Communities of Practice in Lowell: Supporting Family Child Care and Center-based Providers

As discussed last week, there are multiple entry points for understanding Lowell’s Birth-Third work—the Leadership Alignment Team, the use of the CLASS tool, the emerging school readiness agenda—but a good place to start is with Lowell’s communities of practice. Supporting family childcare providers is a logistically more challenging and less common component of Birth-Third initiatives.[1] The 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.

Lowell’s communities of practice bring to life and make real the well-known challenges associated with supporting family childcare providers and small community-based preschools. We often refer to the egg crate nature of teaching in schools. School teachers are separated in classrooms and work independently and thus are isolated, or were traditionally. Now many K-12 schools are much more deliberate about creating opportunities for teachers to work together in teams or professional learning communities. In the case of family child care providers, however, the isolation is even more extreme. Rather than in a crate, each egg is packaged individually. There is simply no egg in the dimple next door. Likewise, many teachers in small center-based programs lack opportunities to collaborate with teachers and coaches outside their center. 

The child care providers in Lowell’s communities of practice explicitly acknowledge the isolating nature of their work (“we don’t network enough”). They also make it palpably clear—through their responses to the meetings—how valuable it is for them to come together in a structured way to work on their practice. They describe the experience as “eye-opening,” revelatory in some cases, and according to some it has impacted every aspect of their classrooms and their teaching.

The communities of practice are led by Teresa Harrison, who is trained in the ECERS-R, FCCERS-R, and CLASS tools and does a range of work related to the Quality Rating Improvement System (QRIS) for the Lowell Public Schools. Ten family childcare providers began by meeting monthly with Harrison in the community of practice and then asked to increase the meetings to twice a month. Recruiting centers to participate in the work in the middle of last year proved more difficult, and thus the partnership took the opportunity to work intensively on a monthly basis with one center that was requesting support with the QRIS system. The teachers in this center are now better prepared to work with other centers, and the plan is to add teachers from more centers this coming year.

The ECERS-R tool includes 43 criteria organized into 7 subscales, such as “space and furnishings,” “language-reasoning,” and “program structure.” Using the ECERS-R or FCCERS-R tool as a framework, the communities of practice participants discuss a wide range of topics, including play, centers, math, science, hygiene, gross motor activities, art, drama, and dance.[2]

A good example of a community of practice conversation took place in one of the meetings with the center-based teachers. Through visits to the center and previous discussions with the participants, Harrison identified best practices in discipline and staff-child interactions as topics of interest for the participants and had begun to provide related support. At this meeting Harrison discussed staff-child interactions, drawing on the approach of the Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL). Lowell Public Schools has provided extensive professional development on CSEFEL for its pre-kindergarten and kindergarten teachers and advocates its use throughout the community.[3]

Clearly the center teachers understood the importance of their relationships with their students, yet they also appreciated the opportunity to come together off-site and think through how they could do their best in this regard. Harrison shared CSEFEL materials and a video and discussed research on the importance of the teacher/child relationship. She then did an activity using the metaphor of “relationship banks.” When teachers have positive interactions with a child, they are adding to the child’s piggy banks, making a deposit. Negative interactions are withdrawals. When a child’s bank is empty, it is harder to deal with challenging situations. The teachers thought of all the things they could do to make deposits (e.g., “listening,” “following through,” “validating their feelings,” “really listening,” “getting down to their level,” “talking calmly,” and “showing you care”) and withdrawals (“taking things personally,” “showing frustration,” “using a loud voice,” “not being sensitive to their needs,” and “nagging or controlling them”). The discussion served as a forum for exchanging practical ideas and an off-site opportunity to reflect on the tenor of one’s daily interactions with children.

