Birth-Third projects often begin with a focus on aligning community-based preschool and kindergarten. For the leaders of Lowell’s Birth-Third initiative, it was important from the outset that their project be broader in scope, spanning the Birth-Third continuum by developing meaningful roles for family childcare providers, community-based preschools, and elementary schools. Lowell’s leaders wanted to build coherence, a common language, and a common vision of improvement across these component parts of the community’s early learning system. Lowell’s alignment partnership is thus explicitly using the EEC alignment grant opportunity to develop common improvement tools and mechanisms across family childcare, community-based preschool, and elementary school—an ambitious project that incorporates a number of distinctive elements.
Lowell’s project is led by the Early Childhood Department of the Lowell Public Schools on behalf of the city’s Early Childhood Advisory Council (ECAC). At the time the EEC grant opportunity appeared, members of the ECAC had been discussing how they might best go about building their capacity to advance along the QRIS system and specifically how to improve their use of the Teaching Strategies Gold assessment system. As a result, improving program quality and child outcomes across the Birth-Third continuum are key goals of the alignment project, goals that in effect serve as overarching themes of the work.
Lowell began its work towards these goals by designing a pilot of sorts that would focus on two challenging low-income neighborhoods. Each neighborhood included a Level 3 or 4 elementary school, a community-based early childhood center, and family childcare providers. The pilot includes the following components:
- A broad Leadership Alignment Team that includes elementary school principals, leaders of center-based programs and Head Start, representatives from Family Child Care systems, and members of the Lowell Early Childhood Department (i.e., Terry and Pat—see footnote #1),
- An aligned system of assessments, both of program and classroom quality (i.e., the CLASS classroom observation tool and the ECERS  and FCCERS  environmental rating scales) and child outcomes (i.e., Teaching Strategies Gold),
- Professional development in the reliable and effective use of this system of assessments,
- Two “Communities of Practice,” one for family childcare providers and one for center-based programs, which use the ECERS and FCCERS tools to frame professional development around improving quality and promoting child learning and development,
- A series of professional development workshops on the Common Core open to the Lowell early childhood community, and
- Planned family engagement activities, including a community of practice for families facilitated by a parent coach and joint family engagement training across three levels: an elementary school, a feeder community-based preschool, and a feeder family child care system.
The Lowell partnership initially found the dynamics of its Leadership Alignment Team to be challenging. According to a report to the ECAC, participants came to the table with “different frames and levels of understanding of alignment, assessment, and program quality.” After a few meetings, attendance began to drop, pushing the partnership leaders to solicit input from the members and re-group. They restructured the sessions around common readings to provide a common foundation for discussion, and out of these conversations a common agenda emerged around the topic of school readiness. A sub-committee began to investigate school readiness definitions and frameworks in other communities and other states and assemble a variety of research materials. With its work on school readiness the Leadership Alignment Team found its purpose and its footing, and in effect it has added a robust second prong to the neighborhood pilot—creating a city-wide definition of school readiness and a comprehensive school readiness agenda, a topic we will explore in more depth in future posts. Interestingly, with the addition of the school readiness agenda, Lowell’s model echoes the pattern of two-prong approaches (i.e., targeted and community-wide) that we see in Springfield and Somerville.
Common observation and assessment tools play a central role in Lowell’s project. The partnership has trained 55 staff members across one community-based preschool and two elementary schools in the CLASS observation tool. Linda Warren and her team at Early Childhood Associates have conducted CLASS observations in center classes and elementary school classrooms. The elementary schools and centers used trends in the CLASS to help them identify areas of instructional focus in their strategic plans. For example, one school chose to focus on language modeling; the other, concept development. Lowell is working with the CLASS organization to be among the first to use a new version developed specifically for family childcare providers.
The Alignment Team has agreed to use Teaching Strategies Gold (TSG) as a common assessment of child outcomes, and the Lowell Public Schools is piloting the use of TSG in first and second grade classrooms. Lowell plans to deepen its use of TSG data over the next 18 months by hosting quarterly professional development Data Days, deploying a data coach, and developing a system to manage TSG and CLASS data across the Birth-Third system.
Also of note, Lowell’s Alignment Partnership served as a platform for partnering with UMass Boston and was awarded an Improving Teacher Quality grant from the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education to improve the teaching and learning of mathematics from prekindergarten through second grade. Lowell’s experience parallels the Boston K1DS project, which also identified math as an area of need in its participating prekindergarten classrooms and applied for and won a grant to strengthen its professional development support with a targeted series of math workshops.
Lowell’s Alignment Partnership work adds the following design elements to the mix of approaches and strategies found in Birth-Third work in Massachusetts:
- Engaging family childcare providers, community-based centers, and elementary schools through one initiative focused on quality and aimed at developing coherence,
- Using classroom observation and child assessment tools as key levers to build common understanding and common language across the Birth-Third continuum,
- Collaborating on family engagement across schools, preschools, and family childcare providers,
- Pursuing a community-wide school readiness agenda, and
- Piloting a range of activities across the Birth-Third continuum in two challenging neighborhoods.
Next week’s post will investigate Lowell’s use communities of practice as a professional development vehicle for both family child care providers and center-based programs, to be followed by future posts on Lowell’s school readiness agenda and on the use of CLASS observations in community-based preschools and elementary schools.
Top Image: Members of Lowell’s Alignment Team and other community members working on the School Readiness Strategic Plan.
 With input from the ECAC, Terry O’Neill and Pat Murphy of the Early Childhood Department of the Lowell Public Schools worked with early childhood consultant Linda Warren of Early Childhood Associates to design the Birth-Third alignment partnership.
 Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale
 Family Child Care Environment Rating Scale
This post was completed as part of a contract between the MA Department of Early Education and Care and Cambridge Education (where David Jacobson worked at the time). Contract # CT EEC 0900 FY13SRF130109CAMBRID.