The Power of a Good Idea: How San Francisco is Building a PreK-3rd Grade Bridge

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What needs to be in place for all children to successfully cross the bridge between pre-K, kindergarten, and the early grades of elementary school? San Francisco Unified School District leadership has some answers and lessons for other districts considering PreK-3rd grade reforms.

In 2008, SFUSD leadership developed a plan to implement a PreK-3rd grade approach in an effort to shrink the district’s stubborn achievement gap. In our new report, The Power of a Good Idea: How the San Francisco School District is Building a PreK-3rd Grade Bridge, author Paul Nyhan tells the story of the district’s transformative shift.

He writes, “Broadly, [the district] has begun changing its culture from a K-12 system to a P-12 continuum. But, aligning pre-K and K-3 grades in a sustainable way that improves student outcomes and narrows the achievement gap is not easy or quick work. Instead, it requires balancing urgency with an understanding that real and measurable changes takes years.”

While the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund spurred the idea of PreK-3rd grade alignment, SFUSD leaders have embraced it and are actualizing it. Why take a PreK-3rd approach?  Research shows that high-quality pre-K leads to strong short-term and long-term outcomes for children, especially children from low-income families, but to maximize outcomes for children, it is essential that pre-K be followed up by well-connected and coordinated teaching and learning in kindergarten and the early grades of elementary school. Standards, curricula, assessment, instruction, data systems, and professional development should all be aligned across each level, PreK-3rd grade.

Over the last seven years, SFUSD, with help from its philanthropic and community partners, has made considerable investments in infrastructure. Leaders have taken key steps to sustain and grow the district’s PreK-3rd grade strategies.

As Nyhan explains in the report, leaders started “thinking PreK-3rd” first by strengthening the district’s pre-K program. SFUSD hired an experienced early education leader, Carla Bryant, to direct the then Child Development Program. Over time, the program became the “Early Education Department” and Bryant was elevated to serve as part of the Superintendent’s cabinet. Under her leadership, and support from the Superintendent Richard Carranza as well as his predecessor Carlos Garcia, the district was able to:

  • Better coordinate federal, state, and local funding streams that can fund early education;
  • Collaborate with teachers and their union representatives on necessary scheduling and other adjustments to bring pre-K more in alignment with the traditional school year;
  • Bring pre-K under the authority of elementary school principals;
  • Align curricula and professional development for teachers PreK-3rd grades; and
  • Build data systems and kindergarten readiness measures.
In the report, Nyhan emphasizes the critical role of principals in the success of PreK-3rd strategies. “Others may construct a policy, but principals are charged with making it a reality by implementing its new systems, curricula and professional development,” he explains. In other words, for transformational change  to happen at the school level, the principal has to be on board. In many cases, elementary school principals have limited elementary school experience or expertise. And, when it comes to pre-K and kindergarten they have even less. So, asking principals to oversee pre-K, something they are not likely to know much about, could be daunting if training and support is not in place. SFUSD took a smart approach by starting with the principals who were interested and providing them with professional development. The Early Education Department did the same for pre-K teachers and elementary school teachers, bringing them together jointly for planning and meetings and for visits to each other’s classrooms.

Early results from participating schools show these strategies are changing adult behavior and improving kindergarten readiness. PreK-3rd teachers are collaborating, aligning curricula, planning together, and communicating more regularly, especially pre-K and kindergarten teachers. Kindergarten teachers report, more than ever before, that the students in their classrooms who attended pre-K the prior year are ready to meet kindergarten expectations.

SFUSD has made much progress, but there is also much work left to do. And some of the biggest challenges are still ahead. As Nyhan points out, the district’s pre-K program (which operates in public school buildings) only reaches about a third of the city’s 4-year-olds. And it’s unlikely that the district will be able to serve all 4-year-olds in its public school buildings. This challenge is not unique to San Francisco, it’s something that many school districts with public pre-K programs are grappling with: how to build meaningful connections with the many non-public school pre-K providers. For SFUSD, the district is beginning with Head Start. The Kai Ming Head Start and SFUSD have developed a partnership that the district hopes to formalize to share student data and assessments, enable teachers to participate in combined training opportunities, and find other ways to smooth transitions for children and their families.

I think one of the most important lessons that Nyhan pulls from San Francisco’s work is the idea of balance: The need to close the achievement and opportunity gap as early as possible is real and urgent. At the same time, true transformation is not quick. Implementation of PreK-3rd strategies -- reforms that straddle two typically disconnected worlds -- is not easy. To be sure, there should be evidenced progress toward goals, but every goal won’t be met within a year or two or even five. SFUSD began this work with that recognition and has strong leadership in place to see it through."


Laura Bornfreund is director of early & elementary education policy with the Education Policy program at New America. She leads a team of writers and analysts to conduct policy research and analysis and put forth new ideas for improving children’s birth-through-third grade learning experiences.