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.”

Indiana's 2019 legislative session

Indiana faces a tight budget in 2019, lawmakers say. Will expanding pre-K be in the cards?

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Preschool and kindergarten students at George Washington Carver School 87, a magnet Montessori school in Indianapolis Public Schools.

Nearly every time the state prepares to craft a new two-year budget plan, Indiana lawmakers warn it will be difficult to balance different funding priorities. But 2019 could be especially tough, they say, since the bulk of new revenue could already be earmarked to assist children affected by the opioid crisis.

Extra resources for preschool and teacher raises are among the areas competing for the remaining funds.

“This is going to be a puzzle that we’re going to have to solve together,” said House Speaker Brian Bosma at a panel discussion hosted by the Indiana Chamber on Monday.

Bosma, a Republican from Indianapolis, said the state anticipates about $325 million to $350 million in new revenue for the next two-year budget cycle, which begins in 2019. But, he said, $275 million could potentially be earmarked for the Department of Child Services to help stem its growing caseload and staffing needs in light of Indiana’s opioid crisis.

That leaves little for new projects, such as raising teacher salaries or improving school safety resources, or expansion of existing ones, such as preschool. Half the state’s budget is generally set aside to fund schools and districts, parceled out based on a formula that factors in a school’s demographics, special education needs, and more. For the past few budgets, lawmakers have given modest increases to schools, around 2 percent.

But that doesn’t include preschool, which is funded separately as a line item. Bosma on Monday expressed some uncertainty that the program can be expanded in the way pre-K advocates have called for — requests that have ranged from adding more counties to pushing it statewide. Known as On My Way Pre-K, the program so far has cost $22 million per year and is available in 20 counties. Currently, about 4,000 4-year-olds from low-income families use grants from the program to attend a high-quality pre-K provider of their choice.

“I’m very open to expanding it, as long as the focus is on the people who can’t afford the programs themselves,” Bosma said. “The problem is, this is going to be a more difficult budget year than many are aware of … expanding the program right now might be difficult.”

Republican and Democrat leaders, from the House and Senate, said Monday that they supported an expansion of the state’s preschool program. It’s an issue that has seen broad bipartisan support, with lawmakers approving an increase in 2017.

Gov. Eric Holcomb and state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick have come out in support of expanding access to strong preschool programs, particularly in rural areas and to ensure students are prepared for kindergarten.

In the past, lawmakers have been skeptical about how much to spend on the pre-K pilot program, but each year has seen incremental increases in funding, with the number of counties quadrupling since its start.

Bosma suggested the state might have to look to other funding sources, such as ones at the federal level.

Earlier this year, Indiana applied for a federal Preschool Development Grant, which can be used to conduct a statewide needs assessment and coordinate existing federal, state, and local programs that serve children from birth to age 5, according to the grant description. Up to 40 states and territories will receive awards between $500,000 and $10 million, which are expected mid-December.

Lawmakers have also been in talks about how money could be set aside for raises for teachers and other educators. But it’s unclear how much of a pay hike is on the table or how the dollars would get from the state to teacher paychecks. Bosma said there’d be more details later this week and when lawmakers come back for session to begin in January.

Head Start restart

Children left in limbo as Detroit Head Start providers stand to lose federal grants

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn/Chalkbeat

Four major providers of Head Start programs in Detroit must re-apply for funding after losing their federal grants this year, throwing the future of dozens of classrooms in doubt for the fall.

One of the four providers was forced to re-compete for funding after leaving a 3-year-old outside in freezing winter weather and putting children in unsafe classrooms. The other three were ranked poorly in a federal performance review that scores how students and teachers interact.

Head Start, the federally funded program that provides free preschool and other services to the nation’s neediest children, has long struggled in Detroit. Years of program neglect while under the supervision of a cash-strapped city agency left providers without adequate buildings and a teacher shortage so severe that two years ago, 800 funded seats for the most vulnerable children in the city were going unused.

Since then, the program had expanded, but providers are still struggling to create enough programs to use all of the 5,200 Head Start seats the federal government would fund. As of last spring, 260 seats were going unused, according to Patrick Fisher, spokesperson for the Administration for Children and Families, the federal organization that oversees Head Start.

Thousands of Detroit families rely on these programs for free childcare and meals for ages 0 to 5. Head Start is especially important for low-income families struggling with the skyrocketing cost of childcare. Despite the longstanding issues, these Head Start facilities are many families’ only option for affordable quality early childhood education. Studies on Head Start show the program can influence everything from whether kids succeed in school, to whether they become smokers as adults.

The prospect that programs could be closed or moved if current providers are not able to win new grants has been unsettling to families who might not be able to bring their children to a school that’s farther away.

“It would definitely be a disruption because I would have to travel, and a lot of us don’t have the means to travel,” said Monika Chester, the mother of three children who attend Head Start at the Samaritan Center on Detroit’s east side. “A lot of us are walking, taking the bus, getting a cab, even in the winter, and my baby is five months old.”

“But the worst thing would be for my babies to adapt to new teachers,” she said. “That’s the worst. That’s really bad.”

The four providers that must recompete — Matrix, Starfish Family Services, New St. Paul Tabernacle Head Start Agency Inc., and Metropolitan Children and Youth, Inc. — must divert attention from running facilities to competing for the federal money that allows them to run the programs. 

The process to reapply for one of the five-year grants is significantly easier if providers have no issues with their federal scores, providers say. Meanwhile, providers who score below passing on the federal examinations or have other issues are forced to undergo a multistep process that can take several people a month or longer to complete.

