What Works in Early Childhood Education: A View from the Field
While the national debate rages over the benefits of early childhood education, an innovative, district-wide early childhood education initiative is bearing fruit in Bremerton, Washington. Since the initiative's founding, the percentage of Bremerton children entering Kindergarten knowing their letters has shot from 4% to over 50%. The percentage of Kindergarteners needing specialized education services has plummeted from 12% to 2%. And the share of first graders reading on grade level has risen from 52% to 73%.
Last week, I spoke with a woman at the center of the program: Linda Sullivan-Dudzic, the district's Director of Special programs. She described some keys to the program's success. The district:
- Aligns existing school and community resources
- Raises the quality of existing preschools rather than creating new ones
- Focuses on literacy and numeracy
- Heeds the research, and
- Holds all providers to high standards of quality
Read extensive highlights from our interview with Sullivan-Dudzic:
PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: What are the major goals of Early Childhood Care and Education Group, and what do you believe you've accomplished in striving towards those goals?
SULLIVAN-DUDZIC: We have two goals. [The first is] to increase the number of children entering kindergarten with early literacy skills--and now we've added early math foundation skills. And the second goal is to decrease the number of children, students, with learning disabilities or learning differences associated with reading.
PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: And do you feel like you've made headway in reaching your goals?
SULLIVAN-DUDZIC: Yes. In literacy definitely. We're just starting in math. We have decreasing numbers of kids qualifying as learning disabled, and we have increasing numbers of kids entering kindergarten with early reading foundation skills.
PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: So you have all kinds of community partners?
SULLIVAN-DUDZIC: Sure. I started 29 years ago with Head Start, as a speech language pathologist. And we formed our first relationship there. When I figured out that kids could get services through their public school for free, essentially, rather than through Head Start, then we formed our first partnership between Head Start and the public school system. Then I shifted over to the public school.
So we've had deep relationships in our community, working in private and Head Start preschools with kids with disabilities--and working on collaborative efforts, starting with social and emotional skills.
So it was a shock when the kids entered kindergarten in 2000, and we found out only 4 percent entered kindergarten knowing their letters.
So instead of saying we need to go do our own preschool, we got our partners together to look at the data and ask what we could do about this. And we made an effort to say we want to increase the quality and services for children in all preschools in Bremerton, not just in special ed or blended preschools. So instead of reaching a few kids, we now reach 570 kids before they come into kindergarten.
PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: And you didn't feel you needed to create an entirely new set of schools from scratch?
SULLIVAN-DUDZIC: We purposely did not do that. We wanted to value what people were already doing. If you have a childcare in Bremerton or a preschool and you feed into our schools, we wanted to support you.
PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: As you know, a lot of conversations about early childhood address the question of when academic work becomes appropriate and whether we give students too little or too much [academic preparation]. What kinds of things have you learned through your own work?
SULLIVAN-DUDZIC: Definitely you need to be grounded on the research. [When we revisited our early childhood work], I was serving on the Washington State Early Learning Benchmark Task Force, to work with a researcher on what every child should know and be able to do before Kindergarten.
So we brought in our preschool partners to examine that. We looked at Head Start standards. We looked at special ed requirements and just laid them all out. And we said, we're not going to debate what’s developmentally appropriate, we're going to do research [on] what [to] teach young children. And then we looked at what's the best of preschool that we could influence our K-3 system, and what's the best of K-3 that we could influence our preschool.
We have created what now is referred in the literature to a pre-K through third grade initiative.
PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Do you focus your attention on a certain demographic, or is this really for all kids in Bremerton?
SULLIVAN-DUDZIC: All kids. The most at-risk kids are low-income. So if you look in your community where these kids might be if they are not at a Head Start, they're often in a faith-based preschool where churches have reached out to low-income families. But they hardly have any money to support a quality preschool.
We brought a group of parents together and said, if your child didn't have disabilities or your child wasn't low-income, what preschool have you heard has really high quality? And so we brought in a mix of parents, including high socio-economic parents, and they told us what next partners we should [consider including].
PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: The benefits, then, of this program last well beyond kindergarten?
