Data Opinion

Using Data and Research to Strengthen Early-Learning Efforts in Atlanta

By Urban Education Contributor — March 08, 2018 3 min read
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This post is by Janelle Clay, Senior Research Associate (@JRenee27), and Sydney Ahearn (@SydneyAhearn), Director of Early Learning, at Atlanta Public Schools (@apsupdate).

Today’s post is the practitioner perspective on Monday’s post: From Age 3 to Grade 3: How Atlanta Promotes School Readiness and Achievement.

At Atlanta Public Schools (APS), we are on a journey to transform our educational system and outcomes for Atlanta’s children. One of our primary strategic priorities is early learning, which we believe is key to systemic change. This is particularly true because Atlanta Public Schools, like many urban school districts, has faced many challenges in ensuring children and families have access to high-quality early childhood education. Only about 25 percent of Atlanta children under the age of 5 have access to quality care, which varies across geography and family income. This is problematic, since we know that children from lower-income families — which make up 76 percent of APS students — hear an average of 30 million words fewer than their higher income peers by the time they are 4 years old.

Under the leadership of Superintendent Dr. Meria J. Carstarphen, Atlanta Public Schools has set forth an ambitious, yet achievable vision to become a high-performing school district where students love to learn, educators inspire, families engage, and the community trusts the system. To realize this vision, APS has outlined several key strategic initiatives that center on the development of the whole child. This will ensure that all students graduate ready for college and career and are equipped with the academic and social-emotional skills necessary for success in the 21st century.

One cornerstone of the District’s turnaround efforts is a laser focus on supporting children and their families as early as possible, driven by research demonstrating the importance of quality early learning opportunities on academic achievement (see here). After undergoing a needs assessment, the District has taken several key steps to enhance the quality of instruction and services in the Pre-K program.

Recognizing the importance of developing robust partnerships with other early learning providers across the city, one of our steps to improve early childhood education was to join the Partnership for School Readiness and Achievement From Age 3 to Grade 3 (Atlanta 323), a partnership including various center-based early learning providers, Georgia State University, advocacy groups, community organizations, and state education agencies. Partnerships are particularly crucial in the early learning sector, which is often characterized by a lack of coherence or alignment.

Collaborating to Create Citywide Strategies

Atlanta 323 is tailored to support two of the key goals emanating from our needs assessment: increased alignment and thoughtful, cross-agency use of data.

First, Atlanta 323’s development of a longitudinal database (described in detail here) will support APS and our partners in identifying opportunities and barriers to accessing high-quality early childhood education programs. This will support development of policies and practices based on data and research, which address issues related to enrollment, kindergarten transition, and attendance, among others.

Second, connecting with the other Atlanta 323 partners enables us to together create a cohesive vision and strategy for early learning for the city of Atlanta, supporting and guiding data-informed decision making by helping us weave together the patchwork data each agency or partner holds.

Future Work

Ensuring that the work of this research-practice partnership is centered not only on the District’s goals, but is connected to the larger citywide efforts around early learning is critical. Findings from the work of Atlanta 323 will likely lead to implementation of design-research teams — within the District and across the partnership — to develop and study solutions to challenges such as Pre-K enrollment, kindergarten transition, and student learning.

At APS, one of our key realizations is that we cannot do the work of preparing our students for college and career alone. In fact, we cannot prepare our students for kindergarten without the support and partnership of the many early learning providers and service agencies in our city. With the creation of a citywide collaborative and a data-supported strategy, we believe we can embark upon a journey of transformation for all of Atlanta’s children.

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.