The Impact of Strong District Leadership in Early Childhood

Lessons from California
Sept. 28, 2023

Introduction: Leadership for High-Quality Early Childhood Education

Governors and state legislatures are expanding early childhood education programs and relying on school districts to do it. District leaders hold a great deal of power in shepherding the growth of these programs in their communities. Yet, many do not have a strong background in early childhood education. District leaders need support and guidance on best practices in building out early childhood programs in their school districts. They need guidance on how to connect with and lean on local expertise, as well as guidance on how to grow their own teams. District leaders also need models for how to collaborate with early childhood educators so their communities have strong pre-kindergarten mixed delivery systems. They need models for doing this work and information about how to build high-quality education programs that can reach the majority of young children in their communities. This knowledge is especially important as districts look to sustain and expand improvements in their early childhood education programs.

Three communities in California that have been working on building and strengthening their early childhood systems can offer important lessons. As part of the Starting Smart and Strong initiative, New America has been following the efforts of Fresno, Oakland, and East San Jose since 2015 as they reform the way early childhood systems work and the way teachers are trained. In May of 2023, the School Superintendents Association (AASA)’s Early Learning Cohort and New America hosted a panel discussion with leaders from each of these three communities on early learning leadership. The findings in this brief are pulled from that discussion, evaluation research on early childhood reform in California, and New America’s past policy analysis and reporting in this area since 2015.

In their work to reform their early childhood systems, each of these three communities has struggled to overcome obstacles. In the past decade, they have faced volatile state funding, teacher shortages, budget cuts, labor strikes, racial inequity, economic insecurity, and a global pandemic. Yet each has built systems of training and support that have made critical differences in children’s lives. These victories merit attention, especially as communities work to rally around children and families recovering from pandemic-era school disruptions.


Research shows that leadership in early childhood can be key to supporting developmentally appropriate instruction and alignment of curriculum across the grade spans. The National Academy of Medicine’s Transforming the Workforce for Children from Birth Through Age 8 report found that early childhood leaders and administrators should have an in-depth understanding of developmental science and how to apply that knowledge in the classroom. Administrators need this understanding to guide their decisions on “hiring, supervision, and selection of tools for assessment of children and evaluation of teacher performance,” among other things, the report found.

Strong district-level administrative and principal leadership can help schools to implement changes in instructional practices and can help facilitate staff buy-in. Strong leaders can allocate resources and guide teachers to improve their teaching, align instruction, and collaborate in new ways.

Evidence from three communities in California shows that district-level and school-level leadership are both critical to supporting early childhood reform inside a school district.[1] Leadership support was key at all phases of the reform work.[2] However, the work in these three communities also shows the impact of distributed leadership models, when district leaders trust and share leadership with educators in their schools and districts and with community members through partnerships and collaboration. This is particularly evident in watching how each community has been able to grow and scale their reform work.

Starting Smart and Strong

Starting Smart and Strong is a decade-long effort funded by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation that aims to ensure all children grow up healthy and ready for kindergarten by improving the quality of adult-child interactions across all settings where young children learn and grow. The foundation awarded grants of $500,000 each year for 10 years to the Franklin-McKinley School District in San Jose, the Fresno Unified School District, and the Oakland Public Education Fund. The support has helped pay for professional development and training for early childhood educators, support for informal care providers (family, friends, and neighbors who are not licensed), developmental screenings, and collaborations between public and private systems to support young children.

Support is also provided to school districts for technical assistance, evaluation and research, and partnerships with groups like the New Teacher Center. These three communities have blended this support with school district dollars as well as with additional public and philanthropic funding streams. The initiative also seeded funding for early learning department administrative positions in each school district, which individual districts contributed to in different ways.

Four Lessons in Early Childhood Education Leadership from California

District-level leadership is critical to supporting early childhood education reform.

Starting Smart and Strong made the decision early on to support early learning department administrative positions in each school district. Some of the positions were new, and some were restructured. The idea was that reform requires strong leadership at all phases of the change process: creating the capacity for change, supporting reforms as they happen, building capacity for iteration, learning to scale what works, and sustaining changes in practice.

Having an early childhood administrator in an upper management role has been a key ingredient to the successes each district has seen. For example, the early childhood program within the Oakland Unified School District functioned for years as an “island,” staff there said, separate from the rest of the school district. Today, the program is much more integrated, in large part thanks to structural reforms and administrative support. “Before, we had a director of early childhood who wasn't sitting with academics,” said Christie Herrera, who served for many years as the Executive Director of Early Learning in Oakland Unified. “Restructuring this work to be aligned with academics and school site services really changed and shifted how early learning was seen and created a deeper alignment.”

