by David Jacobson
In western Oregon, a regional early learning hub supports 30 partnerships of elementary schools, neighboring family childcare providers and community-based preschools focused on professional learning and family engagement.
In Lowell, MA, elementary schools, preschool centers, and family childcare providers working in the same neighborhoods participate in “communities of practice” to improve teaching and family engagement. In addition, the city’s P-3 Leadership Alignment Team developed a school readiness definition and strategy that is informing city health, social services, and education programs.
A Community Innovation Zone in Harrisburg, PA recognized that a paucity of pre-kindergarten opportunities resulted in too many children entering kindergarten with no preschool experience. It responded by providing a summer bridge program offering not only activities and starter libraries for children, but also workshops for parents.
Such partnerships are not accidental. Each resulted from deliberate efforts by state education agencies (SEAs) to support quality improvement and alignment throughout the prenatal through third grade (P-3) continuum. This support includes grant programs funding local P-3 efforts and state policy work to align standards, develop formative assessments, and organize leadership and workforce development opportunities.
My recently published report, Building State P-3 Systems: Learning from Leading States, examines the P-3 work underway in Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts, states that are part of a broader movement focused on improving quality and continuity across the P-3 continuum. Three overarching lessons for future state P-3 initiatives stand out.
1. Fuel Innovation at Local and Regional Levels
The case studies demonstrate that states can support P-3 innovation at the regional, community, and neighborhood levels. Each state made grants to communities to form P-3 partnerships, and these communities embraced the idea that in order to improve quality and alignment along the P-3 continuum, elementary schools, community-based preschools, and other early childhood organizations need to deepen their collaboration.
Across all three states we see cross-sector professional development for pre-k and kindergarten teachers, collaboration on curriculum, instruction and transitions, and new family engagement programs.
P-3 Partnership leaders in the case study states report that wooing school districts to participate in P-3 efforts was perhaps the most challenging aspect of their work initially. Yet many partnerships eventually established trust between school districts and community-based organizations and built enthusiastic buy-in among all stakeholders, including elementary school principals and district staff.
Oregon funded regional early learning hubs which, in turn, typically fund schools and feeder preschools. Pennsylvania has mostly funded partnerships at the school and feeder system level; Massachusetts partnerships usually began at the community level. Some of Massachusetts’ community-level partnerships have sustained their efforts over time by hiring staff to facilitate the partnerships and oversee P-3 initiatives.
Experiences across the three states raise important design questions for future P-3 system-building efforts:
What are the pros and cons of building P-3 capacity at different levels: neighborhood, community, and/or region?
Given that many P-3 efforts begin by addressing the critical gap between preschool and kindergarten, how can states support communities in eventually expanding their efforts to include ages 0-3 and grades 1-3 as well?
2. Push for Lasting Impact
The initial activities that P-3 Partnerships pursue address critical professional learning, family engagement, and transition needs while also helping build trust, capacity, and buy-in among partnership members. Yet often these initial activities are not systemic enough to produce lasting change and are not provided at a high enough “dosage” to change adult practice in ways that lead to improved child outcomes.
States can encourage communities to develop a coherent set of strategies that will be mutually-reinforcing and systemic. States can also support deeper, more effective implementation by providing technical assistance and by bringing communities together for knowledge exchange across communities. Pennsylvania runs P-3 Governor’s Institutes every summer for community teams; Oregon brings its Early Learning Hubs together a couple of times a year; and Massachusetts hosts a series of four day-long institutes for P-3 teams from across the state.
3. Build State P-3 Infrastructure
As they adopted a P-3 lens, the case study states identified state policies that needed significant improvement. All three states aligned their learning standards from prekindergarten through third grade, and in Pennsylvania the alignment included infant and toddler standards as well. All three states also developed kindergarten entry assessments. Further, SEA leaders emphasized the important steps they took aligning social-emotional standards throughout the P-3 continuum.
The case study states also found they needed to create staff positions, new P-3 structures, and new working relationships across agencies. Oregon has a P-3 state specialist to coordinate grant funding and provide technical assistance to its regional early learning hubs. Pennsylvania likewise used RTTT-ELC funding to fund a number of positions that support its Governor’s Institutes and Community Innovation Zones. Massachusetts has created a Birth through Grade 3 Advisory Council bringing together state agencies and other critical stakeholders.
The Crucial Role of States
As the CEELO report demonstrates, SEAs played a critical role in the successful creation of P-3 systems in Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts —by improving state policies and by supporting local and regional early learning partnerships.
Through carefully crafted technical assistance and networking activities, SEAs can support P-3 system-building by helping to secure district commitment, encouraging communities to address the entire P-3 continuum, and planning for sustainability. Research suggests that there is no greater priority for the next wave of education reform efforts.
David Jacobson is a Senior Project Director at the Education Development Center and a partner with the Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes. He provides technical assistance to states, districts, and communities on early education and care and writes the P-3 Learning Hub blog.