A Community Commitment: Berkshire Priorities and the Pittsfield Promise

The accident of birth is a principal source of inequality in America today. American society is dividing into skilled and unskilled, and the roots of this division lie in early childhood experiences. Kids born into disadvantaged environments are at much greater risk of being unskilled, having low lifetime earnings, and facing a range of personal and social troubles, including poor health, teen pregnancy, and crime. While we celebrate equality of opportunity, we live in a society in which birth is becoming fate. (J. Heckman, Giving Kids a Fair Chance, 2013)

On January 23rd John Bissell opened a meeting of community leaders in Pittsfield, MA with this quotation from the Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman. Bissell is a banker, and he and a number of community leaders in Berkshire County had recently been reading Heckman’s book, Giving Kids a Fair Chance. This group of community leaders is on the leading edge of a movement to mount concerted community-wide campaigns focused on Birth through Third Grade (Birth-Third) efforts, and third grade reading proficiency in particular. In Pittsfield this work is directed towards a singular community goal, referred to as the Pittsfield Promise: 90% reading proficiency on the third-grade MCAS by 2020. In 2012, Pittsfield won the National Civic League’s All-America Grade-Level Reading Award, and it was recently named one of 37 communities to be named a 2013 Pacesetter community by the Grade-Level Reading Campaign. (Springfield too has achieved both distinctions.)

In the context of the range of Birth-Third Alignment Partnerships underway in Massachusetts, Berkshire County’s campaign represents a good example of a robust community-wide approach that includes community outreach, direct supports to families, and work to improve preschool access and quality. The following list gives a sense of some of the main Pittsfield Promise activities:

  • Literacy events (e.g., Story Walks—staged walks across towns and parks from one large poster of a page from a book to another, accompanied by library readings of the featured books)
  • Book giveaways and storytelling sessions (e.g., literacy bags for newborns, books for mothers through the WIC program, pediatrician and nurse promotion of reading through Reach Out and Read)
  • Quality improvement efforts for early childhood providers (e.g., training in assessments, coordination with Berkshire Readiness Center trainings)
  • Home visiting programs
  • A media campaign (e.g., cable TV shows and newspaper articles)
  • Access to quality preschool (e.g., community funding tied to quality indicators)
  • PreK-12 alignment (e.g., a PreK/K professional learning community)
  • Resource mapping and community engagement (e.g., “asset-based community development” in collaboration with Berkshire Community College and neighborhood initiatives)
  • Data analysis/communications (e.g., A State of the Young Child Report in collaboration with the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission)
Three Berkshire United Way Birth-Third Leaders (from left): Nancy Stoll (Director of Community Engagement and Evaluation), Karen Vogel (Early Childhood Coordinator), and Kris Hazzard (President and CEO).
Three Berkshire United Way Birth-Third Leaders (from left): Nancy Stoll (Director of Community Engagement and Evaluation), Karen Vogel (Early Childhood Coordinator), and Kris Hazzard (President and CEO).

Berkshire County has established a governance structure, a strategic plan, and a network of working groups to drive and coordinate these Birth-Third activities. The Berkshire United Way serves as the “backbone organization” of the partnership, leading, coordinating, and staffing the work. The MA EEC Alignment Partnership grant supports Berkshire United Way in organizing these activities, in particular through the person of its Coordinator of Early Childhood, Karen Vogel. Over the past year, Berkshire United Way has participated in a five-city network led by Strategies for Children and Harvard professor Nonie Lesaux. Influenced by this experience, Berkshire United Way’s Birth-Third leaders are increasingly focused on marshaling the community’s resources in a strategic fashion that will yield the most impact.

Pittsfield Promise’s early literacy campaign raises a number of interesting and important questions regarding:

  • How a community mobilizes and coordinates commitment and action tied to a single goal
  • How communities balance diverse strategies including community awareness, direct support to families, improving preschool access and quality, and collaborating with the school system
  • The role of a community funder in spearheading change and the associated benefits and challenges
  • How to assess impact and results across a broad array of initiatives

This initial post on Pittsfield Promise’s efforts first describes the basic structure and scope of the Birth-Third work underway in Pittsfield, including the partnership’s recent evolution and reassessment of priorities. A subsequent post will trace the development of Pittsfield Promise’s institutional commitment to early learning and third-grade reading, to be followed by deeper investigations into on-the-ground implementation and practice.

Strategy and Structure (Phase 1)

A recent meeting of the Early Childhood Think Tank serves as a good introduction to the work of the Pittsfield Promise. The Think Tank is a group of early childhood providers and partner organizations that has played an integral role in the Pittsfield Promise. The meeting began with a discussion of a marketing campaign in the city that would emphasize the importance of early childhood education and the critical role of families. The Think Tank has worked with the Pittsfield Promise communications committee to frame the appropriate messages, and Berkshire County Readiness Center Director Doug McNally was there to note how he could support the campaign through his monthly cable TV show. The Think Tank then discussed the goals of a State of the Young Child report that will present data regarding poverty and other risk factors in the county. 37.1% of Pittsfield children under five live in poverty, a percentage that is growing. The purpose of the report is to inform policymakers as well as provide a common framework of indicators that early childhood providers can draw on in order to send consistent messages to the broader community, including funders.

