Emergency Preparation in Early Education Programs

October 29, 2013

Many families make emergency preparedness a priority in the home, explaining to small children what to do in case of a fire, devising “family reunification plans,” and stocking up on supplies in case of an emergency. However, a recent report indicates that schools and child care centers may not be giving safety the same focus. A year out from Hurricane Sandy, we’re providing resources on preparing for and recovering from emergencies, with a special focus on children.

Save the Children released its annual report examining state-by-state policies on emergency preparedness policies. Highlighting incidents as diverse as hurricanes, tornadoes, and school shootings, Save the Children graded the nation’s overall response on planning protection for children as “unsatisfactory.” Save the Children graded states on whether they required school and child care centers to meet the following four recommendations from the National Commission on Children and Disasters:

  • Evacuation/Relocation Plan: All categories of child care providers have a written plan covering multiple situations for evacuating children and safely relocating them to an alternate site.
  • Family-Child Reunification Plan: All categories of child care providers have a written plan for notifying parents in the event of an emergency, and reuniting children with their families.
  • Children with Special Needs Plan: All categories of child care providers have a written plan specifying how the needs of children with disabilities and those with access and functional needs would be addressed in the case of an emergency.
  • K-12 Multiple Disaster Plan: All public schools, including charter schools, to have a written plan that covers a number of emergency scenarios, including those resulting in evacuation, lock-down, and shelter-in-place. Fire/tornado drills alone are not adequate to address these needs.

States vary widely in meeting each standard (see Figure 1). Particularly troubling is the fact that just over half (53 percent) of states require detailed plans from child care centers explaining how they would tend to the special needs of children with disabilities during an emergency. For children with special needs–perhaps a child with autism who is overwhelmed by the sound of a fire alarm or a child with limited mobility because he is in a wheelchair–special attention is particularly important.

Figure 1: Percentage of States & D.C. Meeting Each Standard


Save the Children also provides an interactive map to explore which states require each policy. While the grades in the report focus specifically on the need to improve state policies, Save the Children also offers resources to support both child care providers and families in developing emergencies plans. The basic guidance is the same for both:

  • Make a plan
  • Have a communications strategy
  • Practice emergency drills, and teach children skills like calling 911
  • Create a disaster kit, including important documents, first aid supplies, activities to entertain children, and food

Natural disasters and violence are dangerous for anyone, but young children are particularly susceptible to negative consequences, as “toxic stress” can have both short- and long-term impacts when it occurs during a crucial period of brain development. The Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University provides resources documenting the effects of such stress, along with recommendations for prevention and remediation, including a “Tackling Toxic Stress” series. Center-based learning experiences can help children cope with such stress, as highlighted in a recent NIEER brief, particularly when coupled with supports like parenting programs and home-visiting, to reduce toxic stress in the home.

There must also be a focus on how to help kids cope with tragedy they’ve already experienced. As we saw repeatedly in 2012-

Girl dressed like firefighter

A student tries on a firefighter’s coat and helmet at the Child Development Center on Kleber Kaserne in Kaiserslautern, Germany. Accessed via the U.S. Army Flickr Stream, used in the public domain.

– with the tornadoes in Moore, Oklahoma; the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings; and in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which Save the Children reports impacted over 250 child care centers about a year ago– schools can be ground zero for both tragedy and recovery. Here’s how parents and teachers can help mitigate the emotional turmoil kids experience.

  • The Federal Emergency Management Agency provides tips on coping with disaster, organized by children’s age range.
  • The Federal Office of Head Start has numerous resources on helping children in Head Start programs through emergencies, including resources on social-emotional support for both children and adults and an Emergency Preparedness Manual for providers.
  • Parents and teachers may be unsure how to talk to children about what they have experienced without adding stress. PBS provides general information on how to talk to children about news in an age-appropriate way.
  • The National Association of School Psychologists provides tips for talking to children about violence that can also guide conversations after natural disasters.
  • Sesame Street offers a number of interactive resources for parents and children addressing emergencies, mostly focused on natural disasters.

It is particularly unpleasant to think about disasters affecting children in schools and child care centers–places that are meant to be safe spaces for growth and exploration–but it is the responsibility of all adults who care for children to face this task. The Fred Rogers Company provides guidance on how to help children navigate scary events with Mr. Rogers’ classic advice:

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers–so many caring people in this world.

Policymakers, parents, and program directors can be those helpers.

-Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator

Switching Lanes: New Roadmap for New York Universal Prekindergarten

October 24, 2013

While New York provides state-funded pre-K to 44 percent of its 4-year-olds, the state has consistently fallen short of the “universal” aim of its goals. A new effort from the Center for Children’s Initiatives (CCI) and The Campaign for Educational Equity (CEE) aims to change that, with today’s release of Making Prekindergarten Truly Universal in New York: A Statewide Roadmap.

The Roadmap is the result not only of a rigorous research process, but also of several meetings hosted by CCI and CEE with leaders in early childhood and New York-specific education policy, to fully understand the needs of early childhood students. NIEER Director Steve Barnett said, in response to this Roadmap, “The proposed road map to universal pre-K is the single most powerful education reform that New York could undertake.  It would ensure that every child has the opportunity to succeed in school from the very beginning.  This is a road map to equity and excellence that will raise test scores while decreasing costly failure, repetition, and special education.” A similar program in New Jersey districts with a high concentration of low-income families has already produced student gains and cost-saving benefits for schools. Choosing to follow this roadmap could put New York on the path to greater long-term economic growth and a better start for thousands of children.

Barnett wrote about New York in March, offering recommendations for how the state should move from its not-so-universal program to a program serving all children in the state: focusing on quality, a realistic timeline, and ensuring stable and adequate funding. The CCI and CEE report addresses these with its key recommendations, proposing an 8-year timeline to provide access for all 3- and 4-year-olds in the state:

  • Years 1-3: All 4-year-olds in districts with high concentration of low-income households
  • Adult playing cars with childYears 4-5: All 4-year-olds in all districts
  • Years 6-7: All 3-year-olds in districts with high concentration of low-income households
  • Years 8: All 3-year-olds in all districts

The proposal has a distinct focus on ensuring that program funding is adequate to

support a high-quality program, including health, social, and family engagement services, as well as funds for infrastructure to bring the program to scale. Prekindergarten funding should also be incorporated into the K-12 state education finance system. Initially, the state should pay the full cost of pre-K, with the long-term goal of appropriate state/local cost sharing.

How do CCI and CEE define “quality?” Many of their recommendations align with what NIEER recommends in the research-based 10 Quality Standards Benchmarks in the State of Preschool Yearbook.  Standards for New York include:

  • Provide access to a full-day (six hours and 20 minutes) program, five days per week, 180 days per year. Extended hours should be made available where needed.
  • Maintain current state limits of no more than 17 students with one teacher and one assistant, but cap classes at 15 students with one teacher and one assistant where substantial numbers of students need more intensive support, including English Language Learners and students with disabilities.
  • Pre-K teacher in all settings should have a B-2 instructional certificate, or certification for teaching students with disabilities or English Language Learners valid in the early childhood grades, within five years.
  • All teaching assistants within five years should have at least “Level 1 teaching assistant certification,” and the state will move towards requiring all to have a Child Development Associate (CDA).
  • Maintain current professional development requirements (175 hours per 5 years for lead teachers), with the goal of 40 hours per year.
  • State should provide list of curricula aligned with New York State Prekindergarten Foundation for the Common Core. The list should be reviewed every two years.
  • Provide comprehensive services and supports for at-risk students, students with disabilities, and English Language Learners (ELLs).
  • Provide safe, quality, and accessible learning environments.
  • Provide and sustain data systems, and technical assistance, to use valid and reliable instruments to track student progress in all settings.

-Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator

Local Control in Early Education

October 16, 2013

Local control, or at least the perception of its presence, is a closely guarded tenet in state and local politics. It provides citizens with a sense of purpose, identity, autonomy, and power, allowing local constituents to influence the policies and programs affecting them right in their front yards. We see this in matters such as states’ and communities’ taxes or property rights. Education is perhaps the single most engaging issue when it comes to local control, and its reach into early education policy and practice is becoming increasingly evident, as more children enroll in state-funded pre-K programs.

Results of the NIEER 2012 State Preschool Yearbook indicate that provisions for local control are infused in legislation and regulation for pre-K policy and practice in all 40 states and the District of Columbia with state-funded pre-K programs (Figure 1). Looking across eleven measures, all 54 programs across these states and DC report at least one instance of districts being authorized to exercise local control in decision making.

Figure 1: Number of States Permitting Local Options for Pre-K by Policy Area

 Figure 1: Number of States Permitting Local Options for Pre-K by Policy Area


The Compass Points Northeast

States vary in the latitude they permit local control of state pre-K policies and practices (Figure 2). Northern New England states demonstrate the greatest evidence of local control. Massachusetts reported the most options for local control policy among all programs, appearing in 8 of 11 areas, with Maine and Vermont permitting local decisions in 7 areas. At the other end of the continuum, Arizona, New York, Rhode Island, and one South Carolina program reported local decision-making in only a single policy area, with 7 additional states allowing 2 policy areas to be determined locally.  States with multiple pre-K programs often see variations across their programs. Seven states with multiple pre-K programs (Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Wisconsin) permitted differing levels of local control across programs while only Vermont and the District of Columbia shared aligned options for their programs.