“Reform requires strong leadership at all phases of the change process: creating the capacity for change, supporting reforms as they happen, building capacity for iteration, learning to scale what works, and sustaining changes in practice.”

Starting Smart and Strong included an evaluation conducted by Engage R+D and supported by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. This evaluation found that the high-level directors at the decision-making tables in school districts “have the power to set a ‘vision’ for early learning that can spread throughout a district and encourage buy-in.”[3] Early learning directors help allocate resources to build and sustain early childhood programs and champion the work. Findings show they strengthen the infrastructure that supports and grows professional development.[4]

“In our district, the early childhood education department reports to me directly,” said Juan Cruz, the Superintendent in Franklin-McKinley School District in East San Jose, at the AASA Early Learning Leadership Summit. “So, I’m intricately involved in everything early learning. A lot of the decisions we've been making are a result of my better understanding of what is needed in early childhood education and making sure that we're allocating the resources.”

Cruz said that his school district has been allocating money out of its general fund to grow its preschool and transitional kindergarten programs at levels larger than what is supported by the state. Transitional Kindergarten (TK) is a pre-kindergarten program in public schools that California is slowly making available to all students by the 2025–26 school year.

Fresno Unified has also expanded its preschool and TK programs. It added 37 additional classrooms in the district last year, according to Maria Ceballos Tapia, the district’s Executive Officer of Early Learning. Ceballos Tapia said, “It took all the departments to be able to come together” to make the expansion happen. “Human resources, facilities, purchasing, all the different departments of the district. And I don't think that would have happened the way it took place, if it wasn't for our superintendent really sending that message, that early learning is a priority in our school district.”

In East San Jose, District-Level Leadership in Early Childhood Helped Guide Expansion and Reform

In 2015, the Franklin-McKinley School District in East San Jose created a new Director of Early Learning position. At the time, the district’s only early childhood education program was the federally mandated special education preschool and there were very few formal child care centers for young children in the area.

Today, things are very different. A partnership with Educare California at Silicon Valley has brought more early learning and family support programs to the community. The school district has increased its capacity to serve young children, expanding its preschool program with leadership from the Early Learning Director and longtime Superintendent Juan Cruz. It is expanding its transitional kindergarten classrooms and has built out a rigorous professional development program designed to train educators in supporting students’ social and emotional growth and development. Cruz said his close involvement in the early learning work enabled him to support the early learning program when needed and support the growth of the professional development infrastructure, which benefited the whole district.

“It really has transformed our system,” said Cruz, who attended sessions himself. “Once we started talking about social-emotional and the fact that behavior really is a way of communicating,” he said, they understood “that it doesn't stop in TK and kindergarten and first grade. It started different conversations within our school district about how to respond to behavior for not just a five-year-old, but a 13-year-old. It really started to change our lens.” This conversation also impacted the district’s exclusion and suspension practices, Cruz said. “It started with early learning and then it completely changed the whole system.”

Training helps principals become more effective instructional leaders for early childhood classrooms.

Principals have a big impact on what happens in classrooms, yet research shows that very few have had training or education in child development or how children learn in the early years. Research shows that principals who have a deeper understanding of how children learn can do a better job of supporting instruction and strengthening alignment across the grade levels.

Two districts in Starting Smart and Strong ran principal academies to build instructional leadership and close the knowledge gap in early learning.

Leaders in Fresno said that at the time its program was developed, the district’s kindergarten and early elementary grade classrooms were too often using instructional models not appropriate for young children—classrooms with desks in rows, for example, and too much whole-group instruction that asked children to sit still and listen for long periods of time. Fresno Unified holds a monthly dinner class for principals with content that drew from the six competencies outlined by the National Association of Elementary School Principals in its guide, Leading Pre-K-3 Learning Communities: Competencies for Effective Principal Practice. The academy places emphasis on principals working alongside teachers to make concrete improvements in their instructional practices. The dinner classes include discussions, site visits, coaching, and practicums to help administrators support their teachers in the early grades.

The program is being expanded as Fresno Unified expands its preschool and transitional kindergarten classrooms. This school year, the district is offering a three-part series, once in the fall and once in the spring. Topics include principles of child development; developmentally appropriate practice; what to look for in high-quality classrooms; early learning curricula and instruction; the California Preschool Learning Foundations; assessment in early childhood; and how to use preschool and TK data to inform, support, and align instruction.

After each session, small groups of administrators gather during the school day for an instructional practice walk at one of the participant’s sites. They visit the preschool and TK classrooms and look for high-quality instruction, with the aim of calibrating their practices. Participants are also given an assignment after each session, where they apply their learning at their own sites with one or more of their own preschool and/or TK classrooms. For example, after the session on curriculum and instruction, administrators meet with one of their teachers and use an Intentional Teaching Experience card from Creative Curriculum to teach a small group.

Educators say that when leaders have a deeper understanding of the importance of early childhood education, they are more supportive of teaching in the way young children learn best. They are also more likely to use their power to allocate resources for training, professional development, or coaching for classroom teachers and support staff, for example. These are all elements that research shows schools need to build and expand quality programs that have the best outcomes for young children.

Teacher leadership models can sustain quality improvement.

Researchers at the federal Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation define distributed leadership as “when formal leaders and frontline staff share power and decision-making in one or more domains of work.” Evidence shows that when district leaders support teacher leadership and provide opportunities for administrators to work alongside teachers in improving instruction or professional development, for example, those projects will be more successful. Shared leadership models help participants develop systems-level thinking and a better understanding of how different members of the team contribute to instruction or reform efforts.[5]

From the inception of Starting Smart and Strong, funders as well as school and community leaders encouraged models of reform in which educators in all settings could play leadership roles in changing practice and policy. Communities partnered with the Early Learning Lab, which helped support them in trying new approaches using techniques from human-centered design and continuous improvement. The goal was developing leadership, improving programs and services, and strengthening the local early childhood ecosystem. A key component of the Starting Smart and Strong work at its beginning, said Catherine Atkin, Early Learning Lab’s first Executive Director, was “really making teachers the agents of change,” so “that they themselves are able to understand what they are trying, what’s not working, and then to be architects.”

After eight years, all three Starting Smart and Strong communities have developed teacher leadership programs, and leaders are contributing to instructional design and professional development in important ways.

In East San Jose, the Franklin-McKinley School District has been training educators to support students’ social-emotional learning. The work has included professional development, coaching and professional learning communities, and a teacher leader program. Teachers who have become proficient in the new instructional strategies are able to attend national conferences on early learning and to help train and assess other teachers in the district, which helps build the capacity of the district’s expert teaching force.

In Oakland Unified, the Kindergarten Transition Teacher Leaders program pairs kindergarten teachers with pre-K teachers to share information and build support structures that make sure children have successful transitions and early school experiences. They are also supporting teacher leadership in other ways: through coaching and professional learning communities and by helping both TK and preschool teachers who need additional units or credentials.

In each of these communities, having buy-in and support from district leadership was a key factor in their programs’ successes.

Fresno’s Training to Help Multilingual Children Led to Statewide Investment

Most young children growing up in Fresno live in homes where languages other than English are spoken. Ten years ago, educators were concerned that many of these children were falling behind in elementary school. Today, the program they created to strengthen adult practice in working with multilingual learners is being used not only in early childhood classrooms in Fresno, but throughout the state.

There was strong support for early learning from within the school district, and leaders in Fresno Unified developed the training program with community partners because they knew this would strengthen the program and its outcomes. They collaborated with the Office of the Fresno County Superintendent of Schools, Central Valley Children’s Services Network, Head Start, Early Head Start, and local early childhood practitioners, with leadership from experts. Deanna Mathies, the former Executive Officer of Early Learning with the school district, said it was a relief to have partners. “It was liberating because I didn’t have to have all the answers. I could learn from them,” she said.

The Language Learning Project has since gone on to publish a toolkit and receive investment from the state of California to expand.

As the project grew, Fresno Unified’s leadership made it clear that early learning was a priority and gave the team room to experiment and refine. It built on the diverse expertise and partnership that existed in the school district and community at large. Teacher leaders were promoted to early learning coaches. Directors at the early learning centers were made program managers. School district leaders worked with Head Start administrators and family child care providers.

Today, these practices—which focus on developing children’s oral language skills and working closely with families—are embedded in the school district’s professional development system and are being used to train new teachers as the district expands its programs for young children. More than 1,000 professionals who work with young children have been trained in the Fresno region, including child care workers, teachers, and administrators. The program has been expanded to neighboring counties and some practices have been codified in California’s policy and administrative guidance. Now, with additional support from the California Department of Social Services, local leaders are working to expand and adapt the training to family child care and to family, friend, and neighbor child care providers.

Community expertise can help school district leaders strengthen mixed-delivery systems.

Evidence from Starting Smart and Strong shows that community partnerships can be critical to reforming how early childhood systems work and the way teachers are trained. Partnerships between school districts, parent advocacy groups, early care and education providers, local city and county leaders, community-based organizations, philanthropy, and others helped all three communities strengthen mixed-delivery systems to serve children and families. Leadership helped the school districts grow their own early childhood expertise, train educators, and build programs that are responsive to community needs.

In Oakland Unified, for example, local leaders placed the money from this new initiative with its philanthropic arm, the Oakland Public Education Fund, to signal that this was a community-wide effort. The group’s collaborative structure shares leadership between school district officials and those from local community-based nonprofits, care providers, educators, local philanthropy, and government. Today, the group has built a strong, cross sector collaboration that is advocating for policies that support young children. Decision-making and leadership are shared.

“For me, being a part of an early learning community and collaborative outside of [Oakland Unified School District] has really helped develop my own leadership,” Christie Herrera said. She has been able to learn from others both inside and outside of her own community, visiting other school districts and learning from their early childhood programs, for example.

All three communities held training programs that encouraged early childhood education professionals to learn alongside public school teachers on topics such as how to meet the needs of dual language learners, how to respond appropriately to children’s challenging behaviors, or how to engage in trauma-informed practice. In East San Jose, Franklin-McKinley School District has a deep partnership with Catholic Charities and Educare California at Silicon Valley that has enabled it to deepen its family engagement work. This has included training for multilingual families held in Vietnamese and Spanish and helping with food and diapers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

These training programs are part of efforts in these locales to spread best practices to all adults who work with young children. Leaders said this is a new and critical way to look at what was formerly called school readiness. “This is not just about the child being ready,” said Oakland’s Herrera, “but about the community and the schools being ready.” Herrera said Oakland is also asking: “What are we doing within those first five years before children show up to kindergarten to make sure that the community is healthy and well-resourced to support that child?”

Research from the National P–3 Center at the University of Colorado Denver found that cross-sector work was critical for helping participants make practical connections across a continuum of children’s learning from birth through age eight. Principals who participated in training put on by the National P–3 Center said they got huge benefits out of learning alongside center directors, for example, and community-based providers said there was value in having relationships inside the local school district. Principals said they like learning about the experiences their students have before they get to elementary school.

Similarly, the Starting Smart and Strong evaluation found that the districts’ partnerships helped bring “greater acknowledgement and universal understanding” about the value of early learning for children, families, and in early learning classrooms.[6]

As California expands its transitional kindergarten program to include all four-year-olds in the state, Oakland, Fresno, and San Jose are leaning on their coalitions and relationships to better understand the implications of this change on the mixed-delivery early education system. For example, they are working to mitigate the impact on child care centers and family child care homes of moving four-year-olds into public schools.

In Oakland, Distributed Community Leadership Helped Lead to New Local Funding Streams for Children and Families

The years of work put in by local community members to build effective and democratic coalitions which can fight for change for young children and families is paying off today. Leadership from school administrators, funders, local parents and care providers, educators, and community-based organizations has resulted in a strong advocacy network that is informing local policy and fighting against the impact of gentrification and privatization in the city. The Oakland Starting Smart and Strong Collaborative is working to “center the leadership of Oakland families and early childhood practitioners” and to build systems that support “young children and families most impacted by racial and economic inequity.”

Local leaders helped organize to pass two new funding structures in the city: the Oakland Children’s Initiative, which will collect an annual parcel tax to support child care and preschool programs as well as to provide some money for college access; and the Children’s Health and Child Care Initiative for Alameda County, which, through a sales tax, will support increased access to quality care and fund pediatric health care. Provider and parent advocacy, with leadership from Oakland’s Parent Voices, played a critical role.

“Without Oakland Starting Smart and Strong and the collaborative table and partnership, I don't think Measure AA [The Oakland Children’s Initiative] would have been possible,” said Christie Herrera. “Having long-term funding investments, as opposed to a one-to-two-year grant cycle, allows you to do deep-rooted community work that is required for long-term change and sustainable support for children and families.”

Conclusion: Shared Leadership and Building Capacity Enable Systems Change

Over the past eight years, district-level leadership; principal leadership; leadership from teachers, parents, and child care providers; and leadership from early childhood experts in the communities at large helped inform and guide change on behalf of young children in three communities in California. These networks contributed to building capacity for change, supported reform over time, and are now adapting and scaling what has worked well.

Working with Engage R+D, the evaluation firm, communities assessed their own progress on leadership development at different levels of their early learning systems. This work showed that superintendents, early learning directors, and teachers are feeling increasingly committed to supporting early learning in their districts and to supporting professional development.[7]

Communities reported in evaluation results that they strengthened their leadership in early childhood education and have committed resources and support for internal capacity-building through ongoing professional development for teachers and instructional assistants. They also reported progress on collaborating with early learning organizations. Communities reported that they have grown their infrastructure to support their early learning systems and that professional development is more available and accessible. According to Engage R+D, “there are symposiums, workshops, coaching, professional learning communities, etc.” and “the pandemic has helped transform PD [professional development] into a hybrid model of in-person and virtual, which has helped to spread PD to harder-to reach and non-district based educators.”[8]

Early data are hopeful. In Oakland, for example, children whose teachers received site-based coaching on best practices in early learning for three years or more performed the best on the Desired Results Developmental Profile, an assessment that measures young children's learning and development. And in Franklin-McKinley, the more professional development in social and emotional learning that early educators received, and for a longer period of time, the higher the child development scores by the end of the school year.[9] Evaluations are ongoing.

