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Why Early Learning Matters

Pre-K teacher Julia Brady uses handmade rekenrek’s with her students during a math lesson at South Shore Pre-K. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)

By Kristin DeWitte
Principal of South Shore Pre K-8
Guest Blogger

On my first day of first grade, I stood up and said that I wanted to become a teacher. I never wavered from that goal. As I got older, I had the opportunity to work in a school for children with disabilities about the time that PL 94-142 (the first special education law) went into place. I went to Central Washington University and earned my degree in Special Education with an elementary minor. Later in my career I went on to complete two Master’s degrees, the first in Curriculum and Instruction, and the second in Educational Leadership.

I worked most of my career In the Marysville School District, about half the time in special education and the remainder of the time in general education. I have taught kindergarten, first grade, second grade, fifth grade, sixth grade, resource room, elementary, middle school, and high school EBD (Emotional and Behavioral Disorder) classrooms. I have also worked on the core education faculty at Antioch-Seattle, the adjunct faculty at Western Washington University at Bellingham, Everett, North and South Seattle satellite campuses. I was the original developer of both distance and online learning components of continuing education for Seattle Pacific University. And I have consulted on a variety of topics in an eight-state region of the Northwest and Southwest US.

Prior to coming to Seattle Public Schools, I worked for current Seattle Superintendent Dr. Larry Nyland when he was in the Marysville School District. He asked me to take a position at Quil Ceda Elementary, which was a failing school in the state of Washington. We were in the bottom 5 percent of the state when I became principal there. I was there for five years before following Dr. Nyland to Seattle Public Schools. Under his leadership, I learned that being an effective administrative leader means that you build your teachers’ instructional skill and that equity is not frosting on the cake; it is a basic right for the students in high poverty schools. All schools in our state have a lot of work to do on the topic of true equity. I was lucky enough to land at South Shore Pre K–8.

When done right, early learning finds the children from within our school boundaries and invites them in to experience school before they hit kindergarten age to ensure that they are in a language- and experience-rich environment, and that they have had opportunities to learn social emotional skills for functioning in a classroom setting. The purpose is to equalize readiness for all students so they are prepared for kindergarten. Two factors that often play a role in school readiness are an early literacy-rich environment (which builds both vocabulary and introduction into a print-rich environment), and experiences had outside of school.

In addition, most children for a variety of reasons have had opportunities to attend daycare or other preschools that allow children to develop social-emotional literacy, as well. At South Shore, our preschool program is developed to teach to the whole child. Not only do they get early learning skills, but the High Scope program is designed to help students learn how to manage their time and to develop skills for problem solving.

We know that if children do not have a rich environment prior to entering school, they will most likely always be playing catch-up. At South Shore, early childhood education allows us to supplement the home experience so that all children enter kindergarten on a level playing field. To me, having early childhood education is one of the most important components of a school that serves a diverse population, some of which live below the poverty level. We can support and enrich what is happening at home.

In our preschool program, students attend 4 days out of 5. The 5th day, Fridays, are spent on parent engagement activities. A major benefit to students of this program is that students stay with their teachers for two years, so students develop very close relationships with their teachers. Our pre-K and kindergarten teachers are some of the most culturally responsive of the staff because they know what is going on in their students’ neighborhoods. Teachers have been hearing recently from some of our immigrant students about their fears about the recent executive orders, and it is affecting our staff also. We had a pre-K assembly on Friday a few weeks ago in which staff greeted families and gave them strong messages that they are welcome at South Shore.

Funding from a private donor has enabled us to retain a therapeutic counselor and data teams so that we are able to work very closely with particular families who need intensive wraparound support. Many students in grades K-2 do meet learning standards, but not all remain on track. Two subgroups who do not fully meet standards are students with special needs and English language learner (ELL) students; such students may benefit from longer placement to help develop their language access skills. Students are also provided a therapeutic setting where they can take regular “motion” breaks to move around as they wish, and this helps them learn more effectively.

A benefit to our pre-K staff is that they do professional development on Friday afternoons and that the instructional aides receive training along with teachers, so instructional aides get professional development as strong members of the pre-K teaching team.

Seattle Public Schools uses an equity formula and approach to placing students in special education. We are well aware that students of color are over-identified for placement in special education, so our staff works with our pre-K and kindergarten students of color to avoid unnecessarily placing them into special education.

At South Shore, we believe that our whole child approach to early learning, parent engagement with students’ families, and regular professional development for certificated teachers and instructional aides all help provide a strong foundation for students after they leave our preschool and progress onto successive grades.