The participants of both communities of practice emphasize that though they learn the expectations of the ECERS-R/FCCERS-R tool relative to the QRIS system, they also learn specific ideas and practices from their colleagues and from Harrison. The ECERS/FCCERS tools serve an interesting and helpful function in these discussions. Conversations typically begin with the participants sharing what they do with regard to a specific item on the tool (e.g., helping children understand language, fine motor skills, or dramatic play). Harrison adds what evaluators in fact look for with regard to the item, highlighting expectations that she knows to be particularly challenging or frequently surprising to teachers: for example, expectations that math be integrated not only during carpet or whole group time but throughout the day during free play; that nature and science activities be included every day; and that TV be limited to no more than 15 minutes at a time and no more than 30 minutes a day (and only for children above 24 months).

Eventually the participants rate themselves on each item within a given category or “sub-scale.” In route, however, discussion of the evaluators’ expectations naturally transition into the learning activities the participants typically do, do not do, could do better, and ideas they could learn from others. In effect, the tools serve to make the conversations less awkward as both of the communities of practice were in the process of building trust and the confidence to share and reflect on their own practice—conversations that can feel personally threatening both with close colleagues and with new acquaintances.

Out of this type of conversation at one meeting crystallized a number of pointers regarding QRIS expectations at one level, but about the current understanding of best practice at another: 

  • The importance of free play and choice (e.g., moving away from one whole group activity followed by clean-up followed by another whole group activity …),
  • Balancing independent exploration and the teacher role in providing structure,
  • Encouraging interactions among children,
  • Encouraging children to solve their own problems (with support),
  • Expanding the use of music, dance, and dramatic play and making art projects less “cookie-cutter” and more creative, and
  • Increasing the proportion of talking and listening that is not directed towards behavior management and control.

From the vantage point of the participants, key take-aways included the need to be more deliberate and organized in setting up centers as discrete areas for specific activities, being mindful of which centers are placed next to each other (i.e., not placing loud centers next to quiet areas), attending to sight lines and the placement of furniture, how not to use time-outs, how to use routines to make activities run more smoothly, and the importance of choice among activities.

The Lowell partnership is planning on deepening its community of practice model with the addition of an on-site coaching component that will complement the monthly meetings. Among other benefits, coaching will provide support in translating the pointers and take-aways from the meetings into practice. We also find this combination of off-site whole group professional development and on-site coaching in Somerville’s literacy coaching model and the Boston’s K1DS curriculum implementation support.

The two communities of practice are soon to come together for a joint CSEFEL training. Lowell’s plan for Round Two of the EEC Alignment Partnership includes continuing these two communities of practice, adding one for administrators of public school and community-based preschools, and developing a pilot community of practice for families led by a parenting coach.

Lowell’s communities of practice broaden the range of professional development and coaching arrangements we find across the first five EEC alignment partnerships. They demonstrate the use of the ECERS-R and FCCERS-R rubrics and a model tailored to family child care providers as well as community-based preschool centers. One family child care provider summed up her experience of the community of practice saying,

“You look at your daycare differently, which is hard to do unless you are in a class like this.”


[1] The Pittsfield Promise also works with family childcare providers and family childcare systems.

[2] A study published last month called into question the relationship between quality as measured by the ECERS-R and child academic and social outcomes. The authors suggest that since that many centers meet the baseline levels of quality the ECERS-R measures, a more nuanced tool may be needed. Nonetheless, most states, including Massachusetts, currently use the ECERS-R as part of their QRIS systems. Further, as will become clear, in the context of the Lowell community of practice, the ECERS-R is being used as a formative professional development tool to guide conversations about best practice with an experienced coach. Used in this way the ECERS-R has the potential improve practice independent of the link between ECERS-R evaluations and child outcomes. We will continue to track the research on the ECERS-R and related tools.

[3] For more on Lowell’s adoption of district social-emotional standards, use of CSEFEL training, and home visiting protocol, see page 36 of Improving Early Years of Education in Massachusetts.

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. 

Building a Common Vision of Quality across the Birth-Third Continuum

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.[1]

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 [2] and FCCERS [3] 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.

[1] 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.