Figure 2: Number of Pre-K Programs Permitting Local Policy Options

 Figure 2: Number of Pre-K Programs Permitting Local Policy Options

Looking closely at 11 survey questions that included “locally determined” as a response option, several categories emerged in which local control shaped program design: Access and Eligibility, Operating Schedules, Supplemental Services, and Child Assessment.

Access and Eligibility

State requirements for districts to offer pre-K programs was the most frequent policy option demonstrating local control:  41 programs in 30 states and DC indicated some level of local choice. In some situations responses were based on a district’s decision to offer the program, in others it was influenced by a state’s ability to competitively fund a limited number of programs or slots.

Local programs in several states were afforded discretion in defining the age at which children may enroll in state-funded pre-K. Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Vermont allowed local districts to establish a minimum age for participation (sometimes within defined parameters) and seven states (Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Wisconsin) permitted local determination of a maximum age limit, including provisions for districts to issue waivers.

Eleven programs in 10 states allowed local communities to establish specific risk factors other than income to determine eligibility.

Operating Schedules

Three survey questions addressed operating schedules of state-funded pre-K programs. Policies in 18 of 40 states and the District of Columbia allowed individual programs to determine the number of hours per day each would operate. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia exercised local control when determining how many days per week programs would operate, and the number of weeks per year was locally determined in 12 states.

Supplemental Services

Two questions in the survey where local control were frequently reported addressed services supplementing the educational program. Screening and referral requirements examined provisions for vision, hearing, health, and behavioral assessment with follow-up. Thirty-four programs in 24 states and DC allowed each site to determine which, if any, screening and referral services would be provided.

DC and 11 states offered local control options for support services for children and families, including nutrition services, parent education, child and family health services, home visits, transition to school activities, and parent conferences.

Child Assessment

States provided information about policies regarding local choice for child assessment instruments used in their state pre-K programs (Figure 3). Thirteen states required that programs use defined instruments for pre-K assessment, while 12 others allowed local programs to decide which instrument or instruments would be used. Eight states reported no policy requirements for use of a pre-K assessment, while 10 allowed limited choice from a menu of approved instruments, all aligned to the state’s early learning standards.

Flexibility permitted programs to choose assessments aligned with state early learning standards and match the goals and priorities of individual program. Sixteen different pre-K child assessment instruments were identified by states and Washington DC, with performance-based Teaching Strategies GOLD and the Work Sampling System appearing most frequently.

Figure 3. Number of States Permitting Local Choice of Prekindergarten Assessment

Figure 3. Number of States Permitting Local Choice of Prekindergarten Assessment

An Array of Choices, But at What Cost?

As data clearly indicate, local control is alive and well in policies across state pre-K programs. In some situations, programs are able to determine “what” they do, in others it is a matter of “how” to do it. Either way, decisions about program operations are not set in stone.

Certainly, there are advantages to local determination of program policies and practices. It affords greater grassroots involvement recognizing that people live in communities, not in the aisles of the state house, where most are aware of what is wanted and needed in relation to community values. Stakeholders invest their time, energy, and resources when they feel their involvement contributes to a genuine difference they can see. Local control fuels a sense of empowerment among educators, administrators, and policymakers. Further, local control fosters innovation.  Conventional wisdom recognizes that not all communities are created equal, so creative solutions must take advantage of available resources and talents. As the altered adage states, “One size fits one.”

Ah, did someone just mention “Equity” when looking at these data? Clearly, there is a downside to local control as well. Zip codes across and within states define opportunities for children in terms of access and services. Local control may be associated with, or the cause of, inequalities of opportunity, disparities in resources, and gaps in achievement that persist despite political posturing and wrangling. Nine states continue to lack state-funded pre-K (although efforts are underway in several states) and even in states with pre-K many children are not being served at all and those that are may be getting quite different services.

The issue of state or local control may be moot, however, if there is insufficient oversight of program quality. The best policies make little difference for children unless they are enacted; and monitoring is critical to ensure implementation with fidelity to produce intended results for children and measures of accountability for state and local leaders. Too often, local control results in a myopic view of the state of affairs or leaves local leaders sorting through a bushel of apples and oranges unable to make sense of what went awry and for what reasons.

– Jim Squires, Senior Research Fellow

– Michelle Horowitz, Research Assistant

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