Karen working group
Early Childhood Coordinator Karen Vogel (pen in hand) and other members of the Early Childhood Literacy Impact Council.

The Think Tank then reviewed a PreK to K inventory list that Karen Vogel, the Coordinator of Early Childhood, had developed. This inventory integrates Massachusetts’ two kindergarten readiness tools, Work Sampling and Teaching Strategies Gold, and is intended to become a transition form used by all preschools in the county (see draft here). The meeting also included a proposal to re-constitute the Early Childhood Think Tank as an umbrella governance organization in the county, overseeing not only the Pittsfield Promise but also similar efforts currently being seeded throughout the county. Doug McNally of the Berkshire Readiness Center concluded the meeting by announcing high participation rates by preschool teachers in recent early childhood development classes and sharing dates for future professional development opportunities.

In order for a community-wide commitment to move from vision to implementation to impact, communities need to establish a governance structure, a plan targeting high-leverage priorities, and mechanisms to implement and monitor the plan (see this Birth-Third Framework for more on infrastructure). Overseeing the Pittsfield Promise is a group of approximately 60 community leaders who in 2011 committed to the 90% reading proficiency goal by 2020. Pittsfield Promise meets quarterly, while a smaller group of leaders, the Berkshire Priorities, meets monthly, in effect serving as the steering committee for the larger Pittsfield Promise group. The work is guided by a strategic plan that began in July 2012 and is currently in Year 2 of implementation. The strategic plan outlines five core strategies:

  • Strengthen the infrastructure of Berkshire Priorities to drive achievement of the Pittsfield Promise.
  • Create strong community awareness of the importance of literacy as pursued by Pittsfield Promise.
  • Create collaborative partnerships to align, integrate and leverage community resources to achieve the common goal of the Pittsfield Promise – by 2020, 90% of Pittsfield students will achieve reading proficiency as demonstrated by third grade standardized tests.
  • Leverage direct and indirect community resources to advance early childhood literacy.
  • Engage and connect parents, families, and other caregivers to opportunities to infuse literacy and inclusion in their everyday life.

The Pittsfield Promise has designed structures and mechanisms to implement these strategies in a coordinated fashion. The community has established six committees, staffed and coordinated by the Berkshire United Way (currently with support from the EEC grant). These committees play a critical role knitting together numerous agencies, community leaders and volunteers, including the Berkshire Readiness Center, the Berkshire Health systems, early childhood providers, libraries, museums, the mayor’s office, and so on. Sue Doucette, the early childhood coordinator for the Pittsfield Public Schools, sits on several of the preschool committees and working groups and supports alignment between the community-based providers and the public schools. Pittsfield Promise has begun working with two of the elementary schools in Pittsfield, but alignment efforts with the public schools have been hampered by leadership instability in the district (four superintendents in four years) and labor-management tensions.[1]

Importantly, Berkshire United Way’s Karen Vogel attends all of the Pittsfield Promise committee meetings and thus is able to update each on the progress of the others and make connections across their various spheres of work. The exact structure of these committees is evolving as the community tries to streamline and mesh their work.  The following list is likely to change but nonetheless serves to indicate how Berkshire County/Pittsfield Promise has initially structured its work: Family Engagement, Communications, Staff Enrichment, Data and Inventory, PK – 12 Alignment (which includes a focus on PreK and K assessments and transitions), and Out of School Time.

The Pittsfield Promise represents a deliberate decision made in 2011 to begin with a focus on Pittsfield and then expand outward to include the whole county. The anticipated move toward an all-county scope has begun in recent months, and the January proposal to reconfigure the Think Tank as a county organization mentioned above has been accepted. The county-wide umbrella governance group is now called the Early Childhood Literacy Impact Council.

Strategy and Impact (Moving to Phase 2)

Berkshire United Way's Kris Hazzard talking with board member and Early Childhood Impact Council co-chair, Michael Barberi.
Berkshire United Way’s Kris Hazzard talking with board member and Early Childhood Impact Council co-chair, Michael Barberi.

A common theme emerging across the five Birth-Third Alignment Partnerships in Massachusetts revolves around the need to set priorities, a challenging task given the breadth of potential Birth-Third improvement activities. Partnerships need to develop focused strategies that can be feasibly implemented, that will lead to demonstrable impacts, and ideally that build momentum for continued commitment and investment. As relatively new or newly-convened partnerships, Somerville and Springfield spent the first months of their EEC grant determining promising strategies that could be implemented given the scope of the two-year grant and with the available resources. While Berkshire County’s partnership, given its history, already had a plan and a set of initial activities in place, its leaders felt the need to (re)assess priorities in year two to ensure the Birth-Third work is having the greatest possible impact.

According to Berkshire United Way president Kris Hazzard, Berkshire Priorities’ re-assessment, as mentioned above, has been influenced through its participation in a five-city network convened by early childhood advocacy organization Strategies for Children. This network was formed in the aftermath of the National Civic League’s All-America Grade-Level Reading award in 2012. Five Massachusetts cities applied for and attended the awards event: Boston, Holyoke, Pittsfield, Springfield, and Worcester. While at the event in Denver the communities decided to form a network, which the advocacy group Strategies for Children has convened and supported.