SULLIVAN-DUDZIC: Yes. Now, this year we're starting to see a little bit of "slippage" in second and third grades. And so we've brought the teachers together, and I've requested that the Board do a pre-K through third grade summit.
So we haven't seen any fadeout at the end of first grade, but second grade and third grade we're starting to see some things.
Now, a good thing is that we know what to do. We brought our second grade teachers and our third grade teachers together, and we've mapped out next year.
I'm pushing to use our ARRA Title I monies to do a summer school for Kindergarten and [first grade]. The gatekeeper is the end of first grade. We used to think it was third grade. If you're not solid at the end of first grade in reading, you only have a 1 out of 8 chance [of becoming proficient later on].
We have a high turnover in preschools because they don't pay a lot, and so they need a consistent curriculum that is aligned with K-3. And K-3 needs to align with preschool.
We've aligned our Head Start resources with our Title I resources, which is what it was meant to do in the very beginning. Under the Johnson era, Head Start was created at the same time Title I was created, and they have very similar mandates: Requirements for staff development, a requirement to lift kids up and close the achievement gap. We've been able to take all our resources and just focus them.
PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: It sounds like you're taking the existing players in the field, the existing resources for kids, and aligning them much better.
SULLIVAN-DUDZIC: Yes. For example, I bring a group together once a month-- the ECCE Directors Meeting. And you're a director if you own your own in-home childcare. We bring everybody together, and we talk about staff development needs, because very few people can afford staff development. Then we plan our monthly staff development, which is taught by our instructional coach. And she brings in other resources too, other resources from the school district, resources from Head Start. And once a month she trains the staff.
If you're a preschool that can't release your staff, then she'll go out to your preschool then and fill you in on what you missed. And every month she's done a brilliant job of designing it. It's based on the needs of the kids. Then the next month, the preschool will showcase what they did with that information.
PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Some people are saying early childhood doesn't help at all. Others are saying well, yes, it helps but it's got to be way more targeted: We have to target it to low-income kids, and universal early childhood education is actually not a good use of resources. Is that something you want to comment on?
SULLIVAN-DUDZIC: Is universal preschool a wonderful idea? Absolutely. I think we have lost our advantage as a nation. We used to be the only country that offered free public education, K-12. Where people get worried about universal preschool is when they look at the state of Georgia, which is getting a strong fadeout effect. [we have to] go back and look at how are we using our resources.
The question is, are we ready to look in the mirror and say, “yes, we want to do universal preschool, but it will be quality.” Those people who are trying to do a good job… we honor what they're doing, but we don't excuse poor quality. We will look at data of kids coming into kindergarten and we will adjust our own instruction so that we can send even more kids well-prepared.
We [in Bremerton] had the choice of taking our Title I money and building our own preschool. We figured that, with the amount of money we [currently] spend to reach 570, we'd probably reach about 20 kids [with our own preschool]. This way, that same money can take existing preschools and lift them up.
I think that you can't talk about preschool unless you talk about pre-K through 3. Otherwise you're just wasting your money. We all could do a better job of aligning of resources. K-3 needs to step up to the plate, and preschool needs to step up to the plate. And kindergarten. We are going to make sure that we don't fade out. We capitalize on the good work and we continue it.
It's a wonderful, hopeful time right now. We have the research out there. We have good longitudinal studies. I think we have about a two-year window. We either do this right or we're not going to have another chance.
Download audio excerpts from the complete interview:
- The Big Picture: What Has Bremerton Accomplished? (3:04)
- What's Developmentally Appropriate for Bremerton Children? (2:32)
- Do All Children Benefit? (2:37)
- What about Fadeout? (3:21)
- Is it Expensive? (2:15)
- How Do You Align Existing Resources for Success? (3:14)
- Question of Quality (4:47)
Click here to browse dozens of Public School Insights interviews with extraordinary education advocates, including:
- Actress/Mathematician Danica McKellar on girls and math
- Best Selling Author Kenneth C. Davis on engaging with history
- Nurse Practitioner Jennifer Danielson on providing health care at school
The views expressed in this website's interviews do not necessarily represent those of the Learning First Alliance or its members.
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