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March 2015 | Volume 57 | Number 3
The Gamified Classroom
As infants and toddlers suffer from the highest rates of poverty nationally, schools and cities scramble to provide early intervention.
Debbie Davis has worked with elementary school students for much of her education career, and she knows Mississippi's Simpson County School District would benefit greatly from a coordinated preK program.
"If we had the money, we'd do it in a heartbeat," says Davis, deputy superintendent of the 4,200-student, largely low-income, rural district. "So many of our students come to school without the skills and language they need, and without the experiences that so many other children have."
Despite a growing body of research that supports expanded early childhood and preK initiatives and an increased awareness of poverty's effects on learning, Simpson County and many other districts continue to rely on a mix of Head Start programs and private daycare centers to provide services for 3- and 4-year-olds. By the time many low-income children enter kindergarten, they already are considered at risk for academic failure.
And the numbers of at-risk youth are growing. Children of color now comprise a majority of infants and toddlers in the United States, according to an October Center for American Progress (CAP) report. Children under age 3 are also experiencing the highest level of poverty of any age group. This generation is a "bellwether," as CAP notes, marking a shift in demographics that has serious implications for K–12 schools.
Research shows that, without proper interventions, the stress and health problems of those living in poverty damages brain development and affects children's memory, emotional growth, and reading and writing proficiency. Cindy Esposito Lamy, a senior research fellow at the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), says states are "finally starting to get serious about improving early childhood programs, at least for 4-year-olds." Since 2013, more than 30 states have increased funding for preschool programs, and preK ballot initiatives passed last November in Denver, San Francisco, and Seattle.
"Poverty is a tangled web of risk around a child's development," says Lamy, who also works for the Robin Hood Foundation, a charitable organization that strives to alleviate poverty in New York City. "It's a constant stressor that's always there and breaks down and degrades good intentions. Staying intensely supportive is the only way to push back against it."
For 50 years, much of that support has come from Head Start, the federal program created as part of President Johnson's "War on Poverty." Originally conceived as a remedial summer program to help children catch up on skills before entering kindergarten, the federal effort quickly expanded to provide health, nutrition, and parent involvement services to low-income children and families.
Now serving more than 1 million children each year, Head Start and its sister program—Early Head Start, which serves children from birth to age 3—have come under fire from opponents who question each initiative's ability to systemically improve student achievement. Research on Head Start's effectiveness is mixed, with NIEER saying as recently as last year that it offers "modest benefits, including some long-term gains for children."
"Quite simply, we're still for the most part trying to do early childhood on the cheap," says Bob Sornson, founder of the Early Learning Foundation. "If you look at quality preschool efforts, they're spending a whole lot more than your typical Head Start program. We're giving low-income kids a little leg up, but not enough to get them to that point where they're successful learners over the long haul."
Today, only 30 percent of 4-year-olds take part in state-funded preschool programs, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said during the December White House Summit on Early Education. Duncan, who announced $750 million in federal grants to expand programs in 18 states, said the United States "should be ashamed" of its current ranking of 28th among industrialized nations in providing preschool access.
President Obama has repeatedly called for the establishment of a "preschool for all" program that expands preK access to low- and moderate-income children. The White House also is seeking corporate commitments to support preK efforts and announced that $250 million in private funds has already been pledged.
The preK "train," as Sornson describes it, is "starting to move."
In San Antonio, a city-led initiative is providing full-day preschool to 4-year-olds from 7 of the area's 15 school districts. The $32 million Pre-K 4 SA program, launched last year and funded by sales tax revenue, serves 90 percent of the area's eligible children, says Chief Executive Officer Kathy Bruck.
"We don't compete with the school districts. We are helping and sharing with the school districts," Bruck says of Pre-K 4 SA, which is part of former Mayor Julian Castro's SA2020 initiative to improve the quality of life in a city where one in four children live in poverty. "Our coaches work with the public schools and with private programs to raise the level of instruction for all kids, and it's all free. We'll reach out and design training for the schools around whatever they feel their needs are."
Students remain enrolled in their home district but go to school at Pre-K 4 SA centers, where they receive instruction from certified teachers. Parents who are working or in school themselves can enroll their children in a free extended day program; otherwise, school runs from 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.