Over the past year this network has worked with Harvard professor Nonie Lesaux, author of the influential report, Turning the Page: Refocusing Massachusetts for Reading Success. As a result of this collaboration, the Pittsfield Promise is moving towards placing relatively more emphasis on activities that are delivered at sufficient dosage to improve child outcomes in significant ways. The idea is to devote relatively more time and attention to expanding home visiting programs and increasing participation in quality preschool programs (while continuing efforts to deepen the involvement of the public schools in the Birth-Third work).

Geographic Breadth and Strategic Focus

Beginning with a focus on the city of Pittsfield, Berkshire Priorities has set an ambitious goal and mobilized its community around this goal through an interlocking network of community groups, committees, and working groups. Berkshire United Way’s current strategy is to expand beyond Pittsfield, continue engaging community members around early literacy, and push for increased access to high-impact (and relatively expensive) home-visiting and preschool services. The next post on Berkshire Priorities and Pittsfield Promise will explore how the county has built its commitment to third-grade literacy and how Berkshire United Way is supporting this work through two approaches to community change: asset-based community development and results-based accountability.

[1] Incoming superintendent Jason McCandless has expressed interest in making early childhood education a strategic priority.


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. 

Early Childhood Links of Interest

Teaching Children to Calm Themselves, a most-emailed article from the New York Times.

Finland’s Approach to Child Care and Preschool Programs, a post from Strategies for Children’s Eye on Early Education. The more exemplars we have for motivation and advocacy, the better. See the linked Washington Post interview as well.

The Boston K1DS Project: Implementing a New Curriculum in Community-based Preschools

On a recent visit to the Paige Academy preschool in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, a group of students sit clustered on the rug in front of teacher Sister Paige.[1] Sister Paige leads the students in counting up to 10, with the whole class yelling the even numbers and whispering the odd ones. After a follow-up activity with puzzle shapes, she transitions the group to centers. In one small group children play with letters, picking out the ones in their names. In another, four kids “read” picture books. Sister Paige spends part of the time on a stool observing the children and taking notes on index cards.

Around the corner in another room, Sister Vishali flashes paper plates with different numbers of dots on them as the children in her class “click photos” in their minds, trying to instantaneously identify the number of dots (see photo above). The students are doing an activity of the Building Blocks math curriculum in which students practice “subitizing,” instantly judging the number of items in a set. Subitizing is an important skill that supports composing and decomposing numbers in later years. Following a routine with which they are clearly familiar, small groups of students bound up to get in line for the restroom when they hear the letter that begins their name. Near Sister Vishali is a large posted sheet of chart paper outlining the schedule of small group centers for the day for both her class and Sister Paige’s.

Sister Paige’s and Sister Vishali’s classrooms are two of 14 community-based preschool classrooms participating in Boston K1DS, a project to implement the school district’s prekindergarten model in community-based programs.  Boston’s prekindergarten model has recently been found to lead to the biggest gains in vocabulary and math of any large-scale program in the United States to date and smaller but significant gains in executive function skills as well. As a result it has been profiled in Time Magazine, the Christian Science Monitor, and Education Week. These findings feature prominently in a recent summary of the U.S. evidence base on preschool outcomes as an example of a highly effective combination of a “developmentally focused” curriculum and intensive coaching. The Boston K1DS project is thus a novel collaboration in which a school district works hand-in-hand with community-based providers to implement a proven, developmentally-appropriate curricular approach to improving child learning.

EEC Commissioner Tom Weber touring the Boys and Girls Clubs of Dorchester with Vice President of Programming, Mary Kinsella.

Boston K1DS is a collaboration between the Boston Public Schools (BPS), Thrive in 5 (Boston’s early childhood collaborative), the MA EEC, and private funders (see here for the complete list). This collaboration is a more expensive initiative than the other Birth-Third Alignment Partnerships in the state, drawing on Boston’s larger pool of resources.  Boston and Thrive in 5 each received $200,000 grants from EEC (over two years). The Barr Foundation is the primary funder of the project, Boston Public Schools is contributing funding as well, and Thrive in 5 is raising additional funds. The project includes a formal evaluation by a Harvard research team. Importantly, BPS and the other partners have committed to expanding the project to include additional community-based preschools if the project yields results comparable to the outcomes in BPS classrooms. Further, most of the lead teachers are receiving an increase in salary to compensate them for their participation in the project and to promote teacher retention. After first describing the BPS prekindergarten model and the context of the project, I describe the components of the K1DS project in more detail.

Boston’s Prekindergarten Model

The Boston preschool model has its roots in a 2006 decision by Boston Mayor Thomas Menino to expand prekindergarten in Boston elementary schools and to develop an early childhood department to support the improvement of prekindergarten and kindergarten teaching and learning. Prekindergarten for four-year-olds in Boston is referred to as K1 and kindergarten as K2. Early in his tenure as early childhood director, Jason Sachs undertook an assessment of prekindergarten teaching and learning using the ECCERs, CLASS, and ELLCO tools, all of which are observation-based measures of classroom quality. This assessment identified the need to improve quality. As a result of this finding, Sachs and his expanded team began development of a K1 curricular model.