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An Early Learning Perspective on the House and Senate Budget Proposals

Jennifer Jennings-Shaffer, Children's Alliance - League of Education VotersBy Jennifer Jennings-Shaffer, Early Learning Policy Director at the Children’s Alliance
Guest Blogger

Early learning is the foundation of the education continuum; it supports a child’s progress in school and in life. The House and Senate budget proposals each address early learning—but differ markedly in their approach to three key areas of interest to education advocates. Here’s how:

First, both budgets recognize the value of access to high quality pre-kindergarten. The Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP) is quality pre-kindergarten for income-eligible children who all too often face barriers to success in K-12. When poverty and other barriers tip the scales of child development toward the negative, ECEAP tips them back toward a good education, a good job, and a good life. Eligible families earn less than 110 percent of the federal poverty line—for a family of four, that is less than $26,730 per year. Despite delivering proven results in academic achievement, lawmakers fund ECEAP for fewer than half of our state’s eligible families—leaving approximately 23,000 children eligible but unserved. This is a missed opportunity.

The Senate budget proposes to provide access to ECEAP for an additional 1,200 children and increase the rate paid per ECEAP slot to more accurately support our early-childhood educators. The House budget proposes to provide access to an additional 2,043 children and also increases the slot rate. The House budget builds upon the proposal from the Senate; it is good progress toward ensuring that children who stand to gain the most from access to high quality pre-kindergarten get it.

Second, neither budget proposal responds to the crisis we see in child care, where lawmakers are giving working families inadequate support to meet rising costs. Washington is already one of the least affordable states in the country for families to find child care. The rates paid to center-based child care providers serving tens of thousands of children in the Working Connections Child Care (WCCC) program are far below the nationally recommended benchmark of 75 percent of market rate. When lawmakers try to offer assistance at these inadequate rates, child care providers face a difficult choice: serve families at a loss, stop serving them, or pass the cost on to (often only slightly) more affluent families to make up the difference. Lawmakers need to respond by raising rates for Working Connections Child Care paid to center-based providers. Neither the House nor the Senate budget adequately addresses this issue. The Senate budget includes $8.1 million for rate increases and the House budget includes $20.3 million. Advocates estimate that $40 million is the minimum investment necessary to protect access to child care.

Beyond failing to adequately address child care rates, the Senate budget includes deep cuts to child care access and quality. The Senate budget proposes a cut of -$31.9 million in access to WCCC. This cut includes eliminating 12-month authorizations for families and decreasing the number of families who can be enrolled in the program. If enacted, these cuts would mean that enrolled families could lose care in the middle of the year due to minor changes in their circumstances. Families who need and qualify for care would find themselves on a waitlist. Additionally, the Senate budget proposes to cut the Early Achievers program by $16.6 million. Early Achievers supports child care providers to improve their quality. These cuts put the brakes on our steady progress to ensure that Washington kids enter kindergarten ready to learn.

Third, evidence-based home visiting programs and paid family leave are both proven strategies for supporting parents as their child’s first and most important teacher. Both the House and Senate budgets protect access to home visiting services but only the House budget includes funding to implement paid family leave. Quality time at home with one’s newest family members is associated with improved maternal and infant health outcomes and increased employee retention. State and local governments across the country are increasingly implementing this smart policy.

We all have a stake in making sure that ALL our kids get a great start. As the House, the Senate and Governor Jay Inslee prepare to finalize a two-year state budget, we are calling on lawmakers to sustain and enhance their early learning investments. Children’s brains develop more rapidly in the first five years of life than at any other time. We cannot hope to close the achievement gap in K-12 if we ignore the early years.

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The Value of Early Childhood Education

South Shore PK-8 Teacher Matthew O'Connor - League of Education VotersBy Matthew O’Connor, Guest Blogger

I came to teaching at South Shore because of previous experience with Teach for America, working in a Head Start classroom in Houston with 3- and 4-year-olds. This inspired me to become an Early Childhood Education teacher.

I am a pre-K and kindergarten teacher at South Shore PK-8 in Rainier Beach. This is my seventh year teaching (fourth year at South Shore) and I work with five other colleagues, three lead teachers, each partnered with a full-time classroom teammate. Our vision for students begins with the belief that every student can be at grade level when they move on to first grade.

Moving forward from that belief, my team considers the reality that the American public education system does not mirror the histories or lived realities of students of color. To respond to this truth, we try to build classroom experiences that combine content and student identity in order to develop a good foundation of academic and social-emotional skills as well as a good sense of self and family. We hope that, in the future, this will allow them to tell their story of self in order to advocate for themselves and their community, reveal truth, interrupt bias, and encourage healing.

We loop with our students, starting with them as preschoolers at 4 years old, and stay with them as kindergarteners. Because of getting to work with our students for two years, we develop deep relationships between us. The students we have are very diverse, from multiple ethnic and racial backgrounds: immigrants, refugees, communities of color, many low income.

