As Swati Adarkar, Children’s Institute’s (CI) president and CEO, reflected on her organization’s experience with Early Works—an initiative launched in 2010 that set to out to improve the learning experiences for children before they enter kindergarten—she found that the work had fundamentally transformed CI.
“Early Works helped CI shift from a more traditional advocacy organization into one committed to better understanding the policies and strategies for which it was advocating,” Adarkar said. “That included building partnerships with schools, families, and communities to go deep in the work, to help us get clear on what works and what the field needs.”
Early Works helped CI discover the growing interest among elementary educators in strengthening the connection to early learning strategies like preschool and improving how they engaged with parents. This led to the development of Early School Success (ESS)—the next iteration of CI’s work to transform educational practice in the early years.
In 2010, CI introduced Early Works, a learning laboratory for innovative practices in early education. The first site, at Earl Boyles Elementary School in Southeast Portland, was created in partnership with Mt. Hood Community College Head Start, the Multnomah Early Childhood Program, and the David Douglas School District. In 2012, the Ford Family Foundation and CI partnered with the Yoncalla School District to launch a site in Douglas County. Early Works has helped to inspire new public and private funding, as well as drive policy changes in the care and education of young children in Oregon.
An Evolving Approach
“What we kept seeing and hearing from families was that once you’ve experienced a high-quality early learning environment, once you’ve been a part of a highly-engaged parent and school community, it’s really difficult to accept anything less,” says Dr. Marina Merrill, CI’s director of research and evaluation.
CI wanted to ensure that the social-emotional, academic, and other gains that students and families achieved in high-quality early learning environments from birth to 5 were preserved and built upon as they moved into the elementary school years.
“Right now, we have these different worlds—preschool and K–5—that typically don’t align or integrate. But the science of learning tells us children need seamless learning experiences from birth into the elementary years,” said Adarkar.
The number of school districts and communities working to strengthen early learning has been growing. This includes more parents and educators working together to address learning as children move into kindergarten and through school.
“It’s complex work,” Adarkar said. “It takes time, but it’s also helped us discover what’s needed for schools, districts, kids, and families.”
Among the needs: a common language to help define the need and importance of early learning, more professional learning, a focus on instruction, and concentrated efforts to connect the early years to the early grades.
Grounded in Research
True to its research-based origins, CI spent time drinking deeply from the well of existing knowledge about how best to support early learning across preschool and the early grades. In 2016, CI conducted an analysis of Oregon’s existing preschool landscape. In 2018, staff crisscrossed the country visiting school districts leading the way to align and integrate preschool with elementary education. Educators, parents, and community partners continued to inform and advise as the design for ESS began to take shape.
“Ultimately, we found no magic curriculum. No magic program,” said Soobin Oh, senior early education advisor at CI. “[Success] was always driven by a community coming together with a focus on instruction and classroom practices. A huge part of this work is about collaborating and problem solving with communities.”
In deciding to forge its own path, rather than simply adopting or applying an existing program, CI is creating a unique opportunity for school districts to learn, evolve, and contribute to improving education in Oregon and across the U.S.
Collaborative in Design
ESS challenges participants to engage in a conceptual re-imagining of the educational experience for young children, not just in preschool, but also as they move into and through their early elementary school years.
“The approach is really designed to foster a learning partnership between all the different stakeholders that affect and are affected by early years and early grades learning,” says Oh.
CI will bring professional development, coaching, and facilitation resources to work with districts on the issues they decide are most impactful to achieving a seamless and integrated early education experience for students and families.
The goal of ESS is to connect preschool and elementary as one continuous high-quality learning experience for district communities using these six components:
Two pilot districts chosen in May 2019—Beaverton and Forest Grove—will begin the initial phase of Early School Success. In year three of the five-year initiative, two additional Oregon school districts will be added.
Driven by Communities
This fall, a team of educators, administrators, parents, and other community partners in the two pilot districts will start to assess community needs and then develop a plan to address them.
In addition, the districts chosen will engage in cross-district professional learning as well as incorporate family and community engagement with the goal of continuous improvement over time.
Bridging two previously disconnected areas of instructional practice is something even veteran teachers and administrators may not have experience doing. It is especially challenging to explain that strategy to parents who are just entering the preschool and elementary education years. In some cases, families may have little to no experience in the U.S. education system at all.
The staff, parents, and partners of the Early Works sites, with nearly a decade of expertise in doing this work, will play a key advisory and participatory role. ESS aims to broaden its reach across the state and beyond so all children enjoy a smooth transition between preschool and the early grades.
“We have set up a structure that is grounded in values that are fundamental for transformational change,” says Dr. Merrill. “There is a real sense of openness and so many directions that districts can go in from there. We are so excited to begin this work.”