David Kirp on Community Schools and High-Quality PreK in Tulsa

David Kirp’s recent New York Times op-ed on community schools in Tulsa is getting a lot of attention. Kirp is also the author of Improbable Scholars, which tells the story of how Union City, NJ has achieved remarkable educational results, including its well-known P-3 work.

Here are a few select quotations from the NYT article on Tulsa:

“The school district also realized, as Ms. Burden put it, that “focusing entirely on academics wasn’t enough, especially for poor kids.” Beginning in 2004, Union started revamping its schools into what are generally known as community schools. These schools open early, so parents can drop off their kids on their way to work, and stay open late and during summers. They offer students the cornucopia of activities — art, music, science, sports, tutoring — that middle-class families routinely provide. They operate as neighborhood hubs, providing families with access to a health care clinic in the school or nearby; connecting parents to job-training opportunities; delivering clothing, food, furniture and bikes; and enabling teenage mothers to graduate by offering day care for their infants.”

“The truth is that school systems improve not through flash and dazzle but by linking talented teachers, a challenging curriculum and engaged students. This is Union’s not-so-secret sauce: Start out with an academically solid foundation, then look for ways to keep getting better.”

“Union’s model begins with high-quality prekindergarten, which enrolls almost 80 percent of the 4-year-olds in the district. And it ends at the high school, which combines a collegiate atmosphere — lecture halls, student lounges and a cafeteria with nine food stations that dish up meals like fish tacos and pasta puttanesca — with the one-on-one attention that characterizes the district.”

“Under the radar, from Union City, N.J., and Montgomery County, Md., to Long Beach and Gardena, Calif., school systems with sizable numbers of students from poor families are doing great work. These ordinary districts took the time they needed to lay the groundwork for extraordinary results.”

New Article in Kappan Magazine

Kappan Magazine has just published an article I wrote , The Primary Years Agenda: Strategies to Guide District Action. I draw on examples from Massachusetts and other states to make the case for three Birth-3rd strategies. These strategies are as relevant to communities as they are to districts. They are intended to help set priorities and “chunk the work for action.” Here is the abstract:

School districts on the leading edge of the Birth through Third Grade movement have demonstrated unprecedented success raising the achievement of low-income students by developing coherent strategies focused on the early years of learning and development. These communities are not merely improving preschool. Rather, they are building aligned, high-quality early education systems. Building such systems requires that school and district leaders embrace improving early education as a strategic priority and provide leadership in implementing three overarching strategies in their communities.

Massachusetts Full-Service Program Yields Results in Elementary Schools

By the start of middle school, The Afterschool Corp. estimates that children in poverty have received 6,000 fewer hours of learning outside of school—both enrichment and support—than their middle-income peers. While many programs target low-income students who are struggling academically or emotionally, it can be more difficult to find enrichment activities to build on the strengths and interests of students progressing normally in school.

To fill those gaps, some elementary schools in two states—Massachusetts and Ohio—are working to better coordinate with local partners to provide the kinds of cultural and extracurricular experiences, as well as social services and supports, that boost all students’ long-term academic progress.

From Learning Payoff Found for ‘City Connects’ Program in Education Week.

May 13 Round-Up


Formative Assessment: Guidance for Early Childhood Policymakers. Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes at NIERR.
This policy report provides a guide and framework to early childhood policymakers considering formative assessment. The report defines formative assessment and outlines its process and application in the context of early childhood.  This guide provides a practical roadmap for decision-makers by offering several key questions to consider in the process of selecting, supporting, and using data to inform and improve instruction.

Resources for Early Learning. MA Department of Early Education and Care
This site provides engaging media-rich learning opportunities for educators, parents, and caregivers of children.

Lead Early Educators for Success by the Language Diversity and Literacy Development Research Group at Harvard is a series of briefs written for leaders dedicated to promoting children’s learning and development through high-quality early education. The series focuses on supporting early educators to cultivate high-quality learning environments by revisiting assumptions that guide current policies and practices, outlining common pitfalls, and presenting actionable strategies for pressing issues.