For most of our students, it is the first experience that they have with the American education system, and it is a privilege and a burden. It is a privilege because if we do our work right, they obtain a good foundation about what being in school means. They come to understand that the quality education that is their birthright includes a teacher who cares about them and listens authentically to their needs. They also know that this education includes discussions about what is happening in their community. They hopefully come to understand that it is school that must respond to their needs and the stories they bring—not the other way around. It is a burden to know that we send them off as six-year-olds and that they have twelve more years to finish their education, because they may not receive an education that continues to support them to be the best that they can.

Some projects that we do include a unit on developing preschoolers’ sense of self – we interview students about their favorite food, color, they create body shapes and mix paints to match their own skin color, we interview students and parents about their names, why they like their names and what their names mean. We also do two family projects. One is a family tree in which they identify family members in multiple generations. The other is a genetic one about students’ hair, skin, and facial features. Students write what they learn about their families, and what they learn is compiled into a book. At the end of the unit we have a publishing party where students share their work with their families.

Parents are also actively involved in our program. One way is that we invite them to give input on choosing the top 12 priorities that they wish to see students learn. Later they assess their children’s teachers on how they have done to implement these priorities into their children’s lessons. This is done through a tool developed by the Teaching Excellence Network. My team members and I also conduct Chalkboard Chats for parents on different topics – some are academic, focused on how to do a great read along with your children.  For others, community experts were invited in to discuss issues of parenting—such as talking to young children about racial identity or what to do if you expect your student is exhibiting atypical academic or social behavior.

The value of early childhood education is that it gives children a good foundation on which to build for their succeeding years in school – besides academics, students develop a good sense of self and family, and learn that their actions, no matter how small, can help make the world better.

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An early start to success

Access to high-quality early education has been life changing for our daughter, Eva Rose.

A teacher helps her young student with work.That’s how Seattle parent Jessica Colinares describes her daughter’s experience in preschool. Eva’s success—thanks to her access to high-quality early learning—isn’t extraordinary; rather, it’s the norm.

Support has been growing for quality early childhood education throughout Washington state—and across the country.

Many studies show that children in high-quality early learning programs are more prepared for kindergarten, more likely to graduate high school, healthier, more likely to be employed, and report higher income. They are also less likely to repeat grades, be placed in special education, be involved in the juvenile justice system, and commit crimes as adults. High-quality early learning is one of the best ways to close the opportunity and achievement gaps, which are already present by the beginning of kindergarten. Much of high-quality early learning focuses on the social and emotional learning that is so vital throughout a child’s life. (more…)

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A Way Forward: We can and must do better for Washington’s students

A child’s education should be a continuum with seamless transitions from early learning through postsecondary education. The League of Education Voters (LEV) is pleased to release its vision for an expanded definition of basic education.

Washington’s policymakers have spent much time, money, and intellectual capital trying to overhaul our state’s education funding system—multiple task forces, studies, work groups, legislative efforts—and yet, we lack a plan for ample, equitable, and stable funding. In addition, our definition of “basic education”—what this funding system is supposed to pay for—doesn’t go far enough to prepare our kids for college or career.

A Way Forward: We can and must do better for Washington's students. January 2015

A Way Forward

The Washington State Supreme Court found that the state was violating its constitutional obligation to amply fund basic education in the McCleary v. State of Washington funding case. Lawmakers were given a 2018 deadline to fix how we fund basic education. The passage of Initiative 1351 to lower K–12 class sizes statewide magnifies the intense pressure on the Legislature to determine a viable funding plan for public education. Though the 2018 deadline looms, the Court found the Legislature in “contempt of court” last fall, giving them until the end of the 2015 legislative session to make significant progress on a funding plan. While the funding issues are paramount to the Court, this time frame provides a unique opportunity to reflect on what our kids really need from our public education system to succeed. (more…)

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A definition of basic education worth fighting for

Chris Korsmo, CEO, League of Education VotersChris Korsmo, CEO of the League of Education Voters, submitted an op-ed to The Seattle Times‘ Education Lab yesterday. It was published in The Seattle Times print edition on June 20.

In her column, Chris argues that the definition of “basic education” in Washington is too narrow—it does not include early learning or higher education. Read below for an excerpt, or read the entire column online.

At the League of Education Voters, we support an ample, equitable, stable education funding plan. While we supported the re-definition of “basic education” developed in 2009 (it includes smaller class size, full-day kindergarten, transportation, materials and supplies) upon which McCleary is based, we advocated that the definition should also include early learning and higher education.

