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July/August 2016

Start early
School boards serve youngest stakeholders
by Del Stover

Del Stover is editor of Urban Advocate and senior editor of the American School Board Journal.

Is your school board really serving the needs of the youngest, most vulnerable children? Here are seven policy issues to ponder:

1. Make preschool a priority

Every urban school leader understands the importance of early education opportunities, particularly for children living in poverty. But is your school board doing everything it can to serve the needs of every child who needs preschool?

Certainly limited funding is an issue, but research shows that a high-quality preschool program is a cost-effective strategy to raise overall student achievement, boost the school district’s graduation rate, and, in the long run, reduce the need for costly academic and special needs interventions.

“If we put more money into preschool education, we’ll be spending less dollars in programs for children in the upper grade levels … we’ll be helping the children who might otherwise fail, be retained, or drop out,” says Pat Cronin, coordinator for early learning programs in Ohio’s Akron Public Schools.

A high-quality preschool makes a difference at any age. In one study, children who attended a high-quality preschool scored 31 percent higher than their peers in vocabulary tests and 44 percent better in math. These children received a boost equal to three or four months of schooling.

Meanwhile, the HighScope Perry Preschool Study found that children enrolled in a high-quality preschool were, at age 40, more likely than their peers to hold a job and earn a higher income, and less likely to have committed a crime.

Such an impact suggests that an investment in preschool could, in time, trim the district’s spending on tutoring, special education services, and other interventions. Some of that promise has been seen in Brownsville, Texas, where Bea Garcia, administrator for elementary curriculum and instruction, says early intervention to help developmentally delayed children catch up to their peers “reduces the number of children in our special education population.”

“The benefits of educational programs for children before kindergarten are well known,” says Peter Pizzolongo, associate executive director for the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). “If you provide those early experiences for children who are behind, there is an opportunity to narrow the achievement gap.”

2. Teacher quality: Preschools can do better

One of the most important, if not surprising, findings in research on early education is that a school district won’t see a good return on its investment unless its preschool program is of “high quality.” But how do you define quality? You start with the credentials and training of teachers and paraprofessionals.

In Knoxville, Tenn., all preschool teachers are certified in early education, and classroom aides receive specialized training, says Carol Idol, who supervises the district’s state-funded Pre-K program. But the school system impacts quality with continual training given to staff.

“We make sure the quality of instruction is continuously worked upon,” Idol says. “Teachers receive 24 hours of professional development, but that’s just the minimum. We have two certified trainers … who continue professional development all year long, with monthly training for new teachers. Then we have training over the summer.”

Teacher credentials and ongoing training also are a priority in Akron, where school officials know to avoid the common mistake of designing professional development around what the central office thinks teachers need.

“We do a lot of our training based on the students we serve and the needs we see,” says Cronin. “We ask teachers what in-service they feel they need, so they can build up their repertoire of strategies in the classroom.”

Such strategies align with NAEYC’s recommendations. Training must go beyond one-time workshops, says Pizzolongo. “It’s not just one workshop they need. They’re going to need coaching and mentoring.”

3. Encourage more play, less academics

Actually, this is not about play versus academics. What you want to ensure is that the preschool program has developmentally appropriate instruction. Preschool shouldn’t be a baby-sitting service, but neither should it try to push academics onto toddlers.

How do you know if a program has struck the right balance? One way is to ask educators about the role of “play” in the classroom. Play is a term that sometimes is treated as a four-letter word in conversations about preschool instruction, but in the world of early education, play and academics are almost two sides of the same coin, suggests Idol.

“We don’t have academics or play, we have play that is the children’s academics,” she says. “There should not be a debate over which is better, as it all comes together in play with adult support.”

The reality is that young children do much of their learning through play. Mixing clay can strengthen fine motor skills that will help a child hold a pencil in kindergarten. Interacting with other children develops social skills that will help a child function better in the academic setting of future years.

“We don’t have kids sitting at desks doing worksheets,” Idol says. “We have kids moving and interacting with each other and the materials in the classroom.”

The key to productive play is that it’s not unstructured or without purpose, says Susana Peron, assistant superintendent for academic services and special programs in New Jersey’s Paterson Public Schools.

“The importance of play is that the teacher structures the play,” she says, “and it’s infused with concepts of math, language arts, science … it’s set up in a way where teachers can introduce concepts and skills through activities that are meaningful and relevant to children.”

4. Meet all needs

It’s often said that a hungry child, or a sick child, cannot learn. This maxim is doubly true for younger children who are developmentally behind their peers.

Some children have experienced what researchers call “adverse early life experiences.” Inadequate prenatal care, poor nutrition, low birth weight, trauma in the home — all can contribute to health issues, behavioral challenges, or developmental delays that will haunt children into kindergarten and beyond.

Early childhood education cannot work miracles. But a program that pays attention to a child’s nutritional, health, and social needs is more likely to help a child catch up with more developmentally advanced peers. So if schools don’t have the resources to meet these needs, consider looking to the community for a partner that can step in.

“When you’re talking early childhood development, you’re really talking about comprehensive services, because we know that children … if you get a gap in there, you get arrested development,” says Vanessa Rich, chair of the National Head Start Association. “You’ve got to take care of a child’s needs, and you’ve got to make parents understand what they can do.”