The model they developed is anchored by an integrated curriculum composed of the Opening the World of Learning (OWL) curriculum for literacy and the Building Blocks curriculum for math. K1 teachers were supported in implementing this curriculum with professional development, an integrated scope and sequence, a binder of detailed materials, extensive coaching, and professional development on Making Learning Visible, an approach to observing and documenting student learning. Meanwhile, numerous elementary schools underwent NAEYC accreditation during the years in which the K1 model was being implemented. Of 79 elementary schools, 22 are currently accredited and 41 either are receiving or have received accreditation support. The early childhood department continued to assess quality in K1 classrooms using classroom observation tools, conducting regular audits by outside experts to inform the provision of coaching and professional development support.

The above-mentioned Harvard evaluation found that the K1 model was implemented with a high degree of fidelity (over 70%) and that it led to the groundbreaking gains in student learning mentioned above. Sachs attributes the success of the K1 model to (1) its “laser-focus” on a developmentally appropriate, effective curriculum supported by intensive coaching and professional development, (2) a well-compensated teaching staff all of whom have bachelor’s degrees, and (3) the impact of the NAEYC accreditation process.

Boston K1DS: The Context

Thrive in 5’s Executive Director, Jane Tewksbury, explained the rationale behind Boston K1Ds in a letter to the Boston Globe during Boston’s recent mayoral election campaign,

“Boston K1DS is one way to carry out both candidates’ early education agenda that doesn’t rely on the system building its way out of the not-enough-K1-classrooms problem. Supported by a partnership between Boston Public Schools, Thrive in 5, the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care, United Way, and the Barr Foundation, Boston K1DS provides the same curriculum, assessments, and teacher professional development as a traditional K1, but in community-based preschool classrooms. It meets the needs of working families who need full-day, year-round care; improves the quality of community-based early education programs; and increases compensation for early educators, who earn on average just $33,000 a year, far less than the $70,000 average salary of a BPS teacher.”

Getting ready to paint at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Dorchester.
Getting ready to paint at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Dorchester.

Interest in supporting community-based preschool to implement the BPS K1 model predates the EEC Alignment Partnership grant. One early education program, the Boys and Girls Clubs of Dorchester, had already begun implementing the model in one of its preschool classrooms. The demand for K1 seats by families in Boston is high, and BPS has been running out of room to expand K1 classrooms in its elementary schools. Further, the creation of BPS’s K1 program created competition for community-based preschools. Parents have incentives to move their 4-year olds into a K1 if they get into a school of choice in order to secure a place, leaving fewer 4-year olds in community-based preschools. Community-based preschools provide full-day, full-year care for families. In the neighborhoods targeted by Boston K1DS, most families rely on vouchers from the state to cover the cost of preschool, and full-day, full-year care is a resource many families need. Community-based providers argue that the loss of 4-year olds makes it harder for them to maintain their enrollments and cover the cost of serving younger children. This tension is part of the context in which the collaboration between BPS and community-based providers is taking place, a tension that plays out in other EEC Alignment Partnerships as well.

The EEC Birth to Grade Three Alignment Partnership grant created an opportunity for BPS to collaborate with Thrive in 5, a partnership encouraged by the EEC, the Barr Foundation, and other funders. From Thrive in 5’s perspective, Boston K1DS supports its long-term vision of creating a pipeline of programs that are prepared to become community-based K1s. This project supports Thrive in 5’s goal of aligning child experiences, teacher professional development, and assessment tools across community-based and BPS programs. Thrive in 5 aims to develop a replicable model, a clearly defined product, married to the QRIS system that can be widely adopted to improve community-based preschool quality while garnering the financial support of funders.

Boston K1DS: The Model

Theory of Action

This graphic, created by Sachs and the Boston K1DS evaluators, summarizes the Boston K1DS theory of change. The stated goals of Boston K1DS are as follows: “(1) retain highly qualified staff, (2) implement an evidence-based literacy- and math-rich curriculum, and (3) maintain full-day/full-year services that working parents depend on.” BPS began the K1DS project by soliciting interest from community-based preschool programs. An important stipulation was that the lead teachers in each classroom have a BA, as seen in the following eligibility criteria:

  • Licensed by the MA Dept. of Early Education and Care;
  • Must be located in the “Circle of Promise” or East Boston (relatively low-income neighborhoods);
  • Be NAEYC-accredited or willing to pursue accreditation;
  • Education, lead teacher: minimum BA degree, with 4-6 courses in early childhood education and three years of EC teaching experience. Assistant teacher: minimum AA in early childhood or CDA, and one year of teaching experience.
  • 1:10 teacher-student ratio;
  •  Programs must operate on a full-day, year-round basis;
  •  At least 80% of enrolled children must be Boston residents.

The Early Childhood Department conducted site visits and identified programs that would participate in the project, yielding 9 K1DS classrooms in addition to the already-implementing Boys and Girls Clubs of Dorchester classroom. Thrive in 5 identified an additional four classrooms for a total of 14. At this juncture the lead teachers in the BPS 10 classrooms are receiving a compensation increase for their participation; due to the initial funding constraints of the grant, the Thrive in 5 classrooms are not. BPS and Thrive in 5 are currently attempting to raise money for the teachers supported by Thrive in 5 as well. See here for a list of participating programs.

