COVID-19 has exposed a fundamental truth about our systems of education, health, and social services: They are fragmented and siloed, thwarting efforts to improve the quality of learning and care for children. Nowhere is this clearer than in the schools, preschools, and community programs that serve the 44% of U.S. children under 9 identified as low-income. The lack of collaboration and shared vision among these systems means that the extraordinary efforts of people who work on the frontlines are severely handicapped in meeting the needs of children and families.
As we rethink national and state education policies, and as we rebuild schooling and caregiving, we must ensure that the schools and programs that serve children and their families work together at the local level where it matters most.
For over a decade, I’ve studied the work of innovative communities nationwide where just this sort of collaboration is in full force. Preschools, elementary schools, and community health and social service organizations join forces to create and carry out a clear equity agenda that focuses on improving the quality of life for low-income children and their families and children of color and their families. Their successes provide a road map to reinventing early childhood education that begins with three core design principles:
Connect Early Years and Early Grades. When early childhood and K–12 educators collaborate, they can ensure high-quality learning for children. Yet this seldom happens. Instead, we have created two systems with very different philosophies and practices for children of similar ages. The innovative communities that I’ve studied bring early childhood programs together with elementary schools to align curricula, work on how best to teach young children, and develop common approaches to supporting families. As a result, children’s learning can proceed smoothly, consistently, and successfully.
Deepen Partnerships with Families. It’s time to move beyond “random acts of family engagement” like occasional back-to-school nights. Research shows that families play a vital role in children’s success in school, and schools and communities must make two major shifts to support families in this role. The first shift is one of mindset: begin with respect for families and their contributions, be responsive to families’ cultural traditions, invite families to participate as full partners in school affairs, and promote families’ development as leaders. These changes must be coupled with new structures to support families with comprehensive services such as family liaison positions, family resource centers, and well-thought-out partnerships with health and social service agencies.
Strengthen Communities. Harvard’s Opportunity Insights project has shown that of all government policies, investments in low-income children have the highest returns and pay for themselves. The project’s researchers have also demonstrated that the neighborhoods where children grow up have enormous impacts on children’s future social mobility. They conclude that, “The broader lesson of our analysis is that social mobility should be tackled at a local level by improving childhood environments.” Here the first two design principles come together with a third: the most powerful way to improve childhood environments is to implement comprehensive strategies across the elementary schools, early childhood programs, and health and social service agencies that serve children and families in the same community.
Translating principles into action:How does life change for children in these communities? Communities in Maine, Nebraska, Oregon, and Pennsylvania are improving home visiting, family childcare, preschool, and Head Start programs. They are finding new, more effective ways to help children acquire key literacy, math, and social-emotional skills. Families are receiving the health, mental health, and social service support they need to build on their strengths and overcome challenges. Schools, preschools, and community agencies are coordinating their work: sharing data, aligning curricula, supporting children and families through the transition to kindergarten, and leading community-wide campaigns on parenting, school attendance, and early literacy. They are sustaining this work during COVID-19. These communities are demonstrating how to create coherent systems. They are showing us the way forward to better futures for children and families.
Save the Dates. Such great work happening all around the country. We have lined up four engaging panels of fantastic leaders to share their expertise and experience. Our theme: Advancing equity through comprehensive approaches that address teaching and learning, deep family engagement, health and social service supports, and continuous improvement.
Excited to be working with terrific partners at AASA (The Superintendents Association), NAESP, CCSSO, New America, and the Early Childhood State Specialists in State Departments of Education to organize this event. Stay tuned for registration information.
“ESSA requires school districts that receive Title 1 funding to coordinate with Head Start programs, and it gives states the flexibility to expand early childhood, incorporate early learning into school improvement plans, improve transitions to kindergarten, and improve educator professional learning. How should states and communities best take advantage of these opportunities? What would continuity of high-quality experiences look like in practice, and what are the implications for state and community system-building?
I suggest that leading-edge school and community partnerships focused on the first decade of children’s lives can help answer these questions and provide new direction to states and communities as they implement ESSA plans.”
“As Jacobson shared, First 10 initiatives can occur in two formats: First 10 School Hubs and First 10 Community Partnerships. First 10 School Hubs are organized around a single elementary school. Emphasis is placed on play-based, developmentally appropriate learning, and transitions from families, to child care and pre-K programs, through the elementary grades. Comprehensive services and supports are provided to families in their local school facilities, community centers, and homes.
