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Getting it right, right from the start: birth to five kindergarten readiness.

President Obama has called investing in early childhood initiatives the first pillar of reforming schools and has challenged states to raise the quality of their early childhood programs, specifically to "ensure that children are better prepared for success by the time they enter kindergarten."

Studies show that skill differences at the kindergarten level between children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and their wealthier peers are not only substantial, but continue throughout their school years. It is also increasingly known through neuroscience studies that a child's brain develops most dramatically during the first five years of life. Several national studies indicate that children from low-income homes who are enrolled in high-quality early childhood programs are more apt to overcome skill gaps than those not enrolled in the programs.

Therefore the president believes that it is imperative to provide the neediest children--starting at birth--with quality education and other support services for them, their parents, and their families, in order to give them a better chance to succeed in kindergarten and beyond.

One Educator's Vision Helps Children Statewide

One early childhood educator, the late Judith P. Hoyer, put her unique vision for meeting this challenge in place in Maryland more than 15 years ago. As the supervisor of Early Childhood Education in Prince George's County, Hoyer saw a need for collaboration among the many professionals who deliver the wide spectrum of early childhood and family support services. Her solution? Bring together all of the educational and other needed services for at-risk infants and toddlers into a single place in order to provide the children and their families with a comprehensive set of services, and do it either within a Title I elementary school or in direct connection with the school.

The success of Hoyer's early childhood and family learning center led to its replication, and, in 2000, the Maryland legislature passed the Judith P. Hoyer Early Childcare and Educational Enhancement Program, establishing a network of what are widely known simply as the "Judy Centers." The law recognizes the innovative vision and memory of Hoyer, who passed away in 1997.

Today, the Judy Centers network is comprised of 24 facilities, with at least one in 20 of Maryland's 23 counties and in Baltimore City. The centers provide for a five-prong set of school-readiness outcomes for their more than 8,000 students:

* Being healthy, socially adjusted, emotionally aware, and able to communicate with adults and other children;

* Having an awareness of print and letter-sound relationships and understanding a story;

* Understanding basic math ideas, patterns, shapes, and how to put things in a certain order;

* Having an awareness about animal and plant life, and people's roles in the family and the community;

* Being comfortable with individual creativity and an appreciation for self-expression through the arts.

The mission of the Judy Centers is to provide comprehensive, integrated, full-day, full-year services that promote school readiness for children from birth through age five. Each center must offer prekindergarten, kindergarten, and preschool special education, collaborate with the local Maryland Infant and Toddlers Program, and partner with childcare providers to ensure availability of both before- and after-school programs. The early education programs that are part of a Judy Center are certified by state or national accrediting bodies, including those of Head Start, child care centers, or family child care providers that are separate from the school system. In addition, each center selects at least five community partners to develop and implement its programs. The programmatic focus of these potential partners may include parent involvement programs, adult education and family literacy programs, health care providers, family support centers, and public libraries.

The Judy Centers are one strategy within the Maryland State Department of Education's (MSDE) Strategic Plan of the Division of Early Childhood Development. Since 2005, the MSDE has had responsibility for all aspects of child care and early education, which includes the oversight of child care and family care providers, contracting and grant making for providers to improve early-care quality, and administering the state's Child Care Subsidy Voucher System and the Child Care Credentialing System. Maryland is the only state in which this full scope of early care and education programs is located within the state educational agency. Nancy S. Grasmick, Maryland's State Superintendent of Schools, called the consolidation of early care and education with K-12 education one of the most sensible education reforms that has taken place in the state. "We know that learning takes place long before kindergarten, and educators need to be involved in the process," Dr. Grasmick said.

An Emerging National Network Addresses Zero to Five

As Maryland was expanding the model of the Judy Centers statewide, a similar initiative focused on birth to kindergarten was underway in Chicago, where the Ounce of Prevention Fund opened the first Educare Center in 2000 to address the school readiness needs of disadvantaged children. The Center, like its counterparts in Maryland, believed that partnerships between the public and private sectors were essential to providing at-risk children with the education and services necessary to equip them for success in kindergarten.

A second Educare Center was developed in Omaha, Nebraska, by the Buffett Early Childhood Fund, which then partnered with the Ounce of Prevention Fund to create a national network, the Bounce Learning Network, to extend the concept of Educare to more communities. As the Network has grown to six Educare Centers, adding sites in Milwaukee, Tulsa, Denver, and Miami, each of the Centers serves as a "showroom for quality," highlighting their collaborative approach. The Centers bring together public funding for child care, Head Start, and preschool, and they share governance for the Centers' programs by partnering with the philanthropic, programmatic, and public schools sectors to form a model for change in the Educare states. The network will expand soon to Washington State with the opening of a center in Seattle, and more centers are under development in Arizona and Maine.

All Educare Centers share common features that include the following: a commitment to research-based practices and educational strategies; small class sizes and high staff-to-child ratios; a focus on language and literacy; on-site family support services and parental services; and use of the arts to support social-emotional, language, and literacy development. The centers also share strategies and lessons learned, network on common challenges facing their work with young children, and share ways to leverage increased investments in Educare states and communities.