Beginning last spring, participating teachers were provided with instructional materials, and BPS held whole group professional development in the integrated BPS K1 OWL and Building Blocks curricula. In addition to the whole group workshops, BPS coaches provide customized on-site support to all the teachers, a crucial component of the project’s support structure. Concurrently, BPS and Thrive in 5 are holding monthly meetings for the directors of the participating early education and care programs. These meetings also play a critical role in the project. They serve as a forum for administrative decision-making, coordination, and problem-solving, and in addition BPS has used them to showcase BPS and non-profit resources that are available to the community-based programs. The directors have expressly requested using meeting time to focus on curriculum fidelity, which is seen by K1DS leaders as an indication of the directors’ commitment to the project. As is the case in Somerville and Springfield, the directors meetings have led to the development of trust and stronger relationships and “spillover” collaboration beyond the scope of the K1DS project.

BPS has developed an effective, developmentally-appropriate prekindergarten curriculum. The district has also developed the internal capacity—a coaching staff—that supports well-compensated, educated teachers in implementing this curriculum. Boston K1DS is a pilot to determine if the model, in conjunction with a compensation boost, can be implemented in community-based classrooms with similar results. Future posts will explore the implementation of the K1 curriculum, the perspectives of participating teachers and directors, coaching practices, and other aspects of the K1DS project.

[1] All the adults at Paige Academy are referred to as Sister and Brother and their first name.

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. 


The Learning Hub is launching this week. The website is a simple, homemade one that we can use as a sort of pilot. It will give us an opportunity to try out different ideas and approaches, and most importantly, to gather your feedback. I’ll be sending out a survey in a few weeks. In the meantime, please share your thoughts and reactions. Based on this initial experience, we will be in a good position to enlist professional website design expertise.

See this page for an explanation of the role of the Hub and this one for three overarching strategies for carrying out the Birth-Third agenda. The blog is starting off with two context-setting pieces: an overview of the original five Birth-Third Alignment Partnerships supported by the MA Department of Early Education and Care and a summary of Birth-Third leader Kristie Kauerz’ presentation in Springfield. Kristie reviews the research on brain development and achievement disparities and then presents the evaluation framework she and Julia Coffman have created.

Upcoming posts will address joint public/private professional development initiatives in Somerville and Springfield, the implementation of Boston Public Schools’ pre-kindergarten curriculum in community-based pre-kindergartens, Pittsfield’s community-wide strategy for dramatically increasing reading proficiency by 2020, and Lowell’s alignment and school readiness work across family childcare providers, center-based providers, and the public schools. Some of these are longer mini-case studies as I set the current stage for future posts. I hope to follow with some shorter posts as well.

The site will begin to fill up quickly, and down the road I expect to develop both case studies and guidance documents based on trends and patterns that emerge across the Birth-Third initiatives covered in the blog.

My plan is to post more substantial pieces on Tuesdays and notices here and there as they turn up while continuing to develop the tools and resources sections. Please share tools you think other communities can use or get ideas from, and I welcome suggestions regarding resources as well.

Thanks to the many Birth-Third leaders across Massachusetts who have shared their time, perspectives, insights, and wisdom with me over the last few years. And yes, for sending me all your notes and documents. I look forward to continuing to work with you. Feel free to reach out if I can be of help.

“Improbable Scholars” author David Kirp in Somerville

Somerville is graciously sharing a video of David Kirp’s talk about the Union City, NJ success story: https://vimeo.com/89543325

Also see the links below for Kirp’s NYT op-ed and Somerville Mayor Curtatone’s article on the Universal Kindergarten Readiness plan. Here is a link to Somerville’s plan.

For additional resources on Union City see PreK-3rd’s Lasting Architecture: Successfully Serving Linguistically and Culturally Diverse Students in Union City, New Jersey (Marietta and Marietta) and Education Reform Starts Early: Lessons from New Jersey’s PreK-3rd Reform Efforts (Mead). 


In his book about how one of New Jersey’s lowest-achieving school systems became a “poster child for educational reform,” David L. Kirp, a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkley, describes a “universal approach that builds on existing strengths and a belief in public schools as the place for students to succeed.”

This discussion coincides with an innovative approach recently recommended by the City of Somerville and the Somerville Public Schools to develop a Universal Kindergarten Readiness strategy.   Professor Kirp will discuss successful strategies that Somerville can adapt for its own student population.

David L. Kirp discusses Union City, NJ in the New York Times:  http://nyti.ms/1mFugxY

Mayor Curtatone discusses Somerville’s new public/private kindergarten readiness strategy:  http://www.thesomervilletimes.com/archives/46890#more-46890

For another helpful reference on Birth-Third in New Jersey, and specifically on three Abbott communities, see Sara Mead’s paper, Education Reform Starts Early: Lessons from New Jersey’s PreK-3rd Reform Efforts.

David Kirp
“Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools”
Wednesday, March 12, 2014 from 7:00-8:30pm
East Somerville Community School
50 Cross Street, Somerville, MA 02145

National Leader Kristie Kauerz In Springfield: “This is Our Window of Opportunity.”