Making Space: The Value of Teacher Collaboration. The Rennie Center and EdVestors.
This report takes a look at how five Boston schools have successfully built teachers’ social capital, using the power of the collective to drive impressive gains in student performance. The findings support the consensus that purposeful teacher collaboration is a crucial element to improved school performance.

Family Engagement is Much More than Volunteering at School by Laura Bornfreund, New America Foundation.
“A recent commentary at the New York Times explored the findings from a study on parental involvement. The authors of the study found that the common types of parental involvement, like volunteering more at school or attending school events, don’t improve student achievement. And they’re right. “Random acts of parent involvement” aren’t enough. Other research shows that schools need to do more, especially to engage struggling families. The bottom line: Parent/family involvement must be ‘Beyond the Bake Sale.’” 

Nonprofit and For-Profit Partners Help Cincinnati Transform Its Failing Schools.
“Districts thinking of embracing this “whole child” approach to education might want to look at a nationally recognized model: Cincinnati Public Schools. Community schools are based on the idea that the school is the hub of a community – a place where students can get all their needs met, including health and dental care, counseling and after-school programs. The theory behind this approach is that when students’ needs are taken care of – whether it’s a toothache or stress in the family – they can focus on academics.


Last Tuesday representatives from six Massachusetts communities came together at the Turnaround with Wraparound Showcase to share their experiences improving the services and supports they provide to children and families. Select schools in Fall River, Holyoke, Lynn, Springfield, Wareham, and Worcester are all part of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s (ESE) Wraparound Zone Initiative, in which improving “wraparound” services is a component of the turnaround strategies of low-performing schools.

For the leaders of Lowell’s Birth-Third initiative, it was important from the outset that their project be broad in scope, spanning the Birth-Third continuum by developing meaningful roles for family childcare providers, community-based preschools, and elementary schools.

Lowell’s communities of practice are a direct form of professional development that reaches both family childcare providers and community-based centers using the FCCERS-R and ECERS-R tools. They show that even within the boundary-spanning work that Birth-Third improvement requires there is a critical role for tailored work within sectors on improving quality.

Learning from the Wraparound Zone Initiative

Last Tuesday representatives from six Massachusetts communities came together at the Turnaround with Wraparound Showcase to share their experiences improving the services and supports they provide to children and families. Select schools in Fall River, Holyoke, Lynn, Springfield, Wareham, and Worcester are all part of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s (ESE) Wraparound Zone Initiative, in which improving “wraparound” services is a component of the turnaround strategies of low-performing schools.

For the past several years, these communities have been working to address the full spectrum of student non-academic needs by improving school and district systems and collaborating with community providers. Providing comprehensive student supports is one of three overarching strategies that I suggest form the Birth-Third Agenda, and wraparound strategies often include a significant focus on early childhood and early literary. As such, the experiences these communities have had is a rich source of information for Birth-Third efforts. In this post I introduce the Wraparound Zone Initiative drawing on the early childhood and early literacy efforts underway in Worcester and Holyoke.


The idea of creating wraparound zones was inspired by the Harlem Children’s Zone and the community schools movement, both of which are inspirations for Birth-Third reform as well. The School and Main Institute provides technical assistance and networking support to the Wraparound Zone Initiative in collaboration with the ESE. The goal of the Wraparound Zone Initiative is to address students’ non-academic needs, especially social-emotional needs, and promote positive school cultures. The ESE and the School and Main Institute emphasize that wraparound is intended to be a systemic whole school approach rather than one directed only at the highest-risk students, and they place priority on “rethinking and strengthening district systems.” The featured graphic at the top of this post shows three systems intended to improve the quality of support for children’s needs while promoting positive school cultures:

  • Systems for identifying and addressing academic and non-academic/social-emotional needs,
  • Systems for aligning community resources and support, and
  • Systems of district support.