Promising Evidence that a Comprehensive Approach is Effective

In Maryland, the State Department of Education has evaluated the readiness of kindergarten students at Judy Centers, comparing those students who received Judy Center services prior to their kindergarten year with their kindergarten peers who did not participate in the Centers' pre-K programs. Across the state, the MSDE has trained kindergarten teachers how to document their daily observations, collect work samples from their students, and use age-appropriate guidelines to determine if kindergarten students are proficient from their students, and use age-appropriate guidelines to determine if kindergarten students are proficient in seven domains: personal and social development, language and literacy, mathematical thinking, scientific thinking, social studies, the arts, and physical development. Known as the Maryland Model for School Readiness (MMSR) the assessment is designed to provide parents, teachers, and early childhood education providers with a common understanding of what children should know and be able to do upon entering school. MMSR data for children who received Judy Center services prior to their kindergarten year were compared with data for children who had not received those services. In the consecutive school years of 2003 to 2005, the MMSR data showed that economically disadvantaged children (those who qualify for free and reduced-priced meals) with prior Judy Center experience were significantly more successful in terms of readiness for school than disadvantaged children without such experience . In 2005, the percentage of ELL kindergartners with prior Judy Center experience who were fully ready for school (88 percent) exceeded not only the other ELL children in the Centers, but also the Centers' kindergarten population overall.

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Additionally, five centers in the Bounce Learning Network participated in an implementation study during the 2007-2008 school year, conducted by the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute (FPG Child Development Institute), that looked at data for areas of school readiness, vocabulary, social and emotional skills, and classroom quality. Using the Bracken Basic Concepts Scale, which measures comprehension of concepts such as sequence, letters, and colors, the study revealed that students who joined Educare Centers between birth and age two not only outperformed those who attended the Centers for shorter periods, but also the national performance average for all kindergarten students. Similarly, when evaluated for vocabulary on a standardized measure of reading readiness, Educare students with three to five years experience averaged scores of 99.2, just below the national mean for all children.

Both the Judy Centers and Bounce Learning Networks are continuing their evaluation efforts. MSDE expects to release new data on the performance of Judy Center students this fall. The FPG Child Development Institute is continuing to follow children in the Educare Centers and is in the early stages of planning for a future randomized control study of the Educare model.

Helping State Policymakers Do Right by At-Risk Birth to Five Year Olds

The needs of at-risk infants, toddlers, preschoolers, and their families for programs that will prepare them for success in kindergarten and beyond, and for policy change at the state level to meet these needs, is the focus of a multi-state consortium supported by several major philanthropies, including the Buffett Early Childhood Funds, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The 13 members of the Birth to Five Policy Alliance represent the governance sector, including governors and state legislators; chief state school officers; child education, care and advocacy associations such as the National Association for the Education of Young Children and the National Center on Children in Poverty; and special interest groups like the National Council of La Raza. Together, these organizations are pursuing three strategies to support state-level policy: knowledge development, including research and policy analysis affecting at-risk children birth to age five; outreach and support for state policymakers; and building champions for new innovations and investments in birth to five education among key stakeholders.

At the federal level, President Obama has proposed new funding in his fiscal year (FY) 2010 budget to develop cutting-edge plans and programs to raise the quality of early learning programs, challenging states to ensure that more children are better prepared for success by the time they enter kindergarten. For FY 2010, an Early Learning Challenge Grant program is proposed, which will help states ensure that children are better prepared for success by their entry in kindergarten. Through the current stimulus funding, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is investing $5 billion in efforts to expand the reach of Early Head Start and Head Start to an additional 150,000 children, and offering 55,000 first-time parents regular visits from nurses to increase the likelihood that their children will be healthy when they enter kindergarten.

Hope for Federal Leadership and Resources

The President is also increasing the collaboration between the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services (HHS). The agencies are working together, meeting in cross-agency working groups around specific areas such as infants and toddlers, parent involvement, workforce and professional development, data collection, and meeting the needs of special needs children and English language learners. Additionally, the two agencies are consulting with the White House on creating the Presidential Early Learning Council that will encourage states to better coordinate services across multiple federal early childhood funding sources, focusing particularly on birth to five as well as on key transitions such as preK to the K-12 system. At the state level, support is available from HHS for the creation of State Advisory Councils on Early Childhood and Care, which will lead in the creation or enhancement of high-quality, comprehensive systems of early childhood development. This support will work to ensure statewide coordination and collaboration among a wide range of programs and services, including child care, Head Start, IDEA preschool, infants and families programs, and pre-kindergarten programs and services.

President Obama and Secretary Duncan are committed to providing the support that our youngest children need to prepare to succeed later in school. To help guide the Department's course, the Secretary has brought in longtime early learning expert Barbara Bowman. She counsels, "If we have learned anything from the last 50 years of research, it is that the education of young children is critical to their later school success. This does not mean that children do not learn later, only that it is harder to promote high achievement if children do not get off to a good start. It means that starting between birth and age 3, children at risk for school achievement must have access to high-quality preschool programs. Preschool is not a vaccination; it has to be followed by high-quality kindergarten and later grades. Nevertheless, early childhood education must be a priority if all our children are to have an equal chance to succeed."

Key Resources

Early Childhood Education at the U.S. Department of Education

National Association for the Education of Young Children

National Research Council and the National Academies Press for publications including Adding it Up: Helping Children Learn Mathematics; From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development; and Eager to Learn: Educating Our Preschoolers

Supporting Partnerships to Assure Ready Children

ZEROTOTHREE

First 5 California

Thrive by Five Washington

Young Children and the Arts: Making Creative Connections--A Report of the Task Force on Children's Learning and the Arts: Birth to Age Eight

Editor's Note

Congratulations to Peter Cunningham who was confirmed as the new Assistant Secretary for Communications and Outreach.
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Publication:The Education Innovator
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Date:May 29, 2009
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