As part of an ongoing series of interviews with leaders in early childhood education, CEELO spoke with Jenna Conway, Assistant Superintendent, Early Childhood Education, Louisiana Department of Education, about their process of implementing major changes in Louisiana’s early childhood program. We focused on how they are enhancing leadership at every level.
What is the scope of change occurring in early childhood in your state?
We are part of a multi-year effort to unify early childhood programs in Louisiana–Head Start, pre K, child care, public and nonpublic schools–from how do we keep kids safe, all the way to: How do we identify what instruction we want to see happening in every early childhood classroom in Louisiana? How do we work together to achieve that?
This effort is unprecedented in the level and speed of change in Louisiana. It comes with a host of leadership challenges. The first is the need for all the leaders to come to the table and work collaboratively to achieve shared goals. And we’ve gotten every community in Louisiana to step up and to do this; leaders who didn’t interact, who may even have perceived each other as competitors, are now working together to consider how to focus on kids; look at standards, professional development, enrollment, what the data tells us about kids being kindergarten-ready. The most dynamic leadership teams are taking it back to teachers and parents to make sure they’re part of the change movement.
The other important challenge is that this effort works differently in different contexts. Part of the magic in our model is in saying that local leaders are best suited to find solutions that meet their local needs, as they are the ones who best understand their teachers, children, and parents.
A bit of learning we’ve had from implementation—we pilot and learn from that and then develop policy. And we support local leadership: if local leaders are invested and believe that it’s a solution that works for their families, it’s more likely to be successfully implemented.
How are you addressing leadership at different levels in the state: classroom, school, district, SEA?
Considering we are building local birth-through-12th-grade systems that include a portfolio of providers, we like to think of our local networks as community entities rather than school districts. At the state level we see our leadership work in 3 key pieces of work.
First: promote a shared vision and support our community leaders to successfully execute that vision locally. In our pilot model: all kids are Kindergarten-ready; kids have access to high quality classroom experiences; parents can make the best choice for their kids; teachers are supported to provide effective meaningful interaction in the classroom. The state provides funding and technical assistance to achieve that, then removes the barriers–regulatory and bureaucratic–to allow communities to be successful.
Second: Organize all of the things that impact programs, from rules and regulations, and funding, to create a more level playing field. You can’t just say here’s a shared vision, but child care is funded at a lower level than schools; teachers and their preparation differ. We’re thinking about how to use policy, funding, and incentives to create a more level playing field in which the community networks are operating.
Third: Be very responsive to what is working and what is not in the field and communicate that frequently as you go. A law was passed to call for a unified system—that has been a very dynamic and interactive process since the beginning, responsive to families and local leaders.
The hardest part about this work and about change is how it works and how you implement changes over time. Being responsive, adjusting, and learning as we go has been important. We quickly fix what’s not working—going from ideas and a requirement to sustained, locally owned change.
What are the challenges associated with implementing professional development changes?
When it comes to leadership there are both tangible and intangible aspects that are critical to success. Since the outset we have grappled with the question: How do we at the state level support local leadership in a specific sustainable way? We’ve focused on collaborative leadership locally. We created a pilot rubric in which we laid out what success looks like over time in leadership and tried to make sure everything we produced was in line with that rubric.
We provide professional development sessions, such as a data reflection workshop at the end of the year, in which we model how to use data and think about what to achieve next year. We’ve put out an early childhood guidebook to get an understanding of what success looks like and give real-life examples of how this plays out.
We’d love to be able to provide more intensive PD, but there are very real resource restraints, and we may not be best positioned to teach leadership, especially the more intangible aspects.
Instead, what has worked well for us is this idea of cohort. We’ve provided space and time for ‘partner panels’ where we brought together leaders from each of the community networks. They share what’s working and what’s not, and they have really grown, both in their relationships with each other and in understanding in their work.
What leaders really need is tools to support their work, time and space to interact with their colleagues, and someone to get on the phone to work through issues with. This is not a typical workshop format, but is supporting community-level leaders.
As we move forward we need to take it to the next level, to help every director, Head Start, child care, elementary school principal, become the instructional leader, or to make sure instructional leadership is happening within their program. A critical lever for long-term success will be program-level leadership, not only in resources and enrollment, but in focusing on how they ensure every child has access to a high quality early childhood classroom.
Any advice to other states who may be considering taking on the same kinds of changes?
- Empower and honor local leadership from the beginning; fund them to pilot the change; make it their choice rather than a mandate; and learn from them. Be committed to going back to them time and time again—be humble about the state role and acknowledge their insights and efforts where the work is being done.
- Consider all the pieces of the system when you make policy: how you think about funding impacts teachers you can hire; which impacts what happens in the classroom; which impacts quality; and impacts what programs parents choose. If you do things in isolation it creates major gaps and unintended negative consequences for providers, families, and kids.
- Be intentional and proactive in engaging everybody who is touched by the work. We are making sure they feel heard, that we respond to every email, that we talk to people in programs.
We don’t have all the answers, we are working on a shoestring budget; we get things wrong, as everybody does. But we are committed to always being responsive to every parent, teacher, director, and superintendent.
Anything else you would like to add?
It really takes leadership at all levels; we’re transforming the Department of Education into a Birth-12th grade organization and that takes leadership from the top—acknowledging that the foundation for school, college, and career success starts at birth. At the local level, the child care owner, the Head Start executive director, and school Superintendent are critical—where they have been clear in their commitment to this work it has allowed other at other levels to support it as well, which is necessary to achieve and sustain this much change. And the leaders must keep kids’ interests at heart. Increasing opportunities for all young children should always be the priority.