[2] Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale

[3] 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. 

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. 









News Round-Up

There have been a number of exciting Birth-Third developments in Massachusetts in the last month or so. I will occasionally do a news round-up to highlight pieces that I think will be of special interest to the Birth-Third community. I will also flag relevant summaries from Eye on Early Education, the blog published by Strategies for Children.


Boston’s prekindergarten results are getting much attention nationally. Recently a large delegation from Seattle visited, including the mayor, city council members, and a representative from the Gates Foundation. National Public Radio did a story on the visit, and Jason Sachs, the early childhood director at the Boston Public Schools, shared potential lessons for Seattle, including not only program components but staffing and compensation recommendations as well.

The Massachusetts Business and Education Alliance has released a vision for education in Massachusetts entitled, The New Opportunity to Lead. The report, profiled on the front page of Education Week, includes recommendations for improving early education and care (see chapter 6). Eye on Early Education’s summary is here.

The Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center outlines three possible ways to fund expanding access to preschool in a recent report, Building a Foundation for Success. The Eye on Early Education summary is here.

I’ll be joining representatives of some of the first five EEC alignment partnerships at three regional ESE kindergarten networking meetings at the end of May. We’ll share some of the themes, patterns, and lessons learned that are emerging from the work thus far. District kindergarten coordinators will get the announcement soon. I’ll share the dates as soon as they are announced.

Next week I’ll report on today’s Turnaround with Wraparound Showcase in Worcester and the implications for Birth-Third efforts. Then after April vacation we’ll dig into Lowell’s quality improvement pilot projects in two neighborhoods and its emerging school readiness agenda.

Joint Professional Learning in Somerville and Springfield

Last week’s post described how both Somerville and Springfield have developed professional learning initiatives that bring together prekindergarten and kindergarten educators. The work of Somerville’s Kindergarten Readiness Group and Springfield’s Birth-Third PLC begins to suggest what the content of these workshops can be and what the participants get out of it. These examples also raise a number of helpful questions to consider when designing joint professional development experiences.


“Demystifying What We Each Do For a Living.” In both Somerville and Springfield the PreK/Kindergarten collaborations began with discussions and cross-site visits in which the participants recognized many similarities in practice across settings. Public school teachers remarked that circle time and transitions felt familiar and expressed surprise in seeing the age range in the preschool programs; the community-based teachers found public kindergartens to be warmer and “more loving” than they are typically reputed to be and were impressed by the extent of literacy and writing activities they observed. Lisa Bakowski, the principal of the Boland Elementary School in Springfield, refers to this stage as “demystifying what we each do for a living.” In both communities, participants refer to their first meetings as leading to a cultural shift, an “opening up,” and laying a foundation of trust and relationships.

Sharing Teaching Practices. From the participants’ perspectives, the appeal of these meetings lies in the opportunities they create to share practices, to see different environments and classroom settings, and to learn more about the learning expectations and assessments found in each sector. At a recent Birth-Third conference in Springfield, a panel shared their experiences in the 2010-11 public/private PLC, and the teachers emphasized that they learned about many new ideas and lesson strategies that they brought back to their classrooms. Likewise, teachers at the Somerville Kindergarten Readiness Group readily share lesson ideas, ranging from using a storytelling bracelet in which each bead stands for a part of a story to a discussion of the use of turn and talks as children become developmentally ready to engage in this practice.

Motivation. The participants on the Springfield panel also emphasized the motivational impact of seeing a wider variety of classroom practice through the cross-site instructional learning walks. One veteran community-based preschool teacher shared the moving story of losing her entire classroom of materials, which had taken years to accumulate, when a large tornado hit Springfield last year. The teacher started over in a new classroom in a new building but felt demoralized professionally. She described the experience of seeing a prekindergarten teacher in an elementary school teach as a “refresher course” in all the strategies she had learned over the years but that in some cases had fallen by the wayside and needed to be brought back into the forefront of her practice. The visit provided her with new ideas and inspired her to begin re-incorporating a broader range of effective strategies into her teaching and helped her re-engage professionally. Conversely, teachers also found motivation in being visited by colleagues. As principal Bakowski explained, “We don’t know all the great things we are doing until we see it through others’ eyes.”

