A Village Route to Early Childhood Education

An Iowa district partners with its community to improve kindergarten readiness by JULIO ALMANZA, ETHEL REYNOLDS, KATHY SCHULTE AND BETTY LONG

Two children arrive for the first day of kindergarten. Both are bright, friendly and well-behaved at home.

One child takes her seat. She looks around the room and silently names the letters of the alphabet posted on the wall. Later, when the teacher assembles a small reading group, she turns to the first page and begins to trace her finger underneath each word.

Julio AlmanzaJulio Almanza is the superintendent of Davenport Community Schools in Iowa.

The other child takes her seat too, but she cannot sit still for long. She doesn’t yet know her letters but looks forward to learning how to read. When class begins, however, she soon becomes distracted, disruptive and noncompliant.

What is the key difference between these students? The first child attended preschool; the second did not.

Unprepared to Learn
We have seen this scenario play out over and over in our urban school district. In the 1990s, we noticed more children were coming to kindergarten unprepared to learn. We looked at how many had preschool experience, and we were troubled by the low number. We began to consider how to educate young children and bolster kindergarten readiness in Davenport Community Schools and across the community.

After doing extensive research on early childhood education and visiting sites across the country, Davenport Community Schools officials developed the Children’s Village model. In addition to providing formal preschool classes taught by certified early childhood instructors, Children’s Village serves children from six weeks to five years of age in all-day, year-round programming that extends beyond the regular school day.

Since launching Children’s Village in 1998, we have five Children’s Village sites; three are housed in elementary schools and two are in stand-alone buildings. These geographically dispersed sites give families opportunities to place their children in their neighborhood school or in a location close to work.

Children’s Village is open to children living in the Davenport Community Schools attendance area. The Villages, as they are known, maintain an integrated approach, encouraging participation by families of all economic and social backgrounds. Funding and scholarships are provided through federal, state and local sources to cover tuition for specific student populations and children in financial and academic need. The services of the center are in great demand with a waiting list of hundreds of interested families.

Because of our structured yet collaborative approach to early childhood education, we have realized many beneficial changes. Most notably, when a Children’s Village student arrives for the first day of kindergarten, the teacher can now say, “This child is ready to learn.”

Collaborative Approach
With 35 schools serving 17,000 youth, Davenport Community Schools is Iowa’s third largest school district. Davenport lies within the Quad Cities metropolitan area in eastern Iowa and western Illinois. We recognized the need to foster early childhood education and realized the only way to do this would be through collaboration between the district and the community.

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Two of the earliest challenges we faced were shifting funding to a centralized model and broadening the scope of services beyond special-needs students. In 1998, when we opened our first Children’s Village, we had two major funding sources: special education and Title I. We had to get creative. By weaving together funding strands from different sources, including tuition, we have since created a sustainable system that allows us to better serve children and families.

Indeed, we involve as many partners as we can. Why? Although we know we will never reach 100 percent of the children in our area, partnerships with organizations at the local, state and federal levels bring vitality and creativity and allow us to deliver quality education and services to more families in our community than we’d be able to provide otherwise.

For example, we created an innovative partnership with Head Start, which serves children and families through our Children’s Village sites. The Head Start teachers follow our curriculum and attend our staff development programs. The YMCA delivers after-school programming at the Children’s Villages and provides CPR and First Aid training to our staff.

Our partnerships with other social service and government agencies provide staff development, education services and funding. At three Children’s Villages and at other sites in the community, we offer a free daily two-hour preschool program funded by Iowa’s Statewide Voluntary Preschool Program for Four-Year-Old Children. By expanding access to quality preschool curricula, this forward-thinking state program offers an opportunity for all young children in Iowa to enter school ready to learn.

Through this program, we collaborate with other area schools that offer early childhood education, such as religious and private schools, providing vital “flow-through” funding from the state of Iowa. Members of this collaborative meet monthly to share data and discuss ways to improve early childhood education. To maximize our resources, we plan and present staff development and write grants together.

Many of these schools also have adopted our pre-K curriculum. To ensure quality programming, each preschool site in this collaborative must meet the Iowa Quality Preschool Performance Standards, National Association of Education of Young Children Standards and Criteria or Head Start Performance Standards.

