Learning, Linking and Leading in Early Education: A Solid Foundation for Continued School Success

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Early childhood class in Multnomah County, Oregon.

Written by S. Kwesi Rollins, Director of Leadership Programs, Institute for Educational Leadership, Washington, DC

National News    The past decade has produced unprecedented interest in early childhood programs and in improving the quality of early learning experiences. While a number of factors might explain this increased focus, two or three immediately come to mind. Cutting-edge research on brain development in the early years confirms that the infant brain is hard at work from the earliest stage of life. Furthermore, research documents that children exposed to high-quality early learning experiences tend to be more ready for school, both emotionally and cognitively, while children who lack opportunities and access tend to be less prepared, with cognitive deficits that are very challenging to make up over time. In addition, a recent Brookings Institution study suggests that investment in early education has significant positive effects on economic growth.

Efforts to strengthen early learning experiences have generally focused on improving the quality of programs for young children; fostering and sustaining partnerships among the various constituencies that have a stake in these issues; educating parents about their role as their children’s first teacher; and improving transitions and alignment through the early grades so that schools are more “ready” for children entering kindergarten. School-based early education provides an opening that can lead to a solid foundation for continued school success.

With support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Institute for Educational Leadership (IEL) developed the Early Childhood and Community School Linkages Project to demonstrate how strategic connections between quality early childhood opportunities and effective community schools would lead to better results for vulnerable children, and lay the groundwork for success in school and life as children travel the P-20 (cradle-to-career) pipeline.

In early 2009, the project began work in three communities that already had established community schools and were ready to begin looking at how to connect with early childhood systems. Building on well-developed local capacity, Linkages sites will foster improved local, district, and state level policies and practice and improve results for children and their families, schools and communities. The project is focused on several key indicators: parent involvement, early chronic absenteeism, and reading by third grade. Three communities are sites for the linkages project:

  • Albuquerque, New Mexico, where the ABC Community Schools Partnership, a unique effort that brings together three major public entities – Albuquerque Public Schools, Bernalillo County and the City of Albuquerque - is building linkages with early childhood efforts initiated under the Kellogg SPARK Project.
  • Multnomah County, Oregon, where the Oregon Early Childhood and Community School Linkages Project is a joint effort of the Multnomah County Department of Human Services SUN Service System (which includes 58 community schools) and the State Commission on Children & Families.
  • Tulsa, Oklahoma, where the Tulsa Area Community Schools Initiative will connect its community schools model with the already well established early care and learning system to achieve improved school readiness and success in the early years of school.

The involvement of engaged and enlightened school leaders is a critical factor in the success of efforts like the Linkages Project. Barbara Hicks, Principal at the Harold Oliver Primary School in Multnomah County’s Centennial School District, recognized the importance of these connections several years ago and has put particular emphasis on the successful transition of Head Start students entering her school. A K-3 school, Oliver has 500 students, of which 79% receive free and reduced lunch and 40% are English language learners. Latinos represent almost 50% of the student population, followed by Asians, eastern Europeans, and African-Americans. As a SUN community school, the school day is extended offering academic assistance, enrichment activities, homework help and Spanish reading club. “The more we can know about and plan for those students, the better prepared we are for them. This means working closely with our teachers, having the Head Start staff bring their kids and parents to visit our school building, and doing what we can to get more parents involved. Our Kindergarten Round Up is one example of an activity that helps parents understand what to expect when their children enter Kindergarten.” Principal Hicks is very excited about the Linkages Project. “Strong connections—it’s all about strong connections.”

At Kendall-Whittier Elementary School in Tulsa, OK, Judy Feary is convinced that her English language learners are doing really well largely because of strong early childhood programs: “I’ve seen the importance of transitioning from the homes to the schools and working on the culture in the neighborhood. I knew we had to convince the parents of what their role as the first educator was and I used Parents as Teachers for that.” Kendall-Whittier has 1025 students, Pre-K to 5. Of that number there are 60 four-year- olds and 180 kindergarteners. Demographically, 97% receive free and reduced lunch, 60% are Latino, 12 percent African-American, 12% Native-American and the rest are white.

An educator for over 40 years, Feary realized the importance of linkages and high quality early education as a classroom teacher in the early 80’s. “I taught in a magnet school in a high poverty area where some of the kids came from full-day and others from half-day kindergarten. I could tell the difference between those students who had full-day or half-day programs and those who had high quality teachers. In my first principalship, I knew we needed to have a four-year-old program but there wasn’t money to do it, so I collaborated with the Head Start program in town to provide that in my school before I was allowed to do it with Title I money.”

When asked what she hopes to see at the end of the Linkages Project, Feary noted: “I hope to see the schools more sensitive to children coming in and their varied backgrounds and how we can be more helpful to those parents. I hope to see home-based childcare or stay-at-home families more involved with the school before [their children] come into the school. I also want to see my elementary school children transition successfully to the middle school.” Improving outcomes for children from the early years through the early grades and into middle school depends, in no small measure, on creating and strengthening key linkages between and among the various levels of our American education system.