Aug. 14, 2020
Nestled in east San Antonio are two early learning centers determined to prove that high-quality early education can be the reality for all children regardless of race or family income. Both part of San Antonio Independent School District, Elizabeth Tynan Early Childhood Education Center (Tynan) serves 3- and 4-year-old pre-K students, and Henry Carroll Early Child Education Center (Carroll) serves children from pre-K through second grade. Of the 750 children who attend the two schools, 60 percent are Latinx and 40 percent are Black. Both schools are Head Start centers, so families must meet eligibility guidelines for Head Start.
This past school year was their first partnering with HighScope to create “HighScope’s San Antonio Hub of Excellence.” HighScope is a highly regarded, evidence-based curriculum that emphasizes the whole child and focuses on approaches such as discovery and experimentation. It’s best known for its use in the Perry Preschool Project, which was associated with multiple long-term benefits for students.
In early August, I interviewed Network Principal Dr. Alejandra Barraza and HighScope’s Chief Academic Officer Kenneth Sherman about their experience navigating early learning during COVID-19. Barraza oversees the two schools that make up the Hub of Excellence and Sherman’s role is to work with staff to ensure the schools are implementing HighScope correctly. Their goal is for Tynan and Carroll to become the first HighScope-certified schools in the state of Texas and serve as models for high-quality early education.
Like administrators across the country, their plans for the year took a detour when COVID-19 hit in the spring. Both schools made the quick shift to remote learning in March. But serving young children virtually comes with many challenges. As depicted in this video, their educators rose to the occasion and came up with innovative ways to meet families’ needs for the remainder of the school year.
Now Barraza and Sherman are fine-tuning plans for the fall. For the first three weeks of the new school year, their district is calling for teachers to report to school but for students to stay remote. Then 25 percent of students will be allowed to participate in-person. But San Antonio has been hit hard by COVID-19 and Barraza and Sherman expect most parents to keep their children at home.
Sherman said, “COVID has taught us a lot about early learning and how we teach. Our teachers have done a phenomenal job of taking this situation and turning it into a positive... As we continue to think about this work and our school year, yes, we will eventually go face-to-face. But we have to be prepared to go back to virtual at some point… We wanted to make sure that we have our ducks in a row.”
The district provided all students with technological devices and hotspots for virtual instruction, but that’s only a small part of the equation. Young children learn best through play and meaningful interactions with adults and peers, so putting them in front of a screen for hours a day is not a viable solution. Barraza and Sherman have decided to focus their energy on empowering what they see as their best resource: parents.
Using this opportunity to rethink what early education should look like, Barraza said, “We are going to create more tools for parents…We want to create what we would call the ‘High Scope Household.’” The school leaders are giving parents materials and short lessons created by teachers that align with the HighScope curriculum. With 46 teachers each providing one lesson, parents will have many new ways to engage with their children. They will also share videos of teachers doing each lesson. The schools will provide some materials for parents, but they are trying to design lessons that use materials parents will likely have available at home.
Their plan is based on the premise that all parents want what is best for their children. Barraza says they are pushing back against the assumption that parents living in underserved areas aren’t going to get involved.
Sherman shared an example lesson involving children using PlayDoh and popsicle sticks to make a birthday cake. By counting, adding, and subtracting “candles,” parents can engage children in a developmentally appropriate math lesson. He is optimistic about equipping parents with the tools to think differently about teaching and learning. He said, “Think about all