Ann Kalass, whose Starfish Family Services leads the coordination of a large Head Start collaborative called Thrive by Five Detroit, said her biggest concern is how reapplying affects the children and families in the program, rather than the time it takes for staff to reapply.

“What I worry about is that it creates a disruption and they leave our programs in May and June not knowing who to count on in the fall,” said Ann Kalass, who runs Starfish Family Services.

“There is a lot of work going on among many providers to submit quality plans and applications in mid-January, so yes, it’s definitely taking resources for us to do that,” Kalass said. “But from my perspective, we do this work all the time — we’re always competing for grants and new opportunities, so it’s people spending time on writing grants who might otherwise be thinking about the program strategy and implementation.

“The real concern for me at a system level is that we’re trying to rebuild and reinvest and it feels like taking a step back to move a step forward,” she added.

The federal auditors grade facilities in three categories: emotional support, classroom organization, and instructional support. Providers are compared against one another nationally, and the lowest scoring 10 percent must automatically rebid for the federal money that pays for  the program.

In the category of classroom organization, Matrix, Starfish, and New St. Paul all scored in the bottom 10 percent range nationally.

Kalass said teacher turnover played a role in why the scores were so low in that category.

“Classroom organization looks at the routines and the structures of learning in the classroom,” Kalass said. “It talks about routines in the classrooms, the overall management of what’s happening in the classroom, and we have a high level of teacher turnover in the city, and some of the highest rates of teacher turnover in the country.”

The median salary for a preschool teacher who works full-time in Michigan is less than $30,000 a year, according to one study, making it hard to retain teachers. A report from the Kresge and Kellogg foundations pointed to the shortage of qualified preschool teachers as one of the challenges to improving early education in Detroit.

The next category, instructional support  — how children are taught — “involves how teachers promote children’s thinking and problem solving, use feedback to deepen understanding, and help children develop more complex language skills,” according to a guide to understanding the scoring metrics.

Nationwide, providers struggle to meet the federal standards for this category. The passing score has a low threshold — it is only about 2.31 out of seven. In Detroit, all three providers had low scores, but New St. Paul fell below the threshold for passing in that category.

In the emotional support category, all of the providers in Detroit scored above the minimum. This area measures how teachers “help children resolve problems, redirect challenging behavior, and support positive peer relationships.”

The federal Office of Head Start, which conducts the reviews, has proposed a change to the bottom 10 percent rebid rule and other scoring guidelines, but it won’t have an effect on the current process.

Providers in Detroit support the change. They believe comparing the city with providers outside of the area isn’t right. Last year, 32 percent of grantees nationwide had to recompete for grants. In Detroit, that number is higher as providers struggle with crumbling buildings, high teacher turnover, and a Head Start program that has endured years of turmoil.

But the other issues submitted to the federal office by the facilities themselves are harder to debate.

At the Samaritan Center, a Matrix facility on the east side near Chandler Park, on Jan. 8, 2018, a teacher was terminated after kicking a 2-year-old who fell asleep in a chair, according to the federal report released in February. The Samaritan Center had another violation in October of last year, when a 3-year-old was told to walk back to class unsupervised and was later found by personnel “alone, lying on the floor in a classroom crying,” according to a May report. The teacher was terminated.

The Eternal Rock Center, another Matrix facility located in Southwest Detroit, was given a violation after a 4-year-old was left in a classroom unsupervised for a short time in January. The teacher was terminated in this case as well.

Matrix Family Services declined a phone interview to speak on the low facility scores, rebidding for contracts, and the offsite reports from this year.

A report on the Metropolitan Children and Youth, Inc.’s facility was enough to trigger the contract rebid process. In winter of 2014, at the Harper/Gratiot Center on Detroit’s east side, a 3-year-old was left outside on a playground and later found by a parent crying and knocking on the door of the building. Neither the center’s investigation nor a review by the federal office was able to determine how long the child was outside in freezing temperatures.

Only Metropolitan Children and Youth is forced to rebid because of the offsite reports.

“Reviewers examine documentation sent by the grantee to identify program strengths or weaknesses, deficiencies, or that an issue has been remediated,” said Patrick Fisher, a spokesperson for the Administration for Children and Families, the federal office that oversees Head Start.

In Detroit’s Head Start classrooms, reported treatment like this is rare but not out-of-the-blue: underpaid teachers working in buildings struggling to keep the heat on sometimes results in poor conditions.

If the four providers don’t manage to win contracts, families could  be forced to find new centers and forge new connections with teachers. Moving locations can be hard on families and children alike, and requires a concentrated effort between the old and new provider to successfully transition students and staff.

A transition occurred last year after Southwest Solutions abruptly shuttered 11 Head Start centers. Luckily for the 420 children affected, Starfish Family Services was able to transition the children and many of the teachers to other agencies, allowing many to remain in their existing facilities.

There’s no guarantee that relocation of families could happen so smoothly in the future, but the Detroit providers are keeping lines of communication open.

“I think there are a lot of encouraging signs for early childhood programing in Detroit,” Kalass said. “Providers are meeting monthly to problem solve together — around workforce, facilities, and about better connecting with families.”

“We’re in a place of rebuilding and I’m optimistic that we won’t see a situation like this again. We won’t be in this place a few years from now.”

Scroll down to read some of the reports that led to one Head Start agency being asked to reapply for funding.