Worcester’s Attendance Matters Initiative

Worcester has selected the issue of chronic absenteeism as the initial focus of much of its wraparound work (along with outreach to families regarding early literacy practices). The Worcester Public Schools has partnered with the Worcester Education Collaborative, a nonprofit organization, on a joint initiative to improve “learning readiness.” Influenced in part by the Campaign for Grade Level Reading, this partnership began investigating school attendance in the Worcester Public Schools. As in many school systems, the overall attendance rate was not a concern, but a closer examination of data revealed a significant chronic absenteeism issue among a subset of students, including a disproportionate number of preschoolers.


The partnership undertook a root cause analysis to identify the key factors driving chronic absenteeism among this subset, explains Robert Jennings, Worcester’s Wraparound coordinator, and Jennifer Davis-Carey, who leads the Worcester Education Collaborative. One important finding was that many of the students who are chronically absent live just inside the 2 mile radius around the school. Students outside this radius are eligible for bus transportation. The partnership’s research found that in many cases a parent walks 1.7 to 1.9 miles four times a day (to school and back for drop-off and pick-up) with younger children who weren’t yet of school age in tow.  In response the partnership is developing strategies for preschool and kindergarten children in particular. These include using early warning systems and working with neighborhood communities to identify safe routes to school and organize “walking school buses” if possible. Worcester’s Learning Readiness partnership is also investigating the impact on attendance of the district’s suspension policies for younger children. 

Early Literacy and Full Service Community Schools in Holyoke

In response to low reading proficiency scores, Holyoke has made early literacy a key community priority and has focused much of its wraparound work on this issue. Holyoke’s approach and the structures it is putting into place will be of interest to other communities working to improve Birth-Third literacy outcomes, but the district is careful to note that they are still in the early stages of this push and do not yet have positive results to show for their work.

Holyoke’s wraparound work began at the Peck campus of the Peck-Lawrence Full Service Community School, which was an early leader in the state in providing a full-range of services to address student needs through community partnerships. Three additional campuses in Holyoke have adopted the full-service model. Through its participation in the ESE’s Wraparound Zone Initiative, Holyoke has begun moving towards a district approach to providing full services, with an initial focus on early literacy. The former principal of the Peck campus, Paul Hyry-Dermith, has become the Holyoke’s assistant superintendent. The district administration is currently being restructured, and the plan is to create a district position that oversees full-service work across the public schools.HolyokeTheoryofAction.png


Holyoke’s early literacy initiative comprises four core strategies, and the community has designed a structure in which a workgroup has been formed for each strategy: improving literacy instruction, raising attendance, engaging families, and supporting kindergarten readiness (see theory of action slide above). 

According to Wraparound Zone coordinator Megan Harding, each workgroup used data to identify measurable objectives. As the slide below suggests, each workgroup has developed 3-4 strategies under each objective. In addition to a comprehensive plan to improve literacy instruction in schools, the strategies include:

  • Common professional development for teachers and out-of-school time partners,
  • Measuring the impact of attendance interventions,
  • Home visiting and family education, and
  • Establishing four new prekindergarten classrooms in schools that will be run by community-based organizations.

HolyokeStrategies.pngMoving forward, as Holyoke reorganizes its district staff and creates a district level role to drive its full service strategies, it plans to complement its early literacy strategies with a second wraparound initiative focused on improving school climate and culture. 

At a breakout session in which district leaders shared their perspectives on the wraparound work that has taken place in their districts over the past few years, district leaders recognized the challenge of investing time and resources into coordinating full-service activities. These senior leaders emphasized the importance of relentlessly communicating the message that meeting the academic and non-academic needs of students are necessary and complementary pursuits. As the examples from Worcester and Holyoke suggest, the ongoing wraparound work underway in the state is an important resource for informing Birth-Third initiatives, an intersection the Learning Hub will continue to explore. 

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.