Village Practices
The Children’s Village program attributes its success in preparing children for kindergarten to several research-based practices, including quality staff, appropriate grouping practices, standards and benchmarks, consistent schedules, parent involvement and a “brain-compatible” environment.

Davenport kidsThe Davenport, Iowa, district runs five Children's Villages for preschoolers, three of them in elementary schools.

Staff quality. All Children’s Village teachers have degrees in early childhood education and are licensed by the Iowa Board of Educational Examiners. Starting in 2007-2008, our district began requiring all Children’s Village teachers to also hold certification in early childhood special education. Paraeducators and YMCA staff who run the after-school program are required to have an associate’s degree in early childhood or a related field. If the degree is in a related field, they must have a credential for child development associate.

Grouping practices. Prior to launching Children’s Village, we did not have enough preschool spaces to serve all students who needed special education services. As a result, we had to pay tuition to other schools and organ-izations to get those services for the students.

Today Children’s Village preschool classrooms are based on an integrative model. Each class includes six children with individualized education plans and 12 typically developing peers. This model helps us work toward our goal of fully integrating all special education students. It also eliminates the need to pay other providers to serve our students.

Standards and benchmarks. Children’s Village was one of Iowa’s first early childhood learning centers to develop and implement standards and benchmarks for pre-K students. From preschool through high school, our standards and benchmarks provide a structure to the learning process that is compatible with students’ ages and expected development, and with what they will be expected to do at the next level. Preschool standards are drawn from Iowa Early Learning Standards and National Association for the Education of Young Children Standards.

Our preschool curriculum includes standards and benchmarks in career integration, critical thinking, global and cultural understanding, information and technological literacy, language arts, mathematics, music, personal responsibility, physical education, socialization skills, visual and creative arts, wellness/health and writing. Our standards align with our K-6 curriculum so they not only help us determine whether the children are developing appropriately, they also ensure children are prepared when they enter kindergarten.

Consistent schedules. Children’s Village is open from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. weekdays year round, with the core preschool day from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. We have a set schedule for the day and teachers follow pacing guides. The after-school program is structured to extend the core day. For example, if students study transportation and read a book on trains in preschool, they may do a hands-on activity after school, such as making a giant train from cardboard boxes.

Parent involvement. We embrace and promote family involvement in all our early childhood programs. We have an active Parent-Teacher Association and hold parent-teacher conferences at school or at home at least twice a year. During these conferences, parents and teachers review the children’s work samples, which show how students advance during their time at Children’s Village.

Many support programs and partnerships enhance parents’ ability to contribute to their children’s learning and development. Head Start liaisons conduct home visits and organize family events at community venues, such as the zoo and public library. We also work with the YMCA and other partners to hold events such as Healthy Kids Day and Family Night at the Bettendorf Family Museum.

Brain compatibility. Research shows that education thrives in an inviting, comfortable environment. Toward that end, we have created concept-based brain-compatible classrooms throughout the district, even at the preschool level. These brain-friendly classrooms provide a nurturing environment in which students’ brains are more fully engaged.

Concept-based means students learn to make connections between individual bits of information and use those connections to understand the bigger picture or other content areas. Brain-compatible means teachers use instructional techniques known to nurture learning. Davenport teachers minimize distractions and make subjects exciting by awakening students’ senses. Classrooms are outfitted with soft-light lamps, wall charts with learning concepts, a cozy corner, real-life objects in work centers and plants.

Instead of merely talking and reading about subjects, students get the benefit of real-world exploration and hands-on experiences to learn concepts and acquire skills. The brain-compatible method also realizes that different people learn in different ways. Students are given the freedom to learn through the instructional strategy that is most effective for them. Fellow students act as sounding boards to help shape each other’s ideas. Students are encouraged to think for themselves. Teachers circulate throughout the classroom encouraging thinking, challenging ideas by asking questions and providing immediate feedback so students know where they stand.

Focus on Literacy
Brain-based learning extends beyond the classroom environment and into the curriculum as well. Because many children were coming to kindergarten with delayed speech or language skills, we decided to implement Scientific Learning’s Fast ForWord® software at the preschool level.

