Preschool Network Puts ‘Innovation’ Grant to Test

By Christina A. Samuels — April 10, 2013 7 min read
Amai Lindo, 4, is tested by teacher Lindsay Cunningham as part of the student-progress monitoring at Appletree Early Learning Public Charter in Washington.
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At the start of the school day at AppleTree Early Learning Public Charter School’s campus in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, the 20 wiggly students in Monique Twyman’s preschool class are as attentive as a group of 3-year-olds can be.

Ms. Twyman leads the children through a brisk review of letter sounds and tells them the plans for the day: Some will choose to dig through a sand table to discover dinosaur “fossils,” while others may play with classroom toys, like blocks. Still others can choose to work with clay, or stamp paper with the letter E with the help of the classroom’s second teacher.

The day also will include monitoring the progress of students at the school, one in a network that has received a $5 million Investing in Innovation grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Children will be pulled out of the classroom individually for quick assessments designed to gauge their mastery of the building blocks of literacy and math.

Tapping Into Aid

The $650 million “i3” competitive-grant program awarded up to $50 million to 49 recipients in 2010. AppleTree’s program, the top-ranked proposal with an exclusive focus on early-childhood education, received one of the smaller “development” grants, for promising but relatively untested ideas, and is putting its money toward meeting the needs of its students, primarily minority and from low-income homes.

The organization, with seven campuses in the District of Columbia, pledged to use its $5 million grant to take the program it calls Every Child Ready—a blend of early-learning academic content, professional development for teachers, and student-progress monitoring—and create a curriculum that can be used by other preschools around the country. The grant will also pay for a research evaluation of the program.

Toumani Young, 5, and Principal LaRon Martin work together near models of dinosaur bones that were being used in a school project at AppleTree.

With the federal government making high-quality preschool a priority, programs such as AppleTree’s are expected to receive renewed attention. Policymakers will be working to define what programs are worth scaling up and supporting.

In the District of Columbia, which provides free preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds, AppleTree’s preschool campuses are already oversubscribed. The school must hold a lottery each year to fill its 640 slots.

The Every Child Ready program is also in use in 20 additional classrooms run by other charter providers in the District of Columbia, so the program educates about 1,000 young children, said Jack McCarthy, AppleTree’s founder and managing director.

“We’re really focused on the children who are starting the furthest behind. They’re the ones who make the most gains through our program,” Mr. McCarthy said.

“It’s not rote learning, and it’s not reciting the letters of the alphabet,” he added. He called the curriculum evidence-based, child-centered, and tied to the Common Core State Standards.

Home-Grown Incubator

The AppleTree Institute was formed in 1995 as a charter school incubator in the nation’s capital and supported the creation of two charter high schools and the conversion of a traditional middle school into a charter program. But members of the organization believed that AppleTree’s impact could be greater if it supported efforts to give children a good academic start, well before they arrived in middle and high school.

The first AppleTree Early Learning Public Charter School opened in 2005, and the preschool years are the program’s sole focus.

The administrators started by purchasing Opening the World of Learning, a language and literacy preschool program sold by Pearson. But that program left some gaps in students’ math foundation skills said Lydia Carlis, the director of education at the charter school group. AppleTree bought a program to plug that hole.

The charter schools adopted a math program geared to preschoolers, “then we heard from our teachers that some students were not ready socio-emotionally to learn, no matter what curriculum we used,” Ms. Carlis said. So, AppleTree adopted another program, Second Step, that addressed that issue.

The schools wanted to incorporate sign language into the school day, which meant another program. The costs and the time needed to train teachers to use all the different curricula were becoming a burden, Ms. Carlis said.

Then Susan B. Neuman, a prominent education researcher at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, visited AppleTree and suggested that the organization develop its own instructional program.

That suggestion came on the heels of a curriculum-mapping effort that showed that even though children in AppleTree were showing progress, the instructional model in place still didn’t hit all the academic standards expected of District of Columbia students once they arrive in kindergarten.

“That was a big ‘Aha!’ moment for us,” Ms. Carlis said. “As we were using these five different curricula, our data were getting better, but we were having to have teachers and coaches do so much extra work to get those outcomes. It didn’t make sense if you could create something that, at the foundation, would be really strong.”

Comprehensive Approach

That was the start of Every Child Ready. A typical day in the program starts with a 15-minute “morning meeting,” then moves to “centers,” where one teacher works with a small group of children on language and literacy skills while the other children move through guided free play that relates to one of 10 thematic units explored throughout the year.

Every day, the pupils have story time, outdoor play, “journaling” under the guidance of an adult, and whole-class instruction in science concepts or development of social and emotional skills. There’s also nap time and time for snacks.

At least four times a year, the children’s preacademic skills are measured through brief assessments that give teachers a chance to reinforce skills with some students or offer more advanced work to children who are ready for it. The assessments include a combination of self-developed and prepackaged tests, including Get Ready to Read, a free test of phonological awareness and print concepts.

Every Child Ready has an explicit academic focus, but within the structure of play, said Mary Anne Lesiak, the chief of staff at AppleTree and the architect of the program. There’s no reason why programs can’t do both, she said.

“You can do it all with children in an intentional, fun, engaging way,” she said.

And the intentional focus on preacademic skills is particularly important for children whose backgrounds may not have prepared them for the academic and social requirements of elementary school, she added.

“It takes something beyond good care in order to increase the number of words that kids know,” Ms. Lesiak said. Preschool programs such as AppleTree have only two years to introduce all those concepts; some preschools, which start at age 4, have even less time.

The explicit instruction extends to social and emotional learning. Ms. Lesiak said AppleTree is trying to give children an emotional toolbox they can use to deal with challenges in a school environment; for example, learning to take three breaths to calm down instead of lashing out.

W. Steven Barnett, the director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., said that good preschool programs generally include language and literacy skills, social and emotional learning, and an introduction to science and math skills, all areas that Every Child Ready says it supports. Many curricula support those activities, but they have to be implemented well, he stressed.

For many programs, “the bulk of the day is spent in having lunch in the cafeteria, play where the teacher is not engaged, transitions [from activity to activity], and naps,” Mr. Barnett said.

“If 50 percent of your time is spent in those activities, I guarantee you, kids don’t learn much,” he said.

AppleTree does feel a sense of urgency with its children, who often start behind their peers in preacademic skills.

“The role of what early childhood is supposed to do has changed in the past 10 or 15 years,” Ms. Lesiak said. “Our goal is to get them to be ahead of the curve.”

Though the academic program is the most tangible part of Every Child Ready, its professional development for teachers is what the charter organization points to as innovative. AppleTree is in the process of creating Web-based professional-development modules. The program also requires individual coaching for classroom teachers.

“We want to show teachers what to teach, how to teach, and how they can go about improving their effectiveness,” Mr. McCarthy said.

A version of this article appeared in the April 17, 2013 edition of Education Week


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