The kinds of topics under discussion by the members of Springfield's Birth-Third Professional Learning Community (some of these were changed due to snow days).
The kinds of topics under discussion by the members of Springfield’s Birth-Third Professional Learning Community (some of these were changed due to snow days).

Learning Standards. In addition to sharing lesson ideas, the teachers in Somerville and Springfield were eager to explore their respective standards and assessments. For the meeting in Somerville referred to earlier, the meeting organizers had excerpted and matched sections from the EEC and ESE standards documents so that small groups could identify similarities and differences across the two sets of preschool standards and then compare the preschool standards to kindergarten standards. The participants found these activities highly useful, in particular as many community-based preschool teachers were unfamiliar with the new Common Core-aligned Massachusetts frameworks. Community-based preschool teachers in both cities expressed much interest in learning more about kindergarten expectations. As one Springfield preschool teacher said,

“I feel like it would make me a better teacher to really know what is expected of my students. What do you really need to know for kindergarten? I think they are ready. I think I am getting them ready. But I’m not 100% sure, and I want to be. Learning about kindergarten makes me look at myself as a teacher.”

Snowball Effects. Project directors in both Somerville and Springfield emphasize that the public/private early childhood collaborations in their communities are having snowball effects. Once a platform for collaboration is established, it is leading to additional collaboration. Now that principals and preschool directors have established relationships, when a principal realizes that a struggling prekindergarten child is also spending half of his or her day in a community-based preschool program, the principal is more likely to pick up the phone and call the preschool director. During Springfield’s first iteration of public-private PLC in 2010-11, community-based preschool directors expressed an interest in learning more about autism, which led to a workshop by an autism expert from the Springfield Public Schools that benefited both public and community-based preschool teachers. Likewise, the collaboration around the Birth-Third Alignment Partnership in Somerville has led to the incorporation of community-based prekindergarten teachers into the public schools’ annual Teacher Talks event, in which prekindergarten teachers go from table to table, meeting with kindergarten teachers to discuss the children moving into kindergarten. This additional intelligence about rising kindergarteners has had a large impact on how kindergarten class lists are formed.


The joint professional learning projects in Somerville and Springfield raise for the field the kinds of structural design decisions that leaders of public/private early childhood education collaborations face. These design decisions stem from the overall purpose of the collaboration (e.g., standards alignment, assessment literacy, lesson design and teaching strategies, improving developmentally appropriate practice, and so on).

  • What should the balance of teachers and leaders be?
  • How often should the groups meet?
  • What activities should they carry out? How can partnerships structure activities to make the most of valuable professional development time?
  • Will a community-wide group best serve a community’s needs or is a pilot in a few neighborhoods preferable?
  • Is it more important to expand the number of participants/schools/centers or to extend the work of a few groups more deeply into the analysis of assessment results and lesson study?
  • And importantly, how do representatives from schools and centers share their experiences with their colleagues who do not attend?

Future posts will pursue how partnerships in Massachusetts and other states address these as well as the critical underlying question:  What is the sought-after impact and how will we monitor progress in achieving it?

Top Image:  An activity planning web from Somerville’s Kindergarten Readiness Group. Mixed groups from different programs/schools outlined units based on four different books.

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. 

Learning from Exemplars: PreK-3rd in Union City, NJ

Somerville is graciously sharing a video of David Kirp’s talk about the Union City, NJ success story:

In addition to Kirp’s book, Improbable Scholars 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). 