The Case for Improvement and Alignment

Springfield held a Pre-K through Grade 3 conference on November 4 as part of its Birth through Grade Three Alignment Partnership work. The conference brought together senior district leaders, principals, preschool directors and teachers, and representatives from community organizations. The centerpiece of the day was a presentation by Kristie Kauerz, a national leader in the P-3/Birth -Third movement.[1] Kristie was formerly the director of Harvard’s Pre-K-3rd initiative and is currently a research scientist at the University of Washington in Seattle, where she is starting a national P-3 Center.

Kristie’s presentation and the discussion it provoked provide a compelling summary of the research that underlies the Birth through Grade Three movement, an introduction to an important Birth-Third framework, and useful advice and tips based on the experience of communities around the country. Below I share a few highlights.

Dan Warwick medium
Dan Warwick, Springfield’s superintendent of schools, opened the conference saying, “If students are reading proficiently by grade 3, they will graduate. This is vital for our community, but it takes a community, an entire community effort. If we get this right, we could change the city of Springfield.”

Brain Development

Kauerz discussed a number of findings from the research on brain development that show the importance of supporting learning and development in children’s first five years. Kauerz shared pictures that illustrate the extraordinarily rapid development of neural connections in the first six years, some of which then atrophy by year 14. According to Kauerz, “What stays are the connections that are reinforced. If we are reinforcing the good things, they stick around.” She emphasized the integrated nature of cognitive, social, and emotional development, saying you can’t tease them apart or do one without the other. While reading proficiency by grade three is an important goal of P-3 efforts, it is one goal of several inter-connected ones, including not only social, emotional, and physical development, but also early mathematical learning. Kauerz notes that preschool math skills have been shown to be an even better predictor of later learning than early literacy skills.

The upshot of the research on brain development: the ability to change brain development and behavior decreases over the lifespan, but happily never bottoms out. We can all keep learning. It is, however, easier, and cheaper for that matter, to influence brain development and behaviors in the early years. “This is our window of opportunity,” says Kauerz.

For helpful visuals on the science of brain development, see Five Numbers to Remember About Early Child Development and Core Concepts in the Science of Early Childhood Development.

Disadvantage and Disparity

Kauerz points out that there has only been “marginal” improvement in NAEP scores in recent decades and that large achievement gaps remain. Gaps between white and black children are present by age 2 and are larger by kindergarten. Yet it is the gap between low socio-economic and more affluent children that has become the biggest achievement gap. Kauerz shared the graph below, showing evidence of the low-income gap by age 2 and consistently increasing at each step from age 2 to age 4 to kindergarten to first grade to fifth grade. As Kauerz pointed out, “there is work to do at each of these points.”

DisparitiesQuality in Classroom from Prekindergarten through Third Grade: Low Instructional Support

The Center for the Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning at the University of Virginia used the CLASS classroom observation tool to assess quality across the prekindergarten through third grade span in classrooms across the United States. Kauerz emphasized that the study found emotional support to be reasonably good across the spectrum, including in K-3 classrooms, contrary to what some think about early elementary classrooms. Classroom organization was scored slightly lower than emotional support. The big problem, however, was in instructional support, which hovers around 2 on a scale of 7. “This is what we need to be worried about,” says Kauerz. Two-thirds of the students in the study experienced inconsistent instructional support as they progressed from first to third to fifth grade, and one-fifth of students experienced consistently low quality instructional support across these grades.

The P-3 Approach: What If?

Kauerz sees the P-3 approach as a means to address the need to improve learning and development in the first 9 years of life, thereby improving learning for all and reducing gaps. She uses a metaphor to explain her vision of what an aligned P-3 system would look like, comparing toy building blocks to pop beads.

Source: Kauerz, K. (4 Nov 2013). Presentation to Springfield's Leadership Conference.
Source: Kauerz, K. (4 Nov 2013). Presentation to Springfield’s Leadership Conference.

Instead of each silo as a separate building block, pop beads suggest separate pieces, each of which needs independent work but that are connected to each other, yielding a connected, flexible continuum when attached.

Kauerz sets forth as the goals of the P-3 approach three outcomes:

  1. Developing strong foundational cognitive skills;
  2. Developing social and emotional competence; and
  3. Establishing patterns of student engagement in school and learning.

Kauerz shares an inspiring “what if” graph that illustrates a vision of the possibilities successful P-3 work can bring about, a progression of reducing rather than expanding gaps. (For another inspiring graph of the possibility of reducing gaps by “intervening again and again,” see this simulation of the impact of multiple interventions.)

Source: Kauerz, K. (4 Nov 2013). Presenta<on to Springfield's Leadership Conference. Springfield, MA
Source: Kauerz, K. (4 Nov 2013).
Presentation to Springfield’s Leadership
Conference. Springfield, MA.

