Sunday, June 29, 2014

Roosevelt Tragedy Should Stimulate Community Pre-K ReAssessment

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Last Thursday, the City Council chambers were filled with advocates and supporters of our District 742 early childhood education services.   We provide support for parent education, special education for students with disabilities, regular early childhood education services, support for children with substantial psychiatric challenges, and some collaboration with private providers in the District.  With the destruction of Roosevelt by lightning and fire, the board invited advocates for early childhood services to speak to the board, in part to celebrate the school's past, but also to provide a vision for a possible future.  Those who spoke urged us to provide coherent, integrated services in a single comprehensive state of the art facility and that clearly makes sense.  Hopefully, replacement cost coverage for the destroyed building will provide a financial foundation for making that possible.   Supporters appearing at our meeting included teachers, parents, specialists, and representatives of other organizations with a stake in early childhood services, such as the United Way and Boys and Girls Club.  

I hope as well, that the tragic loss of the old facilities will trigger a comprehensive community review of where we currently stand as a community in the provision of early childhood services, and what we should aspire to become.  And I believe that the answer to that is that we must aspire to provide early childhood services in our community at a level that is second to none in America.   Our school district cannot do this alone.  It would take collaboration among private child care providers, the United Way, community and private foundations large and small, communities of faith, city and county government, Head Start, and individual citizens.    If we want to be a truly liveable city --- if we aspire to become a community of citizens who are financially independent and who all  live above the poverty line,  if we want to attract economic investment that offers high wage employment, if we want to maintain and expand our growing  health care, post secondary education, and technology industries, we must make sure that we provide highly educated population ready to provide the workforce skills necessary for the 21st century.      As long as a large number children are coming to our schools two or three years behind, we cannot expect to realize our full potential as a commercial, industrial, professional economic hub for central Minnesota.   We need to get way more ambitious in our efforts to promote high quality early childhood education for all families who want and need it. 

A number of communities in the United States have undertaken truly ambitious pre-K community programs.   The City of Tulsa has recently been covered in a National Public Radio program," Early Childhood Education, Tulsa, stands out."  Union City, New Jersey, one of the nation’s poorest urban centers, armed with funding provided as a result of groundbreaking state constitutional litigation, has allegedly made significant progress in part by adopting a major pre-K initiative in coordination with its public school systems,   Itasca County’s public school districts and others have combined to initiate “Invest Early.  ”   Cincinnati Strive has made early childhood education a central shared objective of the public schools, municipalities and counties, and the diocese among other partner.

Our community has not yet undertaken a commitment to doing what it takes to accomplish the objective of universal quality pre-K.   Partners for Student Success has been challenging us to do that., but we as a community have not yet bought into this vision.  The choice we face as a community, I believe, is whether we want to make incremental change, inching our way forward, as resources permit, towards the ultimate but unreachable goal, or whether we want to set ambitious objectives, funded by grants, or special taxing authority, or special legislative authority, or by a constitutional litigation like that which resulted in the funding of Union City.   At the rate we are now moving forward, it is not at all clear that in two decades time we will be any further along towards the objective of universal pre-k than we are today.  Let us use the Roosevelt tragedy as a reminder of the great good that quality pre-K education can do for our community.   

We properly  grieved for the children who lost their early childhood education facility through the tragedy of lightning and fire.     But other children in our community don't have quality early childhood education at all....didn't have it before the lightning struck, and won't have it after we replace the facility, because our community has not yet recognized the importance of universal pre k.   That absence of quality services for all arises not from an accidental lightning strike, but from an equally tragic failure of our community to recognize that we cannot thrive economically and socially as long as we have children who come to school without the skills and attitudes necessary for effective learning.  

What are the elements of a successful Pre-K community initiative?   The literature seems to support the following objectives.

A.        All students whose families want Pre-K education, receive it.  To provide children with a solid foundation for success before they enter school, we need to start treating pre-K as a fundamental component of the education system, not an optional add-on.  Universal access to voluntary, high-quality pre-kindergarten programs for all 3- and 4-year-olds whose parents want pre-K serviced.   I believe that we have not yet as a community accepted this as a community mission.   Adopting this as a central mission—objective—would require us to assess the cost of meeting this objective, and then undertaking to find additional resources to meet that objective.    Transferring scarce funds out of elementary and secondary education is not sufficient, because the research makes it clear that early childhood initiatives only pay dividends when they are followed by outstanding elementary and secondary programs. 

B.                 Properly Trained Teachers.   Pre-K programs employ highly skilled teachers who have appropriate credentials. “Teachers working with young children must have higher education levels that enable them to support that development.” In a truly successful program,   “Qualified teachers with both a bachelor’s degree and specialized training in how young children learn.”   There are some major policy choices to be made if we take this objective seriously.   Public school teacher costs are significantly higher than non-union pre-K programs.   But many non-public school programs do not attract and retain  appropriately qualified teachers.

C.              Outstanding Curriculum.  Pre-K programs must also have clearly-defined, developmentally-appropriate curricula and expectations of children’s learning that are aligned with expectations for elementary and secondary students. Quality, developmentally appropriate curriculum and standards aligned from pre-K through third grade.   

D.          Monitoring/Continuous Improvement.  Equally important, policymakers must develop systems and infrastructure to monitor the quality of pre-K programs and hold them accountable by tracking comprehensive indicators of child development and long-term effects of pre-K programs on children’s academic performance in school.

E.       Integration with K-3 Education.  Research that shows that pre-K programs can improve student learning also shows that they are not as effective if children move from quality pre-K programs into poor- quality elementary schools that are ill-equipped to sustain pre-K learning gains.  Strong leadership committed to providing children with a seamless educational experience.  We must ensure that all educators working with young children in this age range have a solid understanding of early childhood development, recognize the importance of the PreK-3rd years in children’s development, and are committed to creating a seamless educational experience in these years.   Merely calling ourselves “partners” cannot achieve this objective.  It is easy to form a partnership in name, but actually assuring robust and coordinated curriculum demands developing concrete mechanisms to make the objective a reality.

F.       Emphasis on both academics and social/emotional development in early grades. If our schools are to be effective in preparing our youngest children for success—in school, work, family, and life— they must prioritize social and emotional development in the PreK-3rdyears,  as well as academics.

G.           Alignment  Standards, curricula, formative assessments, and instructional strategies must be aligned with one another so that all work together to support children’s learning. This alignment must be both vertical—from grade to grade—and horizontal, so that all elements work together and children in different classrooms have a common learning experience. Standards must be aligned from grade to grade and over the course of the year, so that children’s learning builds in a seamless progression on top of what they already know.

 H.         Parental Engagement.  Effective PreK-3rd educational systems do not operate in a vacuum, but actively establish connections with the parents and communities they serve. Parental engagement is important at all levels of the educational system, but it is particularly important in the early years. PreK-3rd programs must also respect and reflect the broader cultures and communities their children come from.

I.        Coordinate with University Education   Actually transforming university education requires courageous action at the university level, because the Minnesota University culture is not always ready for change.

J.        Develop Targeted Programs for Non-English Speakers and their Parents

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