At our Children’s Village sites, preschool students work on the software 30 minutes a day in a quiet computer lab. The activities exercise areas of the brain to help students process more efficiently, the way physical workouts train the body to be fit and strong. As students work on individualized exercises, they develop and strengthen their memory, attention, processing rate and sequencing — cognitive skills essential for learning and reading success. By developing and enhancing students’ brain fitness, we can better prepare them to capture, process and retain information.

In the lab, students are assisted by their classroom teacher and a paraeducator who serves as the lab coach. The lab coach monitors student progress, provides individual interventions as needed and communicates with teachers and parents about students’ progress.

To date, preschoolers who have worked on the software have significantly improved in measures of early reading skills. During the 2007-08 school year, preschool students, 3 to 5 years old, were randomly divided into a Fast ForWord group and a comparison group that did not use the software. The Fast ForWord participants worked on the software 30 minutes per day, five days per week from February to May. School personnel tested the students’ early reading skills using the preschool language scales.

While the language skills of both Children’s Village groups improved relative to those of their peers nationwide, the Fast ForWord participants made a statistically significant improvement with scores increasing an average of 23 percentage points, moving from the 36th percentile in November to the 59th percentile in May. In contrast, the comparison group’s scores increased an average of 14 percentage points, moving from the 37th percentile to the 51st percentile.

We believe building early reading and language skills while improving cognitive skills helps students better prepare for school and take advantage of the more challenging curriculum as they advance from preschool to kindergarten and beyond.

Beyond Kindergarten
Through all our endeavors, we have established the impact of the Children’s Village model on kindergarten readiness. For many years, Children’s Village students have exceeded their kindergarten peers in fall testing, using the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills in the initial sound and letter-naming subtests. The impact is most significant among low socioeconomic students. In kindergarten, Children’s Village students scored in the 88th percentile in letter naming while their peers scored in the 66th percentile. The results are similar on the Language Arts Proficiency Benchmark Assessment.

Of course, the most significant gains are those we see at the individual level. When 3-year-old Amaya entered Children’s Village, she pointed and whined to communicate. She did not play with other children; instead, she played beside them. By the end of Amaya’s first year at Children’s Village, she spoke in sentences and played with others. A year later, she entered kindergarten reading, writing and ready to learn. When assessed as a kindergartener, Amaya was recommended for the talented and gifted program.

While it is easy to see the payoffs of our program from preschool to kindergarten, it is more difficult to track the impact as students progress through their school careers. Especially challenging is the fact that Children’s Village serves the most at-risk, high-needs families in a community where mobility is a factor. We have a difficult time getting a large enough sample size to track the longitudinal impact of our program.

To address these issues, we now are forming a partnership to create a data-collection and tracking system for early childhood participants across the Quad Cities area. Participants include the United Way, Community Foundation, Scott County Community Empowerment, Iowa State University Extension, Davenport Community Schools and other education agencies in Iowa and Illinois. We are excited about this effort and believe it will serve as a model for the evaluation of early childhood programs.

A Full Village
Early childhood education is essential to ensuring students are ready to learn when they enter kindergarten and are able to achieve success as they progress through school and life. With early childhood education, students learn more, teachers accomplish more and taxpayers get more for their education tax dollar.

During the past decade, Davenport Community Schools has become a state leader in providing innovative and quality learning programs for young children. The Iowa Department of Education has commended our schools for “embracing the value of early childhood education and for their successful implementation of quality preschool programming.” Our assessments show Children’s Village students are better prepared than any other children when they enter kindergarten.

Working with our partners, we have created a sustainable, successful model for quality early childhood education in our area and created economies of scale that allow us to maximize our resources and staff development opportunities. We are fortunate to have the support of a school board that understands the importance of early learning. We meet with the school board at least once a year to update them on our endeavors and solicit their input and feedback.

It takes all our students, teachers, staff, administrators, parents and partners to make the Children’s Village a success. Indeed, it really does take a village to ensure early childhood education.

Julio Almanza is the superintendent of Davenport Community Schools in Davenport, Iowa. E-mail: almanzaj@davenportschools.org. Ethel Reynolds is the executive director of administrative services, Kathy Schulte is the early childhood services principal and Betty Long is director of exceptional education and federal programs, all in the Davenport Community Schools.