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Panel Discussion Focuses on Reinventing the Primary School

Ruby Takanishi, author of First Things First: Creating the New American Primary School, begins her new book by writing, “Talent is universally distributed. Opportunity to develop that talent, sadly is not.” Takanishi, a senior research fellow at New America and “mother of the preK-3rd movement” according to the Children’s Institute Swati Adarkar, traveled to Portland, Oregon last week to participate in a panel centered around the idea of ensuring that the opportunity to develop each child’s talent becomes more universally distributed across the country.

The panel, sponsored by the Children’s Institute, spoke about one of the most effective ways of ensuring that all children have equal opportunities to succeed: engaging with students and families long before children first enter kindergarten. In her book, Takanishi advances a vision of a new primary school that upends the traditional K-12 system of education in America by offering free, voluntary pre-K for three- and four-year-olds followed by compulsory, full-day kindergarten for all students to build on early learning gains made in pre-K.

It’s appropriate that the panel discussion took place in Portland since the city is the site of a promising initiative designed to demonstrate just such an innovative new approach to education. Earl Boyles Elementary School, located in the David Douglas School District in eastern Portland, has been an Early Works demonstration site since 2010. Early Works is part of a ten-year initiative financed by the Children’s Institute with the goal of creating a seamless system that supports kids and families from birth through the third grade.

Over 80 percent of the students at Earl Boyles are economically disadvantaged and over a third are English language learners. (For a comprehensive review of the efforts of the school district to serve its DLL population see this New America report). After conducting an initial community needs assessment, the staff discovered a strong desire for pre-K access since more than half of kindergarteners entering the school had no previous pre-K, Head Start, or other formal early learning experience.

School leaders created a high-quality pre-K program available to all three- and four-year-olds in the school area, provided an early kindergarten transition program to help children get acclimated to the school, facilitated shared professional development between pre-K and early grade teachers to foster instructional alignment, and started a parent-teacher home visiting program.

The results of the Early Works initiative are encouraging. Rates of chronic absenteeism at Earl Boyles are down, kindergarteners have more books in the home, and students who attend pre-K are outperforming their peers in early literacy and math skills.

During the panel discussion, Ericka Guynes, principal of Earl Boyles, discussed the need for a cultural shift among schools to focus on children from birth, before they formally enroll in school. Guynes explained the importance of viewing parents as true partners and focusing on true family engagement instead of family involvement. While family involvement might consist of encouraging parents to occasionally volunteer at school and attend school events, family engagement signifies a continuous commitment on the part of school staff to partner with families throughout a student’s schooling. As an example of the school’s efforts to reach children and families as early as possible, Guynes pointed out that Earl Boyles serves about 65 infants and toddlers in a room made available to families and child care providers to use.

Don Grotting, current superintendent of Beaverton School District and former superintendent of David Douglas School District, spoke on the panel about the financial motives for investing early in children. Grotting pointed out that large amounts of money are spent after a student’s academic deficiencies are identified in the third grade, but much of that money could be saved if it was instead invested early when the potential payoff is highest.

Grotting also noted that one obstacle to moving towards an early learning model like Earl Boyles is that most principals and superintendents lack adequate knowledge of early childhood education. (For more information on the importance of principal leadership and knowledge in supporting children’s early learning, check out New America’s recent series.)

Also a panel participant was Andreina Velasco, a current pre-K teacher at Earl Boyles. She pointed to the need for changes in the way teachers are prepared prior to entering the classroom. Velasco said that her preservice training failed to adequately prepare her to truly engage with families as partners in their children’s learning.

The panel concluded by addressing what actions need to be taken in order to grow programs, such as Early Works, that truly embrace a seamless continuum of early learning and support for children from birth through third grade. Access to early learning in the United States is still low, with only 5 percent of three-year-olds and 29 percent of four-year-olds attending state pre-K in 2015. Grotting raised up the importance of state political leadership in making access to early education a priority. For her part, Ruby Takanishi made the case that it’s up to individual citizens to speak out to their elected officials and advocate for increased investment in the earliest years of a child’s life.