First 10 School Hubs purposefully engage families in the neighborhood with children from newborns through the early years. Many host play-and-learn or parent-child interaction groups to foster a dialogue around strategies that help children develop and learn, and provide resources that caretakers can practice at home. The Superintendents’ Early Childhood Plan in Metro Omaha includes a School as Hub component, where a full-time home visitor and family facilitator conduct home visits and hold monthly parent-child interaction groups. Home visiting staff and family facilitators have fifteen families in their caseload at once, allowing them to build deep, trusting relationships over time.
The second format, First 10 Community Partnerships, unify a wide network of regional or district-wide schools, service providers, and families, into a cohesive system. For example, Cambridge Massachusetts’ Birth-3rd Grade Partnerships are bringing together a broad range of stakeholders to improve outcomes for children. …
To sustain and expand programming, Jacobson advises that states play a larger role by increasing investments and implementing policies that allow First 10 Schools and Communities to thrive, as Oregon has done. He recommends that states provide aligned standards and assessments across the early years and technical assistance to help staff with implementation. Pointing to the successes of the SUN Service System, Jacobson asserted, ‘I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Multnomah County is in the state of Oregon.’
Moving forward, Jacobson envisions a system synergizing First 10 Schools Hubs and First 10 Community Partnerships, a model that has not yet been implemented. As Jacobson summarized, ‘This convergent First 10 approach acknowledges a fundamental interdependence between schools, families, and communities. The success of each is integrally bound up with the success of others.'”
For a helpful introduction to the First 10 study, see Eye on Early Education’s review, Addressing the Gaps in Children’s First 10 Years. Eye on Early Educationis the blog of Massachusetts’ early childhood advocacy organization, Strategies for Children.With its Massachusetts audience in mind, this post highlights examples of First 10 work in Boston, Cambridge, and Lowell. The First 10 study also includes examples from California, Illinois, Maryland, Nebraska, Ohio, and Oregon.
The P-3 Learning Hub is changing its name. We are now called First 10.
For the past two years I have been working on a study funded by the Heising-Simons Foundation. The study investigates community initiatives that combine improving teaching and learning in the early grades with strong family partnerships and comprehensive services—all underpinned by a deep commitment to educational equity. The study provided a great opportunity to talk with community leaders in 18 communities throughout the country and conduct site visits to six of them. The innovative work these communities are doing is inspiring.
My experience learning about these communities has convinced me that we need a new name for this powerful combination of strategies. Further, the name needs to communicate the importance of collaboration between school districts, elementary schools, and other early childhood organizations and programs. As I explain here, I follow Arthur Reynolds and Judy Temple in defining early childhood as roughly the first decade of life, and with this in mind I call these important community initiatives First 10 Schools and Communities.
The report includes 7 key findings regarding First 10 initiatives. Informed by the experiences of the communities I profile in the study, I propose a new theory of action that outlines the roles that First 10 Schools and Communities can play to improve teaching, learning, and care in the first decade of children’s lives.
Moving forward, this website and the related research and technical assistance projects my colleagues and I do will focus on supporting First 10 initiatives. (And by the way, the url you have been using will continue to work, but our primary domain is now first10.org.)
“On a June morning in this rural eastern North Carolina community, about a dozen families grabbed the edges of a rainbow parachute, making plastic balls bounce in its ripples. Grandparents, parents and children switched between water games, parachute activities and swing-sets spread across a playground.
The fun and games are serious business to the group that runs them, the Down East Partnership for Children, a 25-year-old nonprofit that provides educational and health resources to families of young children in rural Nash and Edgecombe counties. The goal of these meetings is to highlight the importance of basic interactions between parents and their kids.
Playgroups are held at least twice a month for families with children from birth to 5 years old. The meetings are a way for families to meet other families, get connected with resources and prepare children for kindergarten. Families often need support in this part of the state, an area struggling to keep up with the economic growth of the high-tech Triangle region, the metropolitan home of the state capital, Raleigh, about an hour away.
‘The ultimate goal of Play and Learn groups is to strengthen [the] parent-child bond,” said Cornelia Singletary, Down East’s family services program manager. “For families who are hesitant about putting their child in a formal child care setting, this is kind of like a little preschool, but you get to be with your child.’”
“In many cities and towns across the United States, elementary schools are forging deeper partnerships with families and community organizations well before children arrive at kindergarten. The aim of this work is to improve children’s experiences and family engagement and support along the entire continuum from prenatal care through grade 3 and beyond.
This potent combination of educational supports and family services is the single best strategy we have to address pernicious opportunity gaps and raise achievement for low-income children. Communities such as Cincinnati, Ohio; Omaha, Neb., and Multnomah County, Ore., are embracing this approach to tackle persistent poverty, family instability, the hollowing out of the middle class, and the demand for a more highly skilled workforce.”