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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.

Posted in: Blog, Early Learning

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Kicking six-year-olds out of school

A preschool student at South Shore PK-8. (Photo copyright: Stefanie Felix.)Remember the one about the six-year-old who got kicked out of school for pecking a classmate on the cheek? That happened last year in Colorado, but the same sort of thing could happen in Washington state—and likely does.

A recent article in the Seattle Times by Claudia Rowe reports that 104 kindergartners and first-graders were suspended or expelled in Seattle alone in 2012–2013—the majority, for “other behavior.”

What “other behavior” means isn’t clear, but it includes any behavior other than weapons, fighting, tobacco, drugs, or alcohol. It includes things like being “disruptive” or “disrespectful”—and the harshness of the punishment is up to the individual teacher or administrator, regardless of the crime.

And when you’re six years old, being “disruptive” is often synonymous with “being six.”

There is also, Rowe writes, a “growing stack of evidence that shows that educators mete out punishments differently, depending on a student’s race.” (more…)

Posted in: Blog, Closing the Gaps, School Discipline

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