D.C. has long been ahead of the game, with a history of prioritizing early childhood education. Fight For Children’s Sadie Ellner, a former early childhood teacher, shares with us why early childhood classrooms are uniquely important and just as rigorous as any other grade level. She also lets us know what Fight For Children, a nonprofit organization that provides funding and programming for the education of low-income D.C. children, is doing to support and develop early childhood teachers and school leaders.
At Recess, we have mostly spoken to secondary teachers, and there are obvious differences between teaching very young children and adolescents. What are some misconceptions about early childhood education? What do you think people should know about early childhood classrooms and practices?
Early childhood classrooms are unique learning environments where collaborative and productive teaching teams are essential to student success. A lead teacher and an assistant teacher work throughout the day to facilitate learning in a mix of brief whole group and small group settings. Each day contains countless opportunities for teachers to guide learning and for children to practice skills. Classrooms also contain elements of learning through play, where children are able to learn about the world around them through exploring new situations, activating their imaginations, and working together with their peers.
One of the most serious misconceptions about early childhood education is that the teachers that lead instruction for three- and four-year-old students do not require comparable skill sets, education levels, and salaries as teachers at the K-12 level. This perspective seriously short changes the profession; early childhood education is a specialized content area, similar to special education and English as a second language, and professionals that teach in this content area deserve the same respect, training, and compensation as their peers.
As a larger community, we must also understand that three- and four-year-old children are capable of learning at a very high level. Prekindergarten classrooms are not simply practice years to prepare for kindergarten, nor are they years where children receive professional daycare; they are classrooms that should combine the fundamentals of early learning, such as recognition of letters, sounds, and numbers, vocabulary acquisition and development, and early writing skills. Early childhood education must also include developmentally appropriate teaching strategies and significant time for social and emotional development and executive function skill-building, such as developing self-control, memory skills, and mental flexibility.
In your time as a teacher, how were you able to involve parents in their children's early academic development? Did you receive pushback? Do you have any success stories you'd like to share?
As a teacher, I worked hard to develop trusting relationships with my students’ families by inviting them into the classroom to volunteer, by making time in my daily work to briefly visit with them, and by clearly communicating with them about their students’ progress. I found that by investing in relationship-building throughout the school year and by recognizing and respecting families as the children’s first and most consistent teachers, I was able to get to know families on a deep level. I believe that when teachers and schools clearly communicate the expectations they have for students and families, and when school success is presented as a combination of work at home and at school, then families will be well equipped to support their students. In my years of working in the field of education, I have yet to meet a family that was not invested in preparing their students for success in school and in life. Like students, some families need more support to develop their engagement in school; however skillful teachers have developed strong strategies to create academic investment among students and their families.
According to the DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative (DCPNI) website, nearly 90 percent of children in the target area are being raised by a single mother, and 25 percent of those mothers were teenagers when their children were born. What initiatives did you put in place to help families overcome such difficult odds? Why is early learning at risk in such situations?
Research shows that children raised in low-income communities have less access to experiences that would otherwise contribute to the development of a robust vocabulary and help children begin to establish a framework for understanding the world around them. In the first five years of life, vocabulary, experiences, and caring relationships establish the building blocks for healthy, well-developed children. High-potential families living in high-risk situations therefore benefit greatly from access to quality childcare and prekindergarten because these settings help foster the learning experiences and relationships needed for the healthy development of our youngest students.
While working with DCPNI, I served as the program manager for the Early Learning Network. My goals within that position centered on improving access to high-quality early childhood education for children ages 6 weeks to 5 years within the Kenilworth-Parkside community. My target populations were the students, families, and staff at family childcare centers, child development centers, and prekindergarten classrooms in two D.C. Public Schools. In addition to supporting the learning and development of small children, DCPNI is committed to a two-generation model where every system created to support children has an appropriate and aligned solution for families as well. The Parent Pathways programming creates economic, educational, and wellness support for families.
We've talked a lot about parents and families. Tell me more about how Fight For Children is getting schools involved through the DC Ready to Learn initiative. How is this effort being received by schools, principals, and teachers in D.C.? Is this a challenge that educators are willing to take on?
Fight For Children’s newest Ready to Learn early childhood initiative is called Joe’s Champs. The initiative is named after our late founder, Joe Robert, and works to provide professional and leadership development in early childhood education for elementary school leaders. At the same time, the three-year program provides supports for early childhood teaching staff to engage in ongoing and scaffolded professional learning communities. The Joe’s Champs program exposes school staff to the fundamentals of early childhood education like brain development, authentic assessment, learning through play, and kindergarten transitions, among many other content areas. The school leadership and teaching staff supports are aligned with one another and designed to complement the academic program schools already have in place, toward the goal of preparing prekindergarten students for success in kindergarten and beyond.
The Joe’s Champs program launched in June 2013 and by all accounts, our pilot year of the program has proven to be a huge success. Our school leaders talk about the knowledge they have acquired through the program, which they are using to refine their supervision, instructional support, and evaluation of their early childhood teachers. We continue to refine the program to meet the needs of our seven participating schools, but we feel that through the professional development sessions, mentoring relationships, teacher professional learning communities, and school collaboration, we are creating a strong network of schools that are focused on improving outcomes for children and able to implement developmentally appropriate practices for students of all ages.
As I mentioned, the need for universal pre-kindergarten has become a common political agenda item lately. Why do you think this issue is gaining political traction?
Politically I do think it is encouraging that more people are willing to openly discuss the decades-worth of research that exists to highlight the benefits of early childhood education, ranging from reductions in crime to an increased earning potential for students later in life. I believe that the quality of public K-12 public education shows improvements in communities that actively take up the cause of early childhood education.
It is important to note that D.C. has been dedicated to improving access and quality of early childhood education for almost a decade. The 2008 Prekindergarten Enhancement Act put in place the resources, expertise, and time needed to improve access to high quality education. As a result, 91.8 percent of D.C.’s 4-year-olds and 68.9 percent of 3-year-olds are now enrolled in a state prekindergarten program, according to the 2012 National Institute for Early Education Research Yearbook. (Comparatively, Vermont has the second-largest access to programming with 41 percent of its 4-year-olds in a state prekindergarten program.) Our city is a national leader in access to early childhood education.
Amanda Klein is a community school coordinator in Baltimore, and her Q&As with local education leaders are a regular Recess feature. Send her your suggestions for future interviews via email.