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The Leading Edge of Local System-Building: ESSA and Continuity Across ...

In this post suggests how local system-building efforts serve as models and provide direction to states as they implement their ESSA plans.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) provides an opening for states, school districts, and communities to change the relationship between early childhood programs and schools in fundamental ways that can greatly benefit children and families. Decades of research confirm that the programs that serve young children and their families are most effective when they are of high-quality, aligned, and coordinated, leading to “continuity of high-quality experiences.” Yet quality is inconsistent and fragmented in our mixed delivery system of public and private programs, and the central disconnect between early childhood programs and elementary schools is particularly problematic. The ESSA plans many states have developed present opportunities to improve quality and significantly deepen collaboration between schools, districts, and community organizations.

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ESSA requires school districts that receive Title 1 funding to coordinate with Head Start programs, and it gives states the flexibility to expand early childhood, incorporate early learning into school improvement plans, improve transitions to kindergarten, and improve educator professional learning. How should states and communities best take advantage of these opportunities? What would continuity of high-quality experiences look like in practice, and what are the implications for state and community system-building?

We suggest that leading-edge school and community partnerships focused on the first decade of children’s lives can help answer these questions and provide new direction to states and communities as they implement ESSA plans. Across the country schools and communities are fashioning innovative structures and strategies to improve learning, health, and development throughout the early childhood and elementary school years. This emerging approach, which I refer to as First 10, combines a focus on improving teaching and learning in the early grades with strong partnerships with families and comprehensive services for children and families—all founded on a commitment to educational equity.

First 10 initiatives take two forms. In First 10 School Hubs, a single elementary school serves as a locus for families with young children and builds collaborative relationships with nearby partners, including Head Start programs, early childhood centers, family childcare providers, and health and social service providers. First 10 Community Partnerships bring together all the relevant programs and services within a zone, district, or county, including all the elementary schools, Head Start programs, early childhood centers, family childcare providers, home visiting programs, and family-serving health and social service agencies.

A good example of First 10 School Hubs is found in Multnomah County, Oregon. Supported by a partnership between the county and six of its school districts, Multnomah County is home to 90 community schools that provide comprehensive services to children and youth through partnerships with community organizations. A pilot in nine of these elementary schools extends these supports to children ages 0-4 and their families in the communities served by each school. Coordinators conduct outreach to families and family childcare providers, build relationships and trust with them, support them in weekly play-and-learn groups, connect them to services, and engage them in the school community.

Another example is found in Greater Omaha, Nebraska. There 10 schools provide school-based home visiting to children ages 0-3, family support to children ages 3-8 and their families, monthly parent-child interaction sessions for children ages 0-5 and their families, and instructional coaching to teachers in the early grades of elementary school. The instructional coach provides feedback to teachers on the results from the CLASS assessment and supports the professional learning focus of each school’s improvement plan.

In both Multnomah County and Greater Omaha, the elementary school serves as a central node or hub supporting families with young children, while in other communities First 10 school hubs connect with Head Start programs and early childhood centers as well. Cambridge, Massachusetts has taken a different approach and serves as a good example of a First 10 Community Partnership. Cambridge’s partnership aims to improve access, quality, and coordination throughout the city and includes the school district, the city government, and local early childhood programs.

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Cambridge has created a comprehensive set of strategies with the support of the City Council and the School Committee and with significant financial investment from the city. Some initiatives have already been implemented while others are in development—all target improving programs and services for the city’s sizable population of low-income children and families. For example, robust quality improvement initiatives for both early childhood centers and family childcare programs provide mentoring for directors and coaching and professional development for teachers. Other initiatives include a preschool scholarship program for low-income families, a home visiting system to improve coordination and professional learning for all the city’s programs, a city-wide transition to kindergarten plan, and concerted professional development efforts in the early grades of elementary school.

States can support First 10 work through policies like aligning standards, assessments, and workforce development and by supporting community-level First 10 initiatives. The new round of Preschool Development Grants awarded to most states under ESSA can support some of the system-building First 10 initiatives require, especially linkages between early childhood programs and comprehensive services. Yet they also pose a challenge. While these grants include the transition to kindergarten, their system-building focus ends at age five, and thus they may well discourage full participation on the part of districts and schools.

This disconnect, however, is not insurmountable. Maine provides an example of a state working with an interagency state team to support First 10-type collaboration between school districts and early childhood programs in conjunction with and as an extension of its PDG plan.

The state legislatures in both Nebraska and Oregon have been instrumental in supporting the pilot projects in Greater Omaha and Multnomah County, and Oregon supports First 10-type improvement through a $9 million grant fund. States can also support First 10 improvement by promoting collaboration between districts and early childhood programs and providing initial financial and technical support for local backbone organizations to convene and coordinate First 10 School Hubs and Community Partnerships.

First 10 School Hubs and Community Partnerships suggest the contours of how local systems can improve quality and alignment throughout early childhood and elementary school, and in doing so they suggest the kinds of strategies and structures ESSA has the potential to support.

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