Two divides thwart the best efforts of American educators to improve outcomes for low-income children and their families.
The first is the gap between early-childhood and K-12 education. The second is between K-12 education and health and social services. Typically these institutions operate in silos. Yet decades of research confirm that to best learn and thrive, children need early-childhood and elementary education to be aligned so that each year builds upon the last, and they need health and social services to be coordinated to maximize their positive impact.
Over the past decade, I’ve had the opportunity to research and work with communities that are attempting to bridge these divides. I recently completed a two-year study, funded by the Heising-Simons Foundation, of school and community partnerships across the country that are at the forefront of building more coherent and integrated local systems of care and learning. I visited these communities and interviewed superintendents, principals, preschool directors, community leaders, and many preschool and elementary school teachers. Despite working independently, these communities have diagnosed similar challenges to improving supports for children and families. In response, they are converging on a common set of innovative structures and strategies.
These partnerships are motivated by a commitment to educational equity and the goal that all children learn and thrive. They are focused on improving children’s experiences during the first decade of their lives, and thus I refer to them as “First 10" schools and communities. In some cases, First 10 partnerships encompass an entire district or a large zone within a district and support all the elementary schools, Head Start programs, community-based preschools, and child- and family-serving organizations within this geographic area. In others, a single elementary school will serve as a hub to provide resources to children ages 0-4 and their families, while also collaborating with nearby early-childhood programs. Either way, successful First 10 schools and communities take four important steps in their efforts to improve outcomes for children and families that together provide a roadmap for other communities :
1. Support professional collaboration to improve teaching and learning. The first role of First 10 schools and communities is to bring educators together for professional learning. The city of Normal, Ill., for example, began with joint professional development for kindergarten and prekindergarten teachers, which led to cross-grade classroom visits and ultimately reciprocal improvements in each grade. The prekindergarten teachers deepened their efforts on concept development and developed longer thematic investigations while kindergarten teachers piloted a daily block of structured play. Cambridge, Mass., which is home both to well-known universities and to a large low-income population, has developed a comprehensive quality-improvement initiative in which groups of community-based preschools and groups of family childcare providers form communities of practice that are supported with mentoring, coaching, and professional development.
2. Coordinate comprehensive services. In addition to improving the quality of children’s learning experiences, First 10 schools and communities create systems and processes to better coordinate health and social services. In Cincinnati; Multnomah County, Ore., and the metro area of Omaha, Neb., for instance, elementary schools deploy early-childhood coordinators to engage and support families years before their children enter kindergarten. Often these coordinators facilitate play-and-learn groups for parents and children and connect families to health and social services, all the while building relationships and trust. Communities also work to improve resource and referral and case-management systems and to coordinate home-visiting programs to ensure the greatest impact for those most in need.
3. Promote culturally responsive partnerships with families. First 10 initiatives deepen family engagement by creating structures and opportunities for family leadership and input, which in turn help to ensure that these initiatives are responsive to the needs and priorities of different cultural groups. In a pilot project in 10 schools in Multnomah County, families play an active role in designing weekly school-based play and learn groups, half of which are carried out in languages other than English or are created for culturally specific groups. The county has also cultivated a network of community agencies with deep cultural and linguistic expertise to engage and support families in the area.
4. Provide strategic leadership and ongoing assessment. First 10 schools and communities are new cross-sectoral arrangements that require new leadership structures to implement strategies effectively. For example, Cambridge’s community-wide partnership is overseen by a steering committee and three subcommittees on access and quality, health, and family engagement and partnership. First 10 initiatives also organize and communicate their work through focused implementation plans and projected outcome indicators, which they use to monitor progress and adjust strategies to achieve their goals.
These comprehensive First 10 approaches require a fundamental shift in thinking. This new mindset begins by thinking of the first 10 years as a continuum of high-quality experiences that should be coordinated, aligned, and focused on equity. As they translate this shift into action, leaders restructure and reconceptualize the relationships among elementary schools, early-childhood programs, community agencies, and families with young children.
Bringing First 10 schools and communities to scale will require building on the work of leading-edge communities in an ongoing process of adaptation, innovation, assessment, and continuous improvement. Many First 10 communities are beginning to learn from each other in an informal community of practice. States and national funders can support this work by developing grant programs, providing technical assistance, and sponsoring learning networks to encourage exchange. These investments have great potential as First 10 schools and communities are among the most powerful strategies we have to bridge vexing divides, address yawning achievement gaps, ensure educational equity, and raise achievement for low-income children.