Bridging the Public/Private Divide

Joint Professional Learning for Preschool and Kindergarten Teachers

Birth-Third is about improving the quality of education and care at three developmental levels—ages 0-3, 3-5, and 5-9—while improving alignment across these levels. A central alignment challenge is the divide between preschool and K-3 education, and particularly between community-based preschool and public elementary schools. Preschool teachers have important information about children that often does not make it to the children’s kindergarten teachers, and conversely preschools may lack up-to-date information about the kindergarten experience and kindergarten expectations. Further, both preschool and kindergarten teachers are working on meeting new standards in ways that match their children’s developmental needs—taking advantage of how children best learn—yet they typically do this work in isolation from each other.

Addressing this divide requires creating systems, sharing data, and convening leadership groups. Further, communities on the forefront of Birth-Third work often provide joint professional development for teachers and leaders working in public and private early education settings, a strategy highlighted by recently-proposed federal preschool legislation.

One of Somerville’s Kindergarten Readiness Group meetings this year gives a sense of what joint public/private professional development can be like. In this meeting of approximately 30 preschool teachers, preschool directors, and kindergarten teachers, small groups compared preschool standards from the EEC (Department of Early Education and Care) to the Common Core-aligned ones from the ESE (Department of Elementary and Secondary Education). They then collaboratively sketched out pre-kindergarten and kindergarten lessons that explicitly target English Language Arts standards and that incorporate opportunities for choice and play. In a subsequent meeting teachers extended this cross-site work by sketching out curriculum units based on specific books.

Likewise, Springfield has created a Professional Learning Community in which pre-kindergarten and kindergarten teachers visit each other’s classes and participate in joint professional development on a variety of topics, including the Common Core standards, social-emotional learning, using data, and kindergarten readiness. Both communities have managed to hold these workshops despite the logistical hurdles that this kind of collaboration entails, and in both communities there is a forceful, “of course we should meet, this is so natural and makes so much sense” quality to the participants’ comments about the experience.

Springfield's early education PLC at the Boland Elementary School
Springfield’s early education PLC at the Boland Elementary School

Both Somerville and Springfield are in relatively early stages in the design and execution of these activities, yet their work thus far begins to suggest the kinds of design decisions joint public-private professional learning entails. This week’s post discusses the role of joint professional development in the context of recently-proposed federal legislation and introduces the activities currently underway in Somerville and Springfield. Next week’s post highlights a number of common themes that are emerging from the work in these two communities and identifies a set of key questions that this kind of direct teacher-to-teacher collaboration raises.

How Joint Professional Learning Fits

Joint public/private professional development is required by recently proposed federal legislation, the Strong Start for America’s Children Act sponsored by Senator Tom Harkin and Representatives George Miller and Richard Hanna.  According to the EdCentral Early Ed blog, this bill would require prekindergarten providers to carry out the following types of collaboration with public school districts, including the third and fourth items regarding alignment and joint training:

  1. Coordinate and enter into strong partnerships with local school districts or other local early childhood programs, including Head Start programs;
  2. Transfer records for each participating child to the public school where they attend kindergarten;
  3. Work with elementary schools to ensure continuity in teacher instruction and expectations for children’s learning and development;
  4. Organize and participate in joint training, including school transition-related training for elementary school and pre-K program staff;
  5. Engage families and elementary school teachers and principals in discussions of educational, developmental, and other needs of children entering kindergarten; and
  6.  Help parents, including parents of dual language learners, understand instructional and other services provided by the kindergarten (“Building Bridges between Pre-K and Kindergarten”).

The collaborative activities suggested by this list—sharing student data, developing transition activities, aligning learning expectations, and joint professional development—are key components of the approaches pioneered by exemplary Birth-Third communities such as Union City, NJ, Montgomery County, MD, and Bremerton, WA. In Massachusetts, all of the first five Birth-Third Alignment Partnerships support some form of collaboration between community-based preschools and public schools. In Boston, Lowell, and Pittsfield, the public-private collaboration occurs through leadership meetings and/or coaching relationships, whereas the focus in Somerville and Springfield includes direct teacher-to-teacher collaboration.

