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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
April 1, 2003
Vol. 60
No. 7

A Partnership for School Readiness

To better prepare students for kindergarten, the Lafayette County School District in Oxford, Mississippi, provided cost-effective professional development seminars to local day-care workers.

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The classroom door, brightly decorated with kites, asks its visitors to “fly high” with Miss Marcy's class of 2-year-olds. Once inside, Miss Marcy's room seems to contain all of the requisite items: kid-sized furniture, a kitchen set, a block area, nap cots, and nine 2-year-olds. The visitor takes a little chair in the corner and observes the children at the table. Miss Marcy says,Boys and girls, we are going to write our names today! Marcus [who is scribbling ferociously], now that's not your name! We're going to write our names today! Jenny [who has finished her scribbles and is headed for the kitchen], now come back and we'll write our names! Robert, don't eat the crayons, for heaven's sake! And Malesha, don't write on Austin's clothes! We're going to write our names today! Destiny, where did your paper go? Oh, boys and girls, what is wrong?
The visitor has seen enough. She leaves in search of another preschool where her 2-year-old will be allowed to engage in age-appropriate activities. Unfortunately, this is the fourth day-care center she's visited. Surely the right one is out there!

Do Children's Preschool Experiences Really Matter?

In past years, early childhood care focused simply on meeting the increasing demand for care outside the home with little or no emphasis on children's development or education. But as educators and researchers explore these issues, a growing body of research stresses the academic, social, and emotional benefits associated with quality early childhood experiences (Barnett & Boocock, 1998; Consortium for Longitudinal Studies, 1983). In addition, the objectives of the National Education Goals Panel (Lancaster & Lawrence, 1993) and the sweeping preschool reforms set forth in the No Child Left Behind legislation position school readiness as a national concern.

How Can School Districts Help?

The almost universal acknowledgment of the importance of early childhood education provided the rationale for our school district to examine ways to help prepare preschoolers for kindergarten. We knew the school district could not offer a public preschool because even the most ambitious funding scheme could serve only a fraction of the children. In addition, transportation, lunch programs, room assignments, and a host of other issues would be problematic. We also dismissed other traditional improvement efforts between schools and outside organizations that often only result in superficial agreements to meet annually and share curricular material (without proper support).
To move beyond traditional remedies, we asked ourselves, Where are children currently receiving care? and What are the needs of early education providers?
Lafayette County, Mississippi, is a rural area with a population of about 39,000; 1,900 of these residents are under the age of 5. The U.S. Census Bureau (2001) reports that 21.3 percent of the county's population lives below the poverty level. In the county, 150+ child care providers serve more than 1,000 preschool children, and the local Head Start program serves an additional 140 children ages 3 and 4. These two groups represent the majority of the county's preschool children.
Data indicate that U.S. child care most often occurs outside the family unit. In 2000, more than 75 percent of women ages 25–34 and 75 percent of women with a child under 6 years of age participated in the labor force (U.S. Census Bureau, 2001). Corresponding with the decrease in the number of mothers staying at home is an increase in the number of preschool children in child care settings or in preschool day care. As a consequence, we determined that these settings should be the focus for improving the quality of preschool experiences.
Because our school district employs three full-time speech pathologists who serve preschool children with special needs in the county's Head Start and day-care facilities, we had developed a relationship with the local day-care community and listened to their needs. We discovered that surprisingly few facilities used a curriculum or assessment of any kind. By curriculum, we did not mean a packaged program with rigid activities but rather activities and content that are both developmentally appropriate and challenging. Even though Mississippi requires day-care providers and preschool teachers to earn 15 hours annually of continuing education credit to maintain licensure, training opportunities for staff rarely focus on curriculum, assessment, or a preschool's role in kindergarten readiness. This appears to be the case throughout the United States. Federal Head Start programs only began using a nationally mandated curriculum framework of benchmarks and objectives in the fall of 2002 (Head Start Bureau, 2002).

Training Day-Care Workers

By listening to our county's day-care workers, we chose a meaningful and attainable goal: to improve the experiences of preschool children by training staff of local day-care centers and preschools in curriculum, classroom management, student assessment, and kindergarten readiness. Achieving the goal would have a meaningful impact on a large number of preschool children at a cost much less than that of traditional methods. In addition, we believed that by building relationships among preschools, day-care facilities, and our school district, we could further facilitate children's readiness to make the transition to kindergarten.

Training Objectives

We clarified our goal by distinguishing between the outcomes we wanted to avoid and those we wanted to embrace. We did not want to condone preschool teachers teaching a kindergarten curriculum or narrow bands of skills without recognizing the interrelatedness of the domains of children's development. Instead, we incorporated such generally accepted principles of child development and learning as those delineated by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (1996) and the National Research Council (Bowman, Donovan, & Burns, 2001).
  • Developmental milestones of 3- and 4-year-old children.
  • Developmentally appropriate preschool activities.
  • Kindergarten readiness and public school expectations.
  • The appropriate use of curriculum and assessment with preschool children.
  • The characteristics of developmental delay.
  • Referral procedures for children with special needs.

