This week we are hearing from the Baltimore Education Research Consortium (BERC, @BaltimoreBERC). This post is by Jeffrey Grigg, Assistant Professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Education (@JHUeducation) and researcher at BERC, and Natalie Schock (@SchockNatalie), PhD Candidate at the Johns Hopkins School of Education.
Today’s post is written from the researcher perspective. Stay tuned: Thursday we will share the practitioner’s perspective on this research.
Many young children across the city of Baltimore—and the entire state of Maryland—are facing significant barriers to academic success, starting with unequal access to high-quality services as early as pre-K, and resulting in significant school readiness disparities. To address this problem at the root, Maryland established the Judith P. Hoyer Early Child Care and Family Education Centers, or “Judy Centers,” in 2000.
Named after the early education coordinator for Prince George’s County, Maryland, and modeled on her collaborative approach to improving the school readiness of children from low-income families, Judy Centers seek to make it as easy as possible for families to access their services. Offering a holistic, whole-child approach, Judy Centers are school-based programs that aim to improve outcomes for children from birth to age 5 by providing and coordinating a rage of services to children and their families, including both family services, such as adult education, parenting classes, and health care, and school services, such as early childhood accreditation support. In 2017 there were 47 Judy Centers across the state, nearly all in Title I schools, and 11 Judy Centers in Baltimore City.
By virtue of being flexible and responsive to their communities, the Judy Centers can be challenging to evaluate. Over the past year, Baltimore City Public Schools (City Schools) and the Baltimore Education Research Consortium (BERC) worked together to complete the mandatory program evaluation and to better understand whether and how early childhood programs support school readiness.
What The Research Examines
Together, we crafted a qualitative inquiry into families’ perception of the programs. The programs wanted to hear from the families they served, so we jointly developed an interview and survey protocol to focus on client satisfaction, what families valued most, and any remaining unmet needs.
What The Research Finds
The required review of administrative data showed that children served by the Judy Centers were more likely to be kindergarten ready according to the state’s kindergarten readiness assessment than peers in the same schools who did not have Judy Center experience (51% ready to 29%). In fact, the rate of overall kindergarten readiness for children in Baltimore with Judy Center experience surpassed the Maryland state average in 2017 of 45%. In mathematics, however, children with Judy Center experience did not have higher passing rates than the state of Maryland average (35% to 37%).
More interestingly, our qualitative data analysis highlighted that family members were pleased with the quality of service and they repeatedly said that Judy Center coordinators cared and were trustworthy. In a city like Baltimore with a history of mistrust with public institutions and abuse of power, this confidence in the service providers was noteworthy. The consistent, reliable, and client-focused approach cultivated trusting and productive relationships between family members and providers.
Two surprising findings emerged. First, the Judy Centers appeared to make connections between participating families, developing social capital. Parents reported meeting friends through Judy Center activities, sharing advice and tips, and creating communities of support. These social ties among parents help in tangible ways, such as baby-sitting so a mother can go to a doctor’s appointment, but also in intangible ways, like discussing struggles so no one feels alone.
Second, our research suggests that existing definitions of kindergarten readiness may be incomplete. Rather than a collection of skills—such as counting to 20 and reciting the ABCs—parents described readiness as independence, especially on the first day of kindergarten. The Judy Centers had a transformative effect on this emotional milestone. Parents said that older siblings who had no Judy Center experience had weepy, wrenching first days. Judy Center children, however, eagerly marched into the classroom, sometimes leaving a bewildered, tearful parent behind. Meanwhile, Judy Center staff were on hand to counsel, comfort, and reassure parents distraught at releasing their children to school.
Implications For Practice
Findings indicated some opportunities for improvement. While coordinators’ time was the program’s most precious resource, the bespoke way each program served its community required significant time and attention. That being said, there were common service providers across sites—such as mental health service providers—that could be coordinated jointly across the programs for greater efficiency.
Secondly, there was opportunity and interest in improving data collection. One Judy Center had created a custom data tool to examine kindergarten readiness that can now be shared across sites. Another area for improvement is on documenting who is served. We suspect that City Schools is not the only district that provides a student ID only once a child enrolls full-time, yet many Judy Center services are provided to children who have not yet enrolled in school, so the current data systems do not incorporate all Judy Center children well. Consequently, the sites use their own databases for program management, and current district-wide analyses rely on the proxy measure of pre-K enrollment to identify who had Judy Center experience. The Judy Center experience, however, is much more nuanced than pre-K enrollment, and Judy Center coordinators would like to be able to parse that data in more meaningful ways to improve their ability to serve families. The lack of integrated data was a considerable limitation of the study.
Finally, it became clear that parent companionship could be leveraged in interventions and that the transition to school is a family experience. Parents can be each other’s best advocates, teachers, and supports, and social ties can extend into elementary school and beyond. Also, efforts to boost readiness may align better with parent expectations if they emphasize independence. Treating kindergarten as a full-family transition, and offering supports to parents, kindergarteners, and even siblings, will establish school as a positive experience.
Previous blog posts by the Baltimore Education Research Consortium:
- The Case for Improvement Science
- Partnering to Improve: Insights from Baltimore
- Learning About Post-High School Pathways of Baltimore Youths
- Using Data and Research to Promote Youth Success
Curious about other research topics partnerships have written about for this blog? See this Guide to the NNERPP EdWeek Blog for all previous blog posts organized by research topic area to easily find other posts of particular interest to you!
The opinions expressed in Urban Education Reform: Bridging Research and Practice are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.