Digging in

Pre-K proponents: Vanderbilt study will inform early learning programs, not dissolve them

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Students at Bordeaux Early Learning Center in Nashville create and sculpt with Play-Doh.

Policymakers angling to dump pre-kindergarten programs in Tennessee might not be impressed initially with how 4-year-olds at Bordeaux Early Learning Center spent their first day back from fall break in Nashville: hip-hop dancing, painting with pine cones, and picking peppers in their school garden.

But pre-K advocates say such activities teach youngsters the academic and behavioral skills necessary for later grades. They say the resulting positive school environment also addresses many problems with Tennessee’s public pre-K classroom highlighted by a landmark study released last month by Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education.

The five-year study found that students who attended Tennessee’s public pre-K programs eventually did worse in elementary school than their peers who had no pre-K at all.

In the aftermath, Gov. Bill Haslam and lawmakers openly pondered divesting from the state program known as Voluntary Pre-K. Meanwhile, in Washington, a proposal before Congress would end a federal grant funding pre-K in school systems across the nation, including five districts in and around Nashville and Memphis.

Even so, early childhood educators and advocates in Tennessee are stubborn in their commitment to early learning programs.

They say the study’s findings were anticipated, and that changes have been implemented in the last two years to address weaknesses highlighted by the report. They also are helping to spread best practices to pre-Ks across the state.

"Things I thought were right were not developmentally appropriate, but I had no way to know they weren't."Danielle Norton, instructional coach

Danielle Norton, a career pre-K teacher now coaching younger teachers at Bordeaux, said it’s been a learning experience for everyone who’s committed to quality pre-K.

“The past year I’ve grown a lot,” she said. “Things I thought were right were not developmentally appropriate, but I had no way to know they weren’t. Now we have coaches and principals who know so much about early childhood  education. But before, we didn’t have that in Tennessee.”

Learning curve

Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K was spearheaded by Gov. Phil Bredesen in 2005, answering a call from researchers and educators to serve low-income students as 4-year-olds to get them on equal footing with their more affluent peers by kindergarten. Statewide enrollment jumped from 9,000 students during its pilot year to 18,000 within three years, a number that has since remained steady.

However, developing a high-quality pre-K program was not the initial focus. Pre-K teachers often were viewed more like babysitters than educators. And though state pre-K classrooms frequently are located in elementary schools, they were treated as separate entities. Researchers and pre-K teachers think that might be why any developmental gains made in pre-K were quickly lost.

“A lot of principals don’t understand early childhood [education],” Norton said. “They just think it’s cute. You pretty much got left alone. There was no one to support me or help me grow as an educator.”

In their study of the Voluntary Pre-K initiative, Vanderbilt researchers Dale Farran and Mark Lipsey found that children who went to pre-K did better than their peers in kindergarten, but that their academic performance flattened out by the second and third grades.

They noted that pre-K teachers often had wildly different approaches, so that best practices weren’t being shared and spread to make pre-K worth the public investment.

And even when pre-K teachers were guiding young learners in developmentally appropriate ways — letting them learn while playing, allowing constant movement, and letting students lead the way, rather than responding to teacher lectures — their counterparts in kindergarten through third grade often were not. Thus, many proponents of pre-K say a transition to mediocre early elementary school programs may be equally to blame for the Vanderbilt study’s disappointing findings.

“You absolutely have to have that bridge from kindergarten to third grade to keep that momentum,” said Dana Eckman, Metro Nashville’s director of early childhood learning. “You can’t look at one year as a silver bullet. Every year matters.”

Addressing quality

In the fall of 2014, Metro Nashville Public Schools launched three model pre-K centers, including Bordeaux, where Vanderbilt researchers offer feedback on what practices are helping children learn and what practices aren’t. District leaders then help disseminate that information to the 174 classrooms across the school system, 55 of which are Voluntary Pre-K classrooms, and 10 of which were part of the Vanderbilt study.

By design, there are few quiet moments at Bordeaux.

When children walk down the hall to learn hip-hop with the nonprofit Global Education, or go outside to garden with Plant the Seed, another nonprofit organization, they often are singing or snapping their fingers. That’s because of coaching that teachers receive to keep students engaged during transition times between activities. A simple activity like clicking fingers seems fun to 4-year-olds, and helps them develop fine motor skills.

A pre-K student at Bordeaux waters plants  — all the while learning about different vegetables, nutrition, the sun and water.
PHOTO: Grace Tatter
A pre-K student at Bordeaux waters plants while learning about vegetables, nutrition and agriculture.

The teachers also have been coached to speak with children in warm and friendly tones and to create more spaces that encourage kids to play together.

This year, all Nashville district pre-Ks are using The Creative Curriculum, which incorporates playtime as a way to learn and was piloted last year in the model pre-Ks.