5. Parent engagement is not just a slogan

Every school board attempts to promote parent engagement. But to reach the community’s most at-risk children for preschool services, the effectiveness of engagement efforts depend on how aggressively you connect to the parents.

“We often say that parents are the first and most important teachers in every child’s life, and we have to work together on behalf of the child,” says Rich.

Such observations might be dismissed as a platitude, but the reality is that if a district operates a half-day preschool (or even full-day), teachers don’t have the children long enough to advance them developmentally as much as is ideal. Particularly for children who are developmentally behind or have special needs, enlisting parents more actively in their child’s development is vital.

School officials in Lincoln, Neb. ,, believe so firmly in the parent’s role that they carve out time in their preschool teachers’ schedule for regular home visits.

“Our home visits are based on a family action plan, as families have concerns about different areas of development, and we use the visit to empower the parent to be able to work on those areas of development at home,” says Trish Phillips, an early education coordinator. “This is, in my opinion, the really great part of this program: We want to build the capacity of parents so learning can occur all the time.”

Of course, it’s not always so easy to partner with families. Language barriers, parental disinterest, or other factors can stymie the level of collaboration that would most benefit children. To overcome these obstacles, many school systems have turned to “family liaisons,” members of the community hired and trained by the districts, to encourage and educate parents about the value of taking a more active role in their child’s education.

“One of our challenges is that parents don’t want to open the door to us, says Peron . "So what we say is, ‘OK, I understand. Let’s meet at the library or at McDonald’s ... somewhere where you’ll feel comfortable. Let me get to know your needs, and how I can help support you.’”

Having staff dedicated to reaching out is important “because this is the person who is going to break down that barrier,” she says. “We hire people from the community that know the parents, know the neighborhoods, who can develop that relationship with parents.”

“The message is that one size doesn’t fit all,” says Barbara Bowman, former chief early

education officer for the Chicago Public Schools and co-founder of the Erikson Institute, a private graduate school and research center. “It’s no longer just reaching out to the PTA or nothing. You have to have a multi-faceted approach to engaging parents.”

6. Understand the language barrier

It’s worth talking more about language barriers. To see a boost in the academic performance of English language learners, start working with these children early. Get them into preschools.

Although the most obvious, language is not the only obstacle. Non-English speakers, particularly newer immigrants, can become discouraged by cultural attitudes, a lack of transportation, or inflexible work hours. Many will not be aware of the value of preschool for their children.

Parent liaisons are important tools for engaging parents, but their value is even greater when you seek to target immigrant families. Liaisons will have to be aggressive — visit housing developments and community centers, and reach out to community groups that serve immigrants and refugees.

“We have real work to do there,” admits Suzanne Rougier, director of early childhood education for Colorado’s Aurora Public Schools. School officials formed a partnership with a community group that serves the local immigrant population, she says, “to help them enter into school buildings and learn about public education in the U.S.”

The district, in partnership with the city and other agencies, has opened a new Immigrant Welcome Center — a one-stop location where new immigrants can learn more about education and other services in the community.

Rougier is not alone in recognizing that more outreach is needed. “Immigrant Parents and Early Childhood Programs,” a report by the Migration Policy Institute, recently highlighted the barriers to engaging immigrant parents in preschool programs — a reality that also affects immigrant access to preschool. The report makes special note that “smaller minority groups and speakers of less common languages are particularly underserved and struggle with basic access” to preschool services.

7. Don’t operate preschools in isolation

As you strive to build a high-quality preschool program, wouldn’t it make sense to encourage the same levels of excellence from the community’s other preschool providers? After all, many of these children will eventually end up in your kindergarten classes.

That’s what Paterson school officials are doing. A program for urban districts provides state funds to providers who contract with their school system and agree to hire certified teachers, work with the districts on professional development, and provide developmentally appropriate instruction.

“In urban districts, space sometimes is a limited commodity, says Peron, “so we went to the community and engaged all of the daycare centers and asked them to come on board. We train their teachers. We monitor their programs. They are collaborators and heavily involved in the school district.”

School officials in New York City also are experimenting with this collaborative model, which essentially works to align high-quality instruction across the community but to maintain a variety of educational options.

“I’m a big proponent of a mixed delivery model, says David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, a New Jersey legal policy and advocacy group that seeks educational equality for children. As he sees it, he says, urban schools have limited resources for expansion, and private preschools and Head Start programs have their own revenue streams.

So it makes sense to collaborate and work to raise the overall quality of all early education services in a community. It won’t happen overnight, he admits, but he says school officials should start a dialogue, and build trust and collaboration.

Some urban school districts are moving that way. In Akron, for example, the public schools and Head Start programs use a similar curriculum, and the district sends teachers to Head Start classrooms to provide special education services, says Cronin.

It’s the right policy move, says Sciarra. “We’re all in this together — public, private, and charter schools, Head Start, community-based programs. We’re educating the same population … so we better make sure we’re educating them well.”

Reprinted with permission from Urban Advocate, Winter 2015. Copyright 2015 National School Boards Association. All rights reserved.

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