Framework for Planning, Implementing, and Evaluating PreK-3rd Grade Approaches

Kauerz and her colleague Julia Coffman have developed a P-3 Framework that describes the components of P-3 work. This framework includes 8 domains of activity, each fleshed out with a goal, strategies and example indicators. This framework incorporates lessons from communities that have successfully implemented P-3 initiatives, such as Montgomery County, MD and Union City, NJ, as well as input from experts and practitioners in 11 states. (Teams from Holyoke, Springfield, and Worcester provided feedback on the framework at a meeting at Harvard in 2012.)

Source: Kauerz, K. (4 Nov 2013). Presentation to Springfield's Leadership Conference. Springfield, MA.
Source: Kauerz, K. (4 Nov
2013). Presentation to
Springfield’s Leadership
Conference. Springfield, MA.

Kauerz emphasizes that people should not follow the framework like a recipe and instead advises that communities “choose 3-5 things to do really well.” Communities that have successfully done this work had a “laser-like focus” on a small set of goals.

The Work of Implementation

In the discussion that followed her presentation, Kauerz shared the following advice regarding implementing P-3 efforts:

  • Priority. Moving beyond superficial implementation requires that leaders make difficult choices about how they are spending money and the initiatives underway in their districts. These choices may require shifting funds from less impactful initiatives and strategically reviewing the accumulation of initiatives to determine what to continue and what to stop.
  • Ownership. Kauerz cites instances in which groups have convened to meet and talk about P-3, sometimes on an ongoing basis, but the real work isn’t taking hold. It is critical to build ownership and buy-in among stakeholders, including teachers, if P-3 work is going to have an impact. She cites this example from Chicago in which a partnership started over when it realized it wasn’t making progress.
  • Progress-monitoring. Communities cannot wait until “the end” of their initiative to see if they are having an impact. Implementing P-3 requires an extended period of time, but it is critical to monitor progress in an ongoing fashion so that leaders can address problems and make adjustments to ensure that work is leading to improved outcomes for children.
  • State Agency Alignment and Misalignment. An audience member noted instances in which districts get conflicting messages from state agencies, whose policies and guidelines are not always aligned. Kauerz mentioned the need for “barrier-busting meetings” in these cases, highlighting the need for multiple state agencies to work collaboratively with districts to address alignment issues.
  • False Dichotomies: The Developmentally Appropriate Question. In response to the familiar concern that academic curricula or teaching methods will be “pushed down” from 1 to K to PreK, Kauerz emphasized that P-3 alignment is sometimes hindered by “false dichotomies.” Yes, there are instances of schools in which kindergarten teaching is not developmentally appropriate, and this is an important concern. But our impressions about the quality of teaching and learning in other sectors are not always accurate, as indicated by the high degree of emotional support the University of Virginia study found in K-3 classrooms. Elementary schools use the term differentiated instruction to refer to meeting students where they are, much as early childhood educators use the term “developmentally appropriate.” Whereas early childhood educators talk about the importance of play, K-12 educators are interested in “experiential learning.” As these examples show, vocabulary can become a barrier. Regarding what she regards as false dichotomies, Kauerz asks, “Is your P-3 work an “Us” effort or an “Us vs. Them” effort?”

Two Kristie Kauerz Recommended Books on Successful P-3 Approaches

Leading for Equity: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Montgomery County Public Schools.

Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools.

[1] A note on terminology: Different terms are used to describe the movement to improve and align education and care from before birth through third grade. Kauerz uses “P-3” to refer to everything before (i.e., “pre-“) school through third grade. Others, including the MA EEC and this blog, use the term Birth through Grade Three (Birth-Third).

Five Communities to Watch

Massachusetts Birth-Third Alignment Partnerships

Over time the Birth-Third Learning Hub aspires to examine the broad range of efforts underway in Massachusetts to improve outcomes for young children. Five communities in particular provide an important stream of information and experience regarding Birth-Third strategies. Boston, Lowell, Pittsfield, Somerville, and Springfield received Birth through Grade Three Alignment Partnership grants in 2012 from the Department of Early Education and Care (EEC) to deepen their early years work. Additional grants for a second round of Alignment Partnerships will be announced in March. Cambridge Education is documenting  the original five partnerships for the EEC, and this blog is part of an effort to share the experiences the five partnerships have had thus far.

Funded by the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top -Early Learning Challenge program, the EEC has awarded each of these communities $100,000 grants for each of two years. (In Boston, the Boston Public Schools and the city’s community-based preschool collaborative, Thrive in Five, both were awarded $100,000 grants for a combined initiative that also includes philanthropic investment.)

Each community has formed a Birth through Grade Three Alignment Partnership composed of community-based preschool providers, a school district, each community’s Community Family and Community Engagement (CFCE) grantee, each community’s Educator and Provider Support grantee, and other organizations. Three partnerships are led by school districts (Boston, Lowell, and Somerville), one by the local United Way (Pittsfield), and one by a preschool organization (Springfield).

These five communities are especially good candidates for learning about implementation efforts. Building on previous foundational work, they are implementing a diverse range of promising strategies, and they vary in terms of community size and stage of project development.

