s current model is released. That means that the money the federal government is offering this year is a non-starter. 

Duncan said that if Tennessee officials did apply for the money, the state could receive up to $70 million for pre-K in the next four years.

“To me, this is just a triumph of common sense,” he said. “Too many children start kindergarten a year to 18 months behind.”

A comptroller’s report three years ago suggested that Tennessee’s current pre-kindergarten program wasn’t boosting achievement throughout elementary school, causing a group of  legislators, led by Bill Dunn, a Republican representative from Knoxville, to assert pre-K was a bad investment for the state.

Early results from the five-year Vanderbilt study Haslam is waiting on suggest that students might not sustain academic gains in elementary school, but might develop other skills, like time management, that could serve them in middle and high school.

Education officials in Chattanooga, Nashville and Memphis have expressed interest in the federal funds, which they say will help raise achievement in their districts, but cannot apply for the Pre-K grant directly.

Applications are due Oct. 14.

Starting early

Report says Tennessee’s pre-K program needs consistent monitoring and more rigor to get better

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum
A new report shows that funding for Tennessee’s preschool program — known as the Tennessee Voluntary Pre-K — has been largely stagnant since 2010.

All parents look for a quality program when they send their children off to preschool.  But in Tennessee, parents may have to look a little longer and harder than families in many other states.

Tennessee met only five of 10 quality benchmarks designed by a national advocacy organization that released its annual preschool report last week. The report criticized the state for its lack of both a rigorous curriculum and a system that measures improvement in classroom quality.

Children enrolled in privately funded programs were not included in this data.

The quality benchmarks range from professional development to classroom size to curriculum. Only three state-funded pre-K programs met all 10 of the new standards — Alabama, Michigan, and Rhode Island.

The report also showed that funding for Tennessee’s preschool program — known as the Tennessee Voluntary Pre-K — has been largely stagnant since 2010.

These findings come from the “State of Preschool 2017,” a report released last week by the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. The annual report looks at state spending, enrollment, and quality in the 43 states and Washington D.C. that provide state-funded preschools.

Tennessee responded that the state has moved toward improving quality, but doesn’t have a plan in place yet for measuring outcomes.

“We are currently considering our next steps for monitoring quality, but currently do not have the infrastructure for site-based monitoring of these quality indicators,” state Education Department spokeswoman Sara Gast said in a written statement.

However, the state recently contracted with 15 educators and experts to review and help select higher caliber pre-K curriculums that will be taught in state-funded classrooms starting in the 2018-19 school year.

But the founder of the institute that led the study said that to really make progress, Tennessee has to first start measuring and tracking the quality of its classrooms.

“It all comes back to this — there’s nobody at the state level that’s engaged and paying attention to the system to first, identify problems and second, to fix them,” Steven Barnett, co-director and founder, told Chalkbeat.

When analyzing Tennessee, the report pulled from a 2015 study by Vanderbilt University that showed the benefits of Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K program faded by the second grade — and that students who attended eventually performed worse than their peers.

At the time, the state pledged to shore up quality of pre-K teachers and offer more professional development for them.

In the current report, Tennessee’s ratings fell in the middle of the pack — ranking 27th for 4-year-old access to preschool, 25th for 3-year-old access and 23rd for state funding.

The report said Tennessee’s stagnant funding has kept enrollment hovering near 18,500 pre-K students since 2010 — or 22 percent of 4-year-olds and one percent of 3-year-olds.

Gast said in her statement that the state is filling 90 percent of available pre-K seats with 4-year-olds from low-income families.

Tennesseans for Quality Early Education, a statewide advocacy group, said they want to see the state shore up program quality before adding new seats.

“Quality pre-k works, but program quality is inconsistent across the state,” said Lisa Wiltshire, policy director at the advocacy group. “Tennessee should stay the course and double down on pre-k quality improvement efforts… so that pre-k gains can be sustained.”

Developing Dads

From reading to breastfeeding, Detroit dads learn how to engage with their pre-K children

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Dwayne Walker sits with son, Braylen, during a break at Dad's Day in Pre-K

Although he grew up without a father or male role model, Dwayne Walker is the kind of dad who goes on his 5-year-old son’s school field trips, sits in on his classes, and dresses him in a mint green golf shirt and khaki pants to match his own.

At Dad’s Day in Pre-K, a Detroit district event to help fathers better connect with their young children, the 43-year-old realized how much he has changed over the years. His youngest son, Braylen, was with him at the event.

“I broke the cycle when I became a father. I’m involved, and this is helping me to learn I can do even more as a father and a father figure,” he said.

Walker was one of about 100 fathers who attended Dad’s Day in Pre-K, sponsored by the main district to help remove barriers that prevent fathers from engaging in their children’s lives and their schools.

District leaders are working to get parents more involved in their children’s education through a new Parent Academy, teacher home visits, and other efforts. They also are trying new approaches to get parents to participate when their children are younger — including focusing more on fathers.

A study published in 2016 in the Journal of Family Psychology indicated that the more fathers took part in bathing, dressing, reading, and playing with their infant children, the more these nurturing activities increased as the children got older and started school.  

That’s why the district held its second Dad’s Day, said Franchott R. Cooper, preschool supervisor with the district’s Early Childhood Department, who coordinated the event.

“If we keep the fathers involved from preschool, they’ll be there for elementary school, middle school, and high school,” he said. “They’ll be there to support their children with homework, help them with math, help them with reading, supporting them in their academic pursuits.”

Services that the program helps with include job placement and training, helping to reinstate their driver’s licenses so they can get to work and see their children, and assisting with child support issues. Fathers also got tips on how to nurture their children by reading to them, and advice on helping their mates breastfeed.

Wilma Taylor-Costen, former executive director of the district’s Early Child Education program, came up with the idea for Dad’s Day just before she left the district last year. Her department held the first event of its kind a year ago.

“I recognized there was a gap in early child education with our fathers,  particularly with black fathers” she said. “They have been beaten up a lot and the conversation always is they are not in the home, and they don’t care about their children.

“I wanted to give an opportunity for our fathers to come together in a structured support system and if there were barriers preventing them from being in the child’s life, we would bring the courts, the elders, and services they may need under one roof so they can learn lessons and be great dads.”

Durrail Sanders of Highland Park said he was excited to attend because it was positive food for thought for him and other fathers.

“I’m for anything positive that’s going to better myself as a father, other fathers and our youth,” said Sanders, father of five sons, including 5-year-old Isrrail Simmons, who loves to play basketball video games with his dad. “I can get better at this.”

Keynote speaker, author, and educational consultant Jelani Jabari reminded the fathers of the importance of playing with their children, reading to them, helping them with homework, and simply spending time with them. He said he learned that by making mistakes he didn’t realize he was making. He was so busy being a good provider, and working so much, that he was barely at home.

He said he received a wake-up call on July 1, 2011, when he came home from work early and his youngest son, then 3, looked very confused and asked him why was he home for dinner.

“Dinner time, daddy gone,” his son kept repeating.

The comment left him shocked and speechless, but it prompted him to spend more time with his family.

He reminded the men to avoid being so busy making money that they forget to spend time with their children, and to be engaged in their lives. He urged them to add specific activities, such as reading, doing homework, or coaching their child’s sports team, to add structure to the time they spend with their children.

“We are in this together,” he told the fathers. “There is no manual for teaching dads how to be great fathers. It’s a process. Some of us seem to figure it out earlier than others.”