Birth-Third Alignment in Somerville and Springfield

Somerville Family Learning Center’s Honey Schnapp introducing the theme, Using Play to Meet Standards

The Kindergarten Readiness Group in Somerville. Somerville’s Alignment Partnership is managed by the Somerville Public Schools and an Alignment Advisory Group that includes members from different public and private agencies. The group has hired Suzanne Gibbons as the coordinator of the Alignment Partnership’s activities. After an intensive period of analysis and planning at the beginning of the grant, the alignment group homed in on a literacy focus and four primary strategies: the kindergarten readiness group, a pilot literacy coaching project involving eight preschool classrooms (plus a language and literacy course for an additional 20 teachers), training for community-based providers in Teaching Strategies Gold assessment, and an informational website for families.

The Kindergarten Readiness Group was formed last spring and set about establishing relationships and a forum for communication and collaboration by exploring similarities and differences between prekindergarten and kindergarten. After an introductory meeting, the members conducted hour-long cross-site visits, with community-based preschool teachers visiting public school classrooms and public school teachers visiting community-based classrooms. The members then met to debrief on their experiences and impressions, finding many more similarities than differences. They also worked on developing a transition form to be used by preschool teachers across the city to provide information on their rising students to kindergarten teachers. In the eyes of many participants, these meetings established a climate of trust and an eagerness to continue working together. The partnership’s organizers saw in the Kindergarten Readiness Group an opportunity to address an emerging focus on literacy during the 2013–14 academic year. They planned a series of four meetings for 2013-14, focusing on two related topics: (1) aligning and meeting standards and (2) incorporating play, choice, hands-on activities, and inquiry in student learning experiences. The organizers summarize this year’s theme as Using Play to Meet Standards.

Special Note: See Catherine Tighe’s article in the Huffington Post, The Common Core in My Classroom: A Teacher’s View. Catherine teaches Kindergarten in Somerville and is a member of the Kindergarten Readiness Group.

Springfield’s Birth through Grade Three Professional Learning Community. The preschool provider, Square One, is the lead partner and fiscal agent of Springfield’s Alignment Partnership. Square One has assembled a “Leadership Steering Committee” to guide the work of the Alignment Partnership and has hired Cindy Recoulle as the project coordinator and Joan Paris as the project consultant. The Springfield partnership has developed a strategy centered on selecting a community-wide preschool curriculum 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 provide professional development and outreach around these domains and standards (including through the PLC meetings), identify common formative assessments to use across preschool settings, expand teacher-to-teacher observations, and share kindergarten assessment data with pre-kindergarten providers. Springfield summarizes its strategy under three categories: Curricular and Assessment Alignment, Teacher and Adult Caregiver Capacity and Quality, and Data Use and Strategic Planning.

Discussing data in a Springfield PLC meeting
Discussing data in a Springfield PLC meeting

With its Professional Learning Community (PLC) meetings, Springfield is reviving a structure the community first established during the 2010-11 academic year as part of a grant funded by the ESE (the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education). During that year, three local partnerships were formed, each consisting of an elementary school and community-based providers, including YMCA preschools and Head Start programs. In addition to shared professional development workshops, the partnerships conducted cross-site instructional learning walks. As in Somerville, the participants identified more similarities than differences, and according to both organizers and participants these meetings established relationships and built trust. Over time the group added more structure and focus to the learning walks, developing a reflection form and checklist and targeting oral language development and how teachers facilitated transitions from activity to activity. Due to funding and leadership changes, Springfield had to suspend the meetings after the 2010-11 year, but the group’s leaders have been eager to re-establish the PLC through the EEC Alignment Partnerships. (For more information on Springfield’s public/private collaboration, see Improving the Early Years of Education in Massachusetts, p. 39.)

Next Week: The what and why of joint professional development and learning from Somerville’s and Springfield’s efforts thus far.

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.