Community District Enrollment % Low-Income Lead Organization Primary Use of Funds
Boston 55,114 71.7% Boston Public Schools/Thrive in Five Coach/
Lowell 13,879 75% Lowell Public Schools Consultant/Coaches
Pittsfield 5,987 56.5% Berkshire United Way Coordinator
Somerville 4,922 69.2% Somerville Public Schools Coordinator
Springfield 25,283 87.5% Square One (CB Provider) Coordinator/Consultant

Project Strategies. As described further below and in subsequent posts, the communities’ strategies differ both in terms of how developed they were at the onset of the grant and whether the thrust of their work is targeted on specific classrooms, preschool centers, and schools, or aimed more broadly at the community level. Boston and Pittsfield are building on previously established initiatives and thus began the grant with relatively well-developed strategies in place. Boston’s project targets 14 community-based classrooms; Pittsfield is implementing a city-wide (and increasingly county-wide) strategic plan.  Lowell, Somerville, and Springfield, while building on past efforts, have formed new leadership groups and developed new strategies during the grant process, strategies with both targeted and community-wide prongs.

Here are brief descriptions of each community’s strategy. Future posts will explore each community’s work and cross-cutting patterns in more depth (in alphabetical order).

Mather SchoolBoston. The Boston Public Schools (BPS) and Thrive in Five are supporting 14 community-based preschool classrooms in implementing the BPS pre-kindergarten model. This model includes literacy and math curricula, professional development, coaching, and additional compensation for most of the participating teachers. Rigorous internal and external evaluations have found that Boston’s pre-kindergarten model has led to growth in language, math, executive function, and self-regulation skills. The BPS pre-kindergarten model has received national attention due to the size of the child outcomes, the scale of implementation (2,300 students), and the impact on multiple domains (Evidence Base on Preschool Education). BPS is committed to supporting the implementation of its pre-kindergarten model in additional community-based classrooms if this pilot study yields outcomes comparable to those in BPS classrooms. EEC funding is supporting a coach and professional development for each site and is supplemented by philanthropic funding.

Lowell. In Lowell, the CFCE, led by the early childhood department of the school district, is targeting two low-income neighborhoods, each of which includes a participating school, a preschool center, and family childcare providers. The alignment leadership team is focused on improving quality through the QRIS process, school readiness, formative assessment, and family engagement. The project supports communities of practice for center-based staff and family childcare providers, the use of CLASS observations in schools and preschool classrooms to inform center and school improvement priorities, and training in Teaching Strategies Gold. Through its initial alignment discussions, the Lowell partnership identified school readiness as an important issue and has begun additional work developing a school readiness definition and action plan for the broader community. Lowell has hired Early Childhood associates as a consultant to support the design and implementation of its strategy.

IMG_2684Pittsfield. In 2012, community leaders in Pittsfield committed to the Pittsfield Promise, a community initiative to achieve a single goal: “By 2020, 90% of Pittsfield students will achieve reading proficiency as demonstrated by 3rd grade standardized tests.” Berkshire United Way serves as “backbone” organization, and the Pittsfield Promise has the support of a broad range of community institutions, including the local hospital, library, museum, and newspaper. The community has developed a strategic plan based on five strategies that are being developed and carried out through a network of six committees. The EEC grant supports a coordinator, a staff member of Berkshire United Way, to support and align the work of these committees around the following priorities: family engagement (including a city-wide literacy campaign and home visiting), preschool participation, quality and alignment, and out-of-school time.

Members of the Somerville Kindergarten Readiness Group in small group discussion.

Somerville. Building on a history of strong support for families, the Somerville Public Schools formed a new alignment leadership group to guide the work of the EEC grant and hired a full-time project coordinator. Somerville’s leadership team has developed a strategy that has four main components:

  • A Kindergarten Readiness Group composed of community-based preschool teachers and leaders and public school kindergarten teachers that is focused on aligning EEC and Common Core standards and using developmentally-appropriate practice to meet standards.
  • Literacy coaching using the ELLCO as an observational tool for 8 preschool classrooms (2 Head Start classrooms, 2 public school, and 4 community-based). Lead teachers and their co-teachers are participating in coaching and whole-group activities. The Alignment Partnership is also offering a language and literacy full-day workshop plus two follow-up mentoring sessions to an additional 20 teachers.
  • Training in Teaching Strategies Gold for community-based preschool teachers.
  • A new online resource for families with young children and outreach by community organizations teaching adults how to use it.

Springfield. The Springfield Alignment Partnership, led by Square One, a community-based preschool provider, builds on a history of collaboration between the school district and the preschool community as well as on the Davis Foundation’s Read! Reading Success by Fourth Grade initiative. Its leadership steering committee has hired a staff person at Square One to coordinate the work with the help of an outside consultant. Springfield’s project is organized around three broad strategies: Curricular and Assessment Alignment, Teacher and Adult Caregiver Capacity/Quality, and Data Use and Strategic Planning. Planned activities include selecting and/or developing an early education curriculum for the community and identifying standards to focus on across public and private settings, including common developmental domains in Teaching Strategies Gold and shared social-emotional standards. The partnership will then provide professional development and outreach around these domains and standards, identify common formative assessments to use across preschool settings, expand teacher-to-teacher observations, and share kindergarten assessment data with pre-kindergarten providers. Springfield has re-instituted monthly “PLCs” of community-based and public preschool and kindergarten teachers that participate in shared professional development and conduct cross-site classroom observations.

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.