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Story posted January 13, 2009
• More than 50% of entering kindergarteners know the alphabet, up from 4% seven years ago
• Only 2.1% of kindergarteners needed specialized educational services in May 2008, down from 12% in 2002
• 73% of first graders were reading at grade level in 2008, up from 52% in 2002
Through an innovative partnership between the Bremerton (Washington) School District, Head Start, and community preschools and childcare centers, more than 50 percent of youngsters in this small urban school district start kindergarten knowing the alphabet.
But that wasn’t always the case. Just seven years ago, only 4 percent of Bremerton’s incoming kindergarteners knew their letters, compared to 60 percent of children nationwide. Bremerton’s students, 59 percent of whom come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, were behind the academic curve even before they stepped into a classroom.
Knowing that students who start behind often stay behind, district officials realized they shouldn’t wait until these children started school to address the problem. So in 2001, Bremerton School District launched the Early Childhood Care and Education Group (ECCE), with the ambitious goal of having all children reading at grade level by the end of third grade.
Lacking the capacity to create its own preschool program, Bremerton looks to others to help improve early childhood education. Officials first reached out to its Head Start partners, who were already working with the public schools to serve children with disabilities. But the district didn’t stop there. Linda Sullivan-Dudzic (the district’s Director of Special Programs) and her staff recruited faith-based and community preschools as well as home-based childcare centers for the program.
Preschools embraced the effort. Carverlynne Prothero, program supervisor at Emmanuel Lutheran Childcare Center, says that her center is “honored to be part of the program.” And given Head Start’s mandate to make the transition to kindergarten easier for disadvantaged students, Jill Brenner (child development manager for Kitsap Community Resources, which manages Head Start programs in Bremerton and three other school districts), most Head Start programs will jump at the chance to partner with their school district.
The ECCE is truly a partnership. Together, Bremerton district officials and members of the preschool community developed a five-year plan to increase the number of kindergarteners with early literacy skills and decrease the number of children requiring remedial services. Then, with input from the preschools, district officials selected a curriculum aligned with Washington’s early learning benchmarks.
Today, Bremerton provides its eighteen preschool partners with curriculum materials. Donna Gearns, a district instructional coach, leads monthly professional development and provides on-site support and training at the preschools. In addition, the preschool directors meet monthly with Sullivan-Dudzic to discuss student performance, trends and research in early childhood education, and effective teaching strategies.
In exchange for these resources, the preschools provide the school district with qualitative assessments of student progress. Twice a year, the district evaluates the nearly 800 three- and four-year-olds enrolled in the program. Sullivan-Dudzic regularly reports academic progress to the School Board of Directors, which uses the data in decision-making. In addition, the district shares the data with the preschools so they can adjust their instruction as necessary.
Given that many of the participating preschools do not have the budget for the materials and assessments that Bremerton provides, they are very appreciative of the program, and the district is happy to pick up the tab. According to Sullivan-Dudzic, while a set of curriculum materials costs the school district $2,000, the district saves $2,500 for every kindergartener who does not need remedial reading services. “All I need is one kid coming out of that preschool who does not need remedial help to make up that first year’s investment,” she says.
The entire program costs the district about $65,000 a year (down from $85,000 each of the first several years of operation), which covers materials, teacher training, and an annual preschool fair to promote the program to parents and attract new preschool partners. From the beginning, Bremerton has funded the program with state money from Washington’s Initiative 728 (I-728), which earmarked extra funds for six specific program areas—including prekindergarten programs—designed to improve student achievement. Bremerton also received a grant to provide information to parents about the importance of reading to young children and applied for grant money to provide weekend and evening training to home-based childcare providers.
But preschool only gets you so far, says Sullivan-Dudzic. So in 2002, Bremerton expanded its early learning efforts by offering full-day kindergarten to a group of academically at-risk children at each elementary school. In one year, the number of kindergarteners reading at grade level increased from one percent to 51 percent. With such impressive results, the School Board took the next step, and in 2006 became one of the first school districts in Washington to offer universal, free all-day kindergarten.
That was the decision that tested us because it [was] a big financial gamble,” says DeWayne Boyd, Bremerton School Board Director. “There was some trepidation. But for those students in full-day kindergarten, the results were so good [that we] committed to having all-day [kindergarten] for everybody.”
After just one year of universal all-day kindergarten, 92.3 percent of kindergarteners were reading at grade level or higher. By May 2008, 93.5 percent of kindergarteners met or exceeded that benchmark and only 2.1 percent needed specialized services, down from 12 percent six years earlier. Among last year’s first graders (the first to attend both the preschool and full-day kindergarten programs), 73 percent were reading at grade level, up from 52 percent in 2002. Both the district and the preschools are pleased with the results—pleased, but not satisfied. The group continuously looks for ways to improve. Current ideas include expanding their leadership group to include more community voices and having current preschool participants sit down one-on-one with new preschools to encourage them to join the group, a noble effort considering the high competition for students among preschools.
Bremerton’s efforts have earned state and national attention. State education officials named Bremerton a “Lighthouse District” and Bremerton staff now train up to ten school districts each year on developing effective early childhood education programs. The National School Boards Association awarded Bremerton its prestigious Magna Award in 2007.
The results of the Early Childhood Care and Education Group and full-day kindergarten have exceeded the School Board’s greatest expectations, says School Board Director Vicki Collins, and the Board is considering expanding the programs beyond literacy to other content areas such as math and science.
In addition, “We now must adjust the curriculum for the first, second, and third grades,” she says. “The children are entering those grades with significant academic achievement. That’s a wonderful problem to solve.”
For additional information please contact:
Director of Special Programs, Bremerton School District
School Board Director, Bremerton School District
Or see our interview with Linda Sullivan-Dudzic.
Click here to access the original story as contained in the Center for Public Education's website.