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.”

all aboard

Colorado’s top education officials support Gov. Polis’ full-day kindergarten proposal

PHOTO: Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Sophia Camacena sits with classmates in kindergarten on the first day of school at McGlone Academy in Denver on Aug. 15, 2018.

The Colorado State Board of Education has put its support behind a proposal for the state to cover the cost of full-day kindergarten.

Gov. Jared Polis campaigned on this plan, and earlier this week, he announced that he could pay for it without cutting other programs because local property taxes are bringing in more revenue, freeing up money at the state level.

In a press release, the State Board of Education, made up of four Democrats and three Republicans, said it had adopted a resolution in support of that plan.

“We know that high-quality kindergarten programs can help us close opportunity and achievement gaps and ensure that all students have a strong foundation for success throughout their school years,” board chair Angelika Schroeder, a Boulder Democrat, said in the release.

Vice Chair Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican, said leveraging the strong economy to pay for kindergarten is the right approach.

“The proposal doesn’t create a new mandate for districts or for parents, but it enables districts to offer free, full-day kindergarten for all, and it will help ensure all students are on the path to success,” Durham said.

Right now, about 50,000 students attend full-day programs and another 13,000 attend half-day programs. Many districts charge tuition for the extra half-day — the governor’s office estimates at least 30,000 families pay hundreds of dollars a month, though the state education department doesn’t track this — while others use a combination of federal money for high-poverty schools, state funds to support early literacy, dedicated local taxes, and their own operating funds to cover the cost.

When Polis announced the plan, key Democratic lawmakers on the Joint Budget Committee raised concerns about using so much additional revenue for kindergarten when there are other needs, particularly transportation. Polis estimates paying for kindergarten will cost an additional $227 million a year, plus a one-time $25 million expenditure for implementation costs such as  curriculum and supplies.

“The governor’s budget doesn’t really touch on transportation, for example,” Joint Budget Committee Chairman Dominick Moreno, a Democrat from Commerce City, told The Denver Post. “And that’s something we’ve heard loud and clear from our constituents — that they are tired of sitting in traffic. They want better infrastructure.”

But on Wednesday, when Polis formally presented his budget requests to the committee, those same lawmaker asked no questions and later issued official statements that indicated support for kindergarten, even as they included a few caveats about long-term fiscal responsibility.

“After meeting with Gov. Polis to learn more about his budget proposal, I believe his ideas are a solid blueprint which we can build upon for our next budget,” Moreno said in a press release.  “I look forward to continued conversations between the JBC and the governor to see how we can best fulfill these requests and fund these programs in the long-term.”

Early Education 101

Here’s how Detroit, Flint, and Grand Rapids advocates are trying to put early childhood education on the state policy agenda in Lansing

PHOTO: Getty Images

With scores of new Michigan lawmakers sworn in this month, and new leadership taking shape in Lansing, parents and advocates from across the state are ramping up efforts to put the needs of the state’s youngest children on the political agenda.

Parents from Detroit, Flint, and Grand Rapids plan to converge on the capitol next week for an “Early Education 101” session with lawmakers that organizers say is the first significant early-childhood event to be held in the capitol in about a decade.

“We decided to do this together so that we can speak with a collective voice,” said Denise Smith, who heads the Flint early childhood collaborative and runs an early childhood center called Educare Flint. “These are not just Detroit or Flint concerns.”

Organized advocacy like this has long been common in Michigan when it comes to K-12 education. Lansing veterans are used to seeing busloads of parents arrive to push for funding or policy changes. But early childhood education advocates haven’t invested the resources to organize events like these in recent years.

Advocates hope that next week’s event will to put the needs of young children and their parents on the radar of lawmakers  as the process for thinking about policy and budget priorities for the upcoming legislative session begins.

Among major concerns for parents across the state is a third-grade reading law that, starting next year, will require schools to hold back students who aren’t reading at grade level by the third grade.

Elementary schools have been working to ramp up their reading instruction, but advocates say the work has to begin much earlier, starting with getting children ready for school when they’re babies or toddlers.

“We need to have the resources and the other investments in early childhood so we can insure that fewer children will be retained,” Smith said.

One of the efforts behind the event is the Hope Starts Here initiative in Detroit, which is a $50 million campaign led by the Kresge and W.K. Kellogg foundations to improve the lives of the city’s youngest children. (Kresge and Kellogg also support Chalkbeat. Read our code of ethics here).

Hope Starts Here has brought parents, advocates, educators, and others together in Detroit to set priorities, such as making early childhood programs more affordable, improving their quality and expanding their reach.

“We have a lot of momentum right now,” said Camarrah Morgan, who is helping to lead community engagement and advocacy efforts for Hope Starts Here.

It’s not just parents and educators pushing the cause, she said. “We have corporate partners at the state level who are advocating for child care because they’re trying to recruit and retain workers … This is about helping policymakers understand why childcare is important.”

Organizers say that 165 lawmakers or members of their staffs have signed up for the Jan. 22 “lunch and learn” event in Lansing, including new and returning officials. There also will be 75 parents from across the state.

The parents will be learning too, said Felicia Cash, a parent and community advocate from Detroit’s east side who plans to participate.

“Success would be the parents being fired up once we come back,” Cash said. “It can’t just be a one-time event. We have to have the energy and the perseverance to continue lobbying, to continue writing, to continue having town hall meetings here in the city, to return back to Lansing. This is our voices being lifted up, our voices being taken seriously.”