During the past two years, we have grown increasingly uncomfortable with the current definition of basic education. It is neither ample nor equitable. And thanks to our over-reliance on local levies, it certainly isn’t stable.

We need a definition of basic education that puts students and their learning at the center.

Read the entire op-ed on The Seattle Times website.

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A powerful education reform tool – kindergarten readiness data

This is a guest blog post by Bonnie Beukema, Assistant Director for Outcomes and Accountability at the Department of Early Learning. Bonnie was previously the former deputy director at LEV.

What gets measured gets done. Nothing speaks truer or gets us closer to achieving meaningful results for children.

In my years working to implement education reform, I’ve had one simple question running through my head like an ongoing news ticker – How can we prevent this? As LEV illustrated in the 2011 Citizens’ Report Card, the data is daunting and the problems feel intractable. Too many students drop out. The achievement gap is persistent, unconscionable and, in many cases, widening. Too many children are still learning to read at age 8 and beyond. Yes we can do better and we must. We also need to tackle the problems sooner.

Understanding whether or not children are ready to succeed when they walk through the kindergarten door is one of the most difficult questions to answer in this state.  Washington only begins to collect consistent student progress data at the end of 3rd grade.  By the time the state reports this data, the students are buying school supplies for 4th grade. Unfortunately we know this is too late.

That’s where WaKIDS comes in. For the first time, the Department of Early Learning (DEL) and Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) have statewide kindergarten assessment information across multiple domains of child development and achievement and a plan for statewide implementation.  We’re excited to share some of this data today.

First, a little background:

This past year, DEL and OSPI have partnered together to pilot a kindergarten readiness transition process -Washington Kindergarten Inventory on Developing Skills (WaKIDS)- that allows families, kindergarten teachers and early learning professionals to gather and share information about incoming kindergarteners. WaKIDS is up and running throughout the 2010-2011 school year in 115 classrooms around the state, with approximately 2,600 kindergarteners. Click to see the report from DEL and OSPI about how the pilot was designed and implemented, and recommendations for next steps.

WaKIDS is very unique. In fact, it is the only kindergarten transition process across the country to include three fundamental components that:

  1. Empower the family by having a teacher-family meeting where they discuss items such as the language spoken in the home, family traditions, and a child’s likes, dislikes, strengths and weaknesses
  2. Understand whole child development with a kindergarten assessment tool that measures across four developmental domains:
    • Social and emotional development
    • Cognition and general knowledge
    • Language, communication and literacy
    • Physical well-being, health and motor development
  3. Breaks down the wall between early care and education and kindergarten whereby early learning professionals and teachers meet throughout the year to share information about children and ideas to ease the transition.

Now for some data:

Because this is a pilot, we are testing three different assessment tools: Teaching Strategies GOLD, Pearson Work Sampling System, and CTB/McGraw Hill Developing Skills Checklist. Each teacher is using one tool so we can better understand which tools provide information that best informs instruction and supports student success. The final tool will be selected at the end of the school year.  I have included data from the Teaching Strategies GOLD assessment below. Click here to see the preliminary data report for all assessment tools submitted by UW.

The preliminary results illustrate what many educators and policymakers have believed for years – a dangerously high percentage of children arrive to school unprepared.  More specifically, the data suggests that more than a third of those children participating in WaKIDS enter kindergarten below expected skill levels. In the area of language, communication, and literacy, nearly half of the children enter with skills below the expected grade level. These differences are even more startling for economically disadvantaged children, pointing to the continued need for accessible, high quality early learning programs for low income children and families.

The data below is from the Teaching Strategies GOLD assessment. The kindergarten expectations are skills expected to be attained by children throughout the kindergarten year. Data illustrates that most children are below standard three of the four domains (physical, cognitive and language). The percentage of children below standard in the cognitive/general knowledge domain is particularly high at 74%.

Children eligible for free and reduced price lunch (185% of FPL) demonstrated lower than expected skill levels in three of the four domains:

  • Social and emotional – a 17% gap
  • Cognitive and general knowledge – a 25% gap, and
  • Language, communication and literacy – a 24% gap.

Children eligible for free and reduced price lunch (185% of FPL) outperform children not eligible for free and reduced price lunch on physical, health and motor skills by 16%.

DEL and OSPI are working hard to secure resources to continue and enhance WaKIDS. OSPI is drafting legislation that would amend Full Day Kindergarten RCW 28A.150.315 to phase in WaKIDS voluntarily beginning next fall, with mandatory participation beginning in the 2012-13 school year. This proposal would cost approximately $1.5 million during the 11-13 biennium. OSPI and DEL are currently seeking funding from private foundations. The state funding required to implement this proposal would be roughly $1 million.

For more information about WaKIDS, visit www.del.wa.gov/wakids

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