And for the first time this year, all Nashville pre-K teachers have access to professional development and to 17 instructional coaches, such as Norton.

The Nashville district has used a federal pre-K grant, which will infuse $33 million into the program over the next four years, to hire six family services specialists, an extended learning coordinator and a data specialist to track pre-K students outcomes in later grades.

“We’re focusing not just on the school day, but the whole child,” Eckman said.

All of the changes have meant a paradigm shift for pre-K teachers, with a greater focus on assessing student skills — just by observing basics such as playing, counting, and how a child holds a pencil.

“They don’t know they’re being assessed. They’re playing,” said Kathy Daws, who has taught in Nashville for more than 30 years. “Everything is very intentional now.”

Planting their feet

Though federal and state pre-K funding is under threat, pre-K advocates are adamant that they’ll keep pushing and say they have a lot of support. Both Memphis and Nashville recently elected mayors who favor pre-K for all children, not just those who are from low-income families. At the state level, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen identifies early education as a priority in her strategic plan for the state. She also has named an Early Learning Council.

Nashville is luring early educators from across the country, including Eckman, who moved this spring from California, and Diana Lyon, the principal of the Bordeaux program, who relocated from Ohio.

In Memphis, Shelby County Schools is making changes that leaders hope will put pre-K on the map — and keep it in the budget.

“A lot of things are already happening in our pre-K classrooms that I think will reap results,” said Barbara Prescott, the city’s longtime pre-K advocate. “I think we have the ability to really make a positive difference.”

"A lot of things are already happening in our pre-K classrooms that I think will reap results."Barbara Prescott, pre-K advocate

In recent years, the Tennessee legislature has turned back cost-saving bills that would scale back pre-K to summer programs. However, such proposals are likely to resurface next year in the wake of the Vanderbilt study.

Still, Shannon Hunt, who heads the Nashville Public Education Foundation, says support for pre-K is strong in a city seeking to improve the quality of its schools and its workforce.

“In Nashville, we have made a real priority out of pre-K,” she said. “I don’t see that changing given the extraordinary high-need population we serve.”

Early investment

Foundations put $50 million behind effort to improve lives of young Detroit children

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
The heads of the Kresge and W.K. Kellogg foundations, Rip Rapson and La June Montgomery announce a $50 million investment to support the new Hope Starts Here framework.

The two major foundations behind the creation of a ten-year plan to improve the lives of Detroit’s youngest children are putting up $50 million to help put the plan into action.

As they unveiled the new Hope Starts Here framework Friday morning, the Kellogg and Kresge foundations announced they would each spend $25 million in the next few years to improve the health and education of children aged birth to 8 in the city.

The money will go toward upgrading early childhood education centers, including a new Kresge-funded comprehensive child care center that the foundation says it hopes to break ground on next year at a location that has not yet been identified.

Other foundation dollars will go toward a just-launched centralized data system that will keep track of a range of statistics on the health and welfare of young children, and more training and support for early childhood educators.

The announcement at Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History drew dozens of parents, educators and community leaders. Among them was Detroit Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti who said one of the major impediments to improving conditions for young children has been divisions between the various government and nonprofit entities that run schools, daycares and health facilities for young kids.

Vitti said the district would do its part to “to break down the walls of territorialism that has prevented this work from happening” in the past.

Watch the video of of the announcement here.

Detroit's future

In a city where 60 percent of young children live in poverty, a ten-year plan aims to improve conditions for kids

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn/Chalkbeat

A coalition of community groups led by two major foundations has a plan to change the fortunes of Detroit’s youngest citizens.

The Hope Starts Here early childhood partnership is a ten-year effort to tackle a list of bleak statistics about young children in Detroit:

  • More than 60% of Detroit’s children 0-5 live in poverty — more than in any of the country’s 50 largest cities;
  • 13% of Detroit babies are born too early, compared to nine percent nationally;
  • 13% of Detroit babies are born too small, compared to eight percent nationally;
  • Detroit has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the country;
  • Nearly 30,000 of eligible young Detroiters have no access to high-quality early learning or child care options.
  • That translates to learning problems later on, including the 86.5% of Detroit third graders who aren’t reading at grade level.

Hope Starts Here spells out a plan to change that. While it doesn’t identify specific new funding sources or propose a dramatic restructuring of current programs, the effort led by the Kresge Foundation and the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, names six “imperatives” to improving children’s lives.

Among them: Promoting the health, development and wellbeing of Detroit children; supporting their parents and caregivers; increasing the overall quality of early childhood programs and improving coordination between organizations that work with young kids. The framework calls for more funding to support these efforts through the combined investments of governments, philanthropic organizations and corporations.

Read the full framework here: