It’s mid-morning in Oakland, Calif., and three moms push strollers down the hallways of Allendale Elementary School. Principal Charles Miller greets them warmly.
It’s the middle of the school day, but unlike at some elementary schools, strollers in the hallways are not an unusual sight. Neither is the crowd of toddlers running down the corridor toward the playground that I join moments later, followed by caregivers carrying infants or holding tightly to pudgy fingers.
In addition to serving elementary school students, from transitional kindergarten through fifth grade, Principal Miller believes that serving the infants and toddlers in this community is part of his job.
“The birds-eye view,” he told me “is that elementary schools may have an incomplete understanding about what their work is with regards to students upon arrival.” Especially in communities serving low-income students, Miller says instructional leaders should not assume that students arrive at their door with everything that they’ll need to be successful learners. Investing in “birth to age five” education, Miller says, “benefits kids, benefits the community, and benefits the work of a school.”
At Allendale it seems young children are everywhere. Four-year-olds in the state pre-K program are playing with measuring cups and dried rice at a “sensory table.” Five-year-olds in transitional kindergarten are getting books to take home to read with their families. Three-year-olds who are recent immigrants from Yemen and Afghanistan are playing puzzles and toys while their parents attend English as a Second Language classes down the hall. And in a sunny classroom, a group of toddlers, their baby siblings, and their caregivers sit in a big circle and sing songs in English and Spanish as part of a weekly playgroup hosted here.
“These programs represent what we see as a pipeline for children ages zero through five,” Miller said. “So that all the kids who are in these programs, whether they land here at Allendale later or anywhere, are better equipped for school. We want all of them to start off with a foundation that’s going to help them be successful.”
Bringing programming for young children into the elementary school helps build community, continuity and instructional alignment, and helps children and their families see school as a welcoming place.
“I have kids who are now entering kindergarten who have been cruising the hallways here for a couple of years as toddlers,” said Miller.
These programs help young children learn foundational skills to help them get ready for learning in the upper grades—early mathematics and reading skills, language development, appropriate expectations of behavior, self-regulation, and social and emotional skills such as sharing and expressing feelings.
“Especially at this time in America, I love that we can build community,” said Ajhana Deramous who attends the weekly playgroups with her 20-month-old daughter. “I love that my daughter can be around all different kinds of people.”
As part of this work, Allendale has partnered with Lotus Bloom, a family resource center to bring playgroups to the school on weekday mornings. This partnership was made possible with local philanthropic support.
As we talk, Deramous’s daughter, Aziyah, is climbing on the play structure and running back forth pointing to letters that have been painted in a colorful mural on a nearby wall. “You found a J,” her mom says. Aziyah’s grandma lives around the block and the two combine visits with grandma to visits to the playgroup. Deramous says she’s happy her daughter feels comfortable here, so when she’s ready to go elementary school it won’t be a foreign place.
Lotus Bloom leads playgroups two mornings a week at Allendale. The playgroups provide a welcoming space for low-income, multicultural families with young children to play and learn, and focus on supporting parents and caregivers with workshops and introductions to community resources. According to Lotus Bloom’s executive director, Angela Louie Howard, the model also aims to lift up and support knowledge about child rearing that is embedded in Oakland’s ethnic communities and empower parents.
Howard has been working with the Oakland Unified School District to help increase its early childhood programming and provide culturally competent support programs for parents and caregivers of very young children before they get to kindergarten.
Close partnerships like these are an important part of Oakland’s recent efforts to reform the system of care for its youngest children and to better integrate early childhood programming into elementary schools. In Oakland, it is common for child development centers to operate as separate entities and not be integrated into the school culture or activities, even though they are often on or adjacent to elementary school campuses.
Through partnerships and private foundation support, Allendale also provides wrap-around services for students and families, including counseling and support services, onsite dental and medical services for students, and intervention programs that promote positive behavior.
Logistically, sharing the school with so many groups can be challenging. For example, making sure two-year-olds are able to safely share the play yard with 11-year-olds. But Principal Miller says despite the challenges, integration is worth it.
“I play musical chairs a lot,”’ he says, “finding enough space is always an issue.” But his unified vision of early education and elementary school he hopes will pay off down the line.
“The more we do earlier, the better it’s going to be for the students.”
(For more information on the importance of principal leadership in supporting children’s early learning, check out New America’s recent series and for more on efforts to improve teaching and caregiving in California visit this page.)