January/February 2016

IASB, Ounce collaborate on early learning document

Theresa Kelly Gegen is editor of the Illinois School Board Journal.

The Illinois Association of School Boards (IASB) has partnered with the Ounce of Prevention Fund to develop information and guidance for school boards on the subject of early learning.

The Early Learning User’s Guide for Illinois School Boards offers insights in support of early learning, because “school boards are responsible for ensuring that all children in their districts succeed in school and go on to success in college and careers.”

“The document itself was a result of a tremendous amount of research, primarily from the Ounce,” said IASB Executive Director Roger Eddy. “The collaboration with us was centered on making sure that the document contained information that would be appropriate for a school board, from the governance perspective.”

“Board members are leaders with the long-term interests of their community at heart,” added Elliot Regenstein, senior vice president for advocacy and policy at the Ounce of Prevention Fund. “So this guide is meant to help them understand why early learning is important to a strong, comprehensive educational system — and how they can help early learning succeed in their communities. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to early learning, so the guide helps board members understand the key questions they need to be asking and what partners they should engage.”

The collaboration began in 2014, and the project came together in late 2015.

“When Roger Eddy became executive director of IASB, we knew he was a long-time champion of the importance of early learning,” Regenstein said. “We also knew that many school board members are interested in being champions for early learning but could use additional support in playing that role, so together we developed this guide to meet that need. The content reflects our 30 years of expertise in early childhood education and IASB’s tremendous insight into how school boards really operate.”

Distilling the information to meet the roles and purposes of school boards was crucial to the development of the project.

Eddy says his experience as an educator and administrator helped identify the appropriate issues. Cathy Talbert, IASB associate executive director of field services and policy services, also reviewed the work to maintain the board member governance role evident in it.

School districts that invest in early learning and align early learning initiatives with their district goals and community needs can develop long-term positive outcomes. The collaboration between IASB and Ounce emphasizes that every community is unique, and early learning strategies will differ depending on the community.

“We concentrated on community resources,” Eddy said, “as well as the engagement that it takes. The type of engagement in a community that is related to early childhood education also represents the type of engagement that identifies what needs there are in a community, what its resources are to meet those needs, and then how to fill the gap.”

The Ounce of Prevention Fund is a Chicago-based nonprofit with the mission of giving “children in poverty the best chance for success in school and in life by advocating for and providing the highest quality care and education from birth to age five.” In addition to directly serving children and families, the Ounce offers research integration, educator training, advocacy, and educational materials.

Their research shows that the achievement gap — the disparity in academic performance between groups of students — is evidenced long before children are of kindergarten-age. At-risk children who don’t receive a high-quality early childhood education are 25 percent more likely to drop out of school, 50 percent more likely to be placed in special education, and 60 percent more likely to not attend college.

The User’s Guide states, “If school board members understand the available options and the needs of the community’s youngest learners, they can make informed decisions about their district’s early learning strategy as part of the broader educational vision.”

“This isn’t heavy-handed, and it’s not meant to be,” Eddy continued. “It’s meant to be informational, best practices, and to define leadership in this area from a board’s perspective — that’s an important distinction. The guide offers information on policy to do school board work and give direction, then to take a step back and let the administrators do their job. We add an emphasis on community engagement, because not only is it important, it’s especially so with early learning.”

The Early Learning User’s Guide for Illinois School Boards was distributed via postal mail to school board presidents and school superintendents. The complete document and executive summary are available, in PDF and digital formats, at iasb.com/earlylearning /.

“We hope that this guide will help start a lot of conversations around the state about how boards can help their communities build stronger systems of early learning that lead to better long-term child outcomes and students that are kindergarten ready,” Regenstein said. “We’re excited to continue partnering with IASB and its members to help those conversations go well.”

Next month’s issue of The Illinois School Board Journal will feature a study on the importance of early learning to educational outcomes.

Questions school boards can ask to inform early learning strategy

As a school board looks to begin (or continue) thinking about early childhood as an element of the overall district planning process, below are a few questions to help guide its thinking:

Q: What are the demographics of our community and what types of services are available/needed in the community?

Having a preliminary understanding of the needs of the community and what types of programs families have or need access to should help to inform a school district’s strategy in engaging in early learning. Having this information can also help identify the types of funding children in the district may qualify for and can help a school board create the best strategy for its community in relationship to the existing early learning landscape.

Q: What early learning experiences do our children have before they come to kindergarten and how are we measuring their preparedness for kindergarten?

Identifying the types, quality, and offerings of early learning programs children are attending in your community, if any, can help a district design a strategy for the most efficient use of funds. Then looking at any available kindergarten achievement data available to the district can help define target areas for future investment.

Q: What program-level metrics for success will be put in place for early childhood programs?

This should be aligned with any other early childhood initiatives in the community, along with K–12 priorities. It is important to ensure that these metrics encourage the type of educational environments that are developmentally appropriate for early learners. Districts may also seek to look beyond program accountability and consider teacher- or leadership-level accountability that improves the instruction for young children.

Q: In what ways can the district incorporate community-based programs into its district-wide quality improvement efforts?

Whether this is through supporting teacher’s professional practice or developing transition planning process for children, ensuring that the entire educational continuum is considered in a district’s planning process can greatly benefit children. This should take into consideration the objectives of the school district as well as the needs of the community-based providers.

Q: What funding is the district already accessing for early childhood or that could be applied to early childhood efforts? What is already being accessed by the broader community?

Mapping out the funding that exists in the community — particularly when looked at in relationship to the needs of the district’s youngest children — can offer insight into where there may be gaps or overlaps that suggest a need for better coordination.

Q: What are the needs of community-based providers in engaging in quality improvement efforts?

Asking community-based leaders what they are lacking in order to improve the services they offer to children and families may help a district identify simple ways it could better support existing early learning services.

Q: Is there a shared definition of kindergarten readiness within the community?

Many times early education providers simply do not fully understand how the district is measuring kindergarten readiness or what the expectations for an entering kindergartner may be — and in some cases, kindergarten teachers may have differing expectations themselves. Ensuring that all professionals who support children in the early years have shared expectations for child development can go a long way toward improving services offered to students.

 — Excerpted from The Early Learning User’s Guide for Illinois School Boards.