Training Specifics

We offered three-day seminars several times a summer for three years to all day-care workers and preschool teachers in the county (including Head Start staff), regardless of education background or work experience. We offered each seminar several times to allow day-care centers to stagger participation and circumvent staffing problems. To build an initial foundation of trust and familiarity, the three school district speech and language pathologists who were providing community-based services served as trainers.
  • The training met the annual continuing education requirements for child care providers.
  • Each participant received a stipend to cover either the cost of a substitute teacher or the cost of vacation days used.
  • We gave participants developmentally appropriate materials to help them implement the strategies they learned.
Each participant also received a notebook of handouts containing developmental charts and other pertinent information on child development. Handouts included copies of our district's kindergarten report card; a copy of the Mississippi prekindergarten curriculum (our state curriculum framework for preschool); lesson plan formats; guidelines for learning centers, classroom management, and basic referral of children with suspected disabilities; and information distilled from various publications from the National Association for the Education of Young Children regarding best practices for teaching the prerequisite skills for reading, math, and handwriting. Following a period of lectures, teachers developed mock lesson plans in small groups.
On the last morning of each training session, participants received new and developmentally appropriate materials and generated activities using the materials. Finally, the attendees visited the school district's resource center to collect a host of materials and use the copier, laminating machine, and die-cuts. These “make-and-take” sessions gave the participants an opportunity to use equipment and materials rarely available to them otherwise.

Training Outcomes

Over the course of three summers, the district provided intensive seminar training, stipends, and materials to 20 Head Start teachers, 4 Early Head Start teachers, and 94 preschool teachers. In all, employees from 16 preschools serving more than 600 children in our county attended our seminars.
At the end of each seminar, the participants completed a standard Likert Scale evaluation form rating the course content, setting, and trainer. Of the 118 participants, 117 provided positive comments on all components of the evaluation. The one negative comment concerned the quality of light in the seminar room.
Overall, our school district deemed the preschool teacher training seminars an overwhelming success. The training sessions were filled to capacity. Participants were attentive, eager to learn, and eager to share. Before taking the seminar, the majority of participants were unaware of current kindergarten curriculum requirements and did not use any kind of curriculum. Interactions between school personnel and various Head Start and day-care personnel following the training confirmed that the participants were applying their new knowledge and training materials. In fact, participants have continued to ask trainers questions long after they attended the training. In addition, school district personnel and child care providers formed lasting relationships that will facilitate ongoing support for improving the quality of preschool experiences that children receive. In short, we believe that the seminars have been an economically effective way of improving the experiences of preschool children.
In an effort to offer ongoing training and support, our district's speech pathologists conduct short, focused inservice presentations on kindergarten readiness and related topics at day-care centers' requests. The Mississippi Department of Education funded the initial seminars entirely through two capacity-building grants, and our school district is currently searching for resources to extend these training seminars to additional day-care workers and expand the scope to include such topics as art, music, drama, and literature for young children.
Let's return to the preschool classroom as the mother visits a day-care center that has the requisite materials and a staff trained in curriculum, classroom management, student assessment, and kindergarten readiness.
The classroom door, brightly decorated with teddy bears, reminds visitors that Miss Kelly's class is a “beary” good group of 2-year-olds. Inside, Miss Kelly's room contains the kid-sized furniture, kitchen set, block area, and nap cots that the visitor has come to expect. She takes a little chair in the corner and observes. Joseph and Will are busy in the block corner, stacking blocks and knocking them over with their dump trucks. Shana and Terrell are busily filling and pouring at the water table, and Dennis is making big circles in shaving cream at the table. Zach finishes his pegboard puzzle while Candace sings a lullaby to her baby doll. Miss Kelly moves quietly among her students, observing their behavior and offering encouragement and assistance. A smile creeps across the face of the visitor. She's found the perfect classroom for her son.

Barnett, W. S., & Boocock, S. S. (Eds.). (1998). Early care and education for children in poverty: Promises, programs, and long-term results. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Bowman, B. T., Donovan, M. S., & Burns, M. S. (Eds.). (2001). Eager to learn: Educating our preschoolers. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Consortium for Longitudinal Studies. (1983). As the twig is bent—lasting effects of preschool programs. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Head Start Bureau, National Head Start Child Development Institute. (2002). Ensuring quality and accountability through leadership. Arlington, VA: Author. Available:www.hsnrc.org/CDI/COF.cfm

Lancaster, L., & Lawrence, L. (Eds.). (1993). National education goals panel's handbook for local goals reports. Washington, DC: National Education Goals Panel.

National Association for the Education of Young Children. (1996). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs serving children from birth to age 8. Washington, DC: Author.

U.S. Census Bureau. (2001). Statistical abstract of the United States: 2001 (121st ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

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