In this brief we have shown how leadership led to change for young children in these three communities in California. It is of note that successful leadership models employed here were not always authoritative. In fact, often what leaders did to support change was to participate in community collaborations, to trust educators, and to share leadership responsibilities with early childhood education experts inside and outside of their school districts.

Work from these communities shows that buy-in from superintendents and district-level leadership is a critical element in successfully increasing a district’s capacity for early childhood reform, but so is leadership from the classroom and community. Principals, teachers, paraprofessionals, specialists, and therapists have a deep expertise in how early childhood programs run and what they need to succeed. Community members—parents, community-based organization staff, organizers, family child care providers, and more—bring their own cultural contexts and expertise that administrators and educators can learn a great deal from, and which can strengthen what is happening in school districts.

“Buy-in from superintendents and district-level leadership is a critical element in successfully increasing a district’s capacity for early childhood reform, but so is leadership from the classroom and community.”

These collaborative and distributive leadership styles allowed districts to experiment, to build needed infrastructure and expertise, and to scale up practices. Their work can serve as models for other communities looking to build out equitable, mixed-delivery systems that take advantage of early childhood education knowledge and competencies inside their own communities.


Special thanks to Superintendent Bob Nelson, Maria Ceballos Tapia, Jessica Gutierrez, Kacey Sanom, Deanna Mathies, and Whit Hayslip in Fresno; to Superintendent Juan Cruz, Jennifer Klassen, and Chris Sciarrino at the Franklin-McKinley School District; and to Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell, Drew Giles, María Sujo, Priya Jagannathan, Andrea Youngdahl, and Christie Herrera (now the Assistant Superintendent of Early Education in San Francisco Unified) at Oakland Unified.

Thank you to Clare Nolan, Erika Takada, and the team at Engage R+D; and to Edward Manuszak and the American Association of School Administrators, Early Learning Cohort for your partnership.

Thank you to Cara Sklar, Laura Bornfreund, Lisa Guernsey, Carrie Gillispie, Aaron Lowenberg, Nicole Hsu, and the editorial and communications teams at New America.

We would like to thank the David and Lucile Packard Foundation for its generous support of this work. The views expressed in this report are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the view of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, its officers, or its employees.


[1] District-level leadership includes school superintendents, assistant superintendents, early learning directors, and those with purview over curriculum and instruction. School-level leaders include principals, assistant principals, and others with school-level leadership responsibilities.

[2] Engage R+D, “Sustaining Systems Change. Perspectives from S31 Leaders. Packard Foundation – Starting Smart and Strong,” November 2021, (internal report); “Lessons from Starting Smart and Strong — Engage R+D,” Engage R+D, n.d.,

[3] Engage R+D, “Sustaining Systems Change. Perspectives from S31 Leaders. Packard Foundation – Starting Smart and Strong,” November 2021, 3, (internal report).

[4] Engage R+D, “Sustaining Systems Change. Perspectives from S31 Leaders. Packard Foundation – Starting Smart and Strong,” November 2021, (internal report).

[5] Anne Douglass, Tamara Halle, Gretchen Kirby, and Kerensa Nagle, Recognizing and Supporting Early Childhood Educators and Program Administrators as Agents of Change: An Exploration of Distributed Leadership in Early Care and Education (Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research & Evaluation, 2022); Anne L. Douglass, Leading for Change in Early Care and Education: Cultivating Leadership from Within, ed. Sharon Ryan, Early Childhood Education Series (New York: Teachers College Press, 2017).

[6] Engage R+D, “Sustaining Systems Change. Perspectives from S31 Leaders. Packard Foundation – Starting Smart and Strong," November 2021, (internal report).

[7] Engage R+D, “Strengthening Systems for Quality and Scale: Findings from the Early Learning Self-Assessment (ELSSA),” March 2021, (internal report).

[8] Engage R+D, “Sustaining Systems Change. Perspectives from S31 Leaders. Packard Foundation – Starting Smart and Strong,” November 2021, (internal report).

[9] Engage R+D, “Franklin-McKinley Retrospective Study,” 2019, (internal report).