The program's early results are promising. A recent NIEER study showed that students' skills in 2013–14 met or exceeded a nationally normed sample of children the same age. One of eight different evaluations of the program, the study showed that students started the year with scores significantly below standard in six areas (cognitive skill, literacy, math, oral language, physical ability, and social-emotional behavior). By the year's end, however, they had surpassed peers in three areas and were at the same level as their peers in the other three.
"One problem I see with early childhood is that 1st grade has been pushed down to kindergarten, and kindergarten has been pushed down to preK," Bruck says. "We're pushing back a little. What we're focusing on is skill development and work through play. That's how 4-year-olds learn. And we're working to teach skills in a way that is meaningful for children."
Susan B. Neuman, assistant secretary of education under George W. Bush, helped establish the federal Early Reading First and the Early Childhood Professional Development Education Program a decade ago. Now a University of Michigan professor, Neuman believes that while programs such as Pre-K 4 SA can be effective, more attention should be placed on birth to age 3 efforts.
"There's an emphasis on preK beginning at age 4 without recognition that those very, very early years and very early experiences are entirely related to literacy and development," Neuman says, noting that it's "problematic" when communities place all of their resources into preK. "What you've got, more or less, is a piecemeal policy that is not seen as part of the solution, but seen as the major solution."
Neuman says schools "don't have the time and expertise to work with families in the 0 to 3 space." Instead of universal preK, she believes a blended model of community and school-based programs that adds more speech-language services, brings in more healthcare professionals, and provides extended day opportunities will be more effective.
Once children enter public school, Neuman says "a lot" can be done to help them succeed. Suggestions include placing the strongest teachers in schools with the largest low-income populations, aligning the curriculum from preK through grade 3, focusing on outreach to impoverished parents with targeted programs using Title I dollars, and helping parents and students connect with outside agencies for assistance. A strong focus on reading, especially in the areas of understanding and comprehension, is also key.
In Simpson County, located 25 miles south of Mississippi's state capital, Davis wishes her district and community could do more for low-income children before they arrive for kindergarten. Addressing long-standing poverty in a rural, sparsely populated community is no small feat, especially in a state that ranks at the bottom in terms of education spending.
But the district is experiencing success, thanks to an early learning initiative that started in 2007–08. At Simpson Central School, a K–8 campus that serves 20 small communities and 516 students, 78 percent of children qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. Student achievement, however, has risen by more than 50 percent on reading and math tests over the past seven years. In 2013–14, 91 percent of 4th graders earned proficient scores on state tests, helping the school receive an A ranking from the state.
"I don't know of another school that has as many challenges in our state that has performed as well," says Davis, who was an assistant principal at the school when the program started.
Developed with assistance from Sornson's Early Learning Foundation and a combination of district and Title I funds, the program provides K–2 students with an hour of literacy instruction and 30 minutes on numeracy daily. Students are grouped based on ability. Everyone, from instructional support staff to the librarian to the administrators, helps teach one class a day to keep the group size small.
Teachers use a rubric to see how students are performing in a particular subject area, Davis says. The school also has a lab where kindergarteners and 1st graders can work on motor skills. A speech pathologist spends time in every classroom twice a week to assess language skills and help students with vocabulary.
Davis says these interventions are important because they teach basic skills to students who have limited life and social experiences. She says she's taken students to a mall and into Jackson who've never been outside of Simpson County, let alone on an elevator or escalator.
"Some things people take for granted, you can't take for granted with our students," Davis says.
Whether it's a multimillion dollar city-sponsored initiative such as San Antonio's or a small program such as Simpson County's, finding ways to focus on whole child development early and often is imperative. In fact, as the CAP report suggests, our nation's future depends on it.
Lamy says schools and communities need to focus on a system of "continuous quality" to break the cycle of poverty. And that starts with early education.
"If we can get them through the early years where they make the switch from learning to read to reading to learn, then all of the probabilities change, and you've put kids on a fairly stable trajectory of success," she says. "It's expensive and difficult to do this, but it's crucial to give [these kids] a chance."
Glenn Cook is a freelance writer from Lorton, Va.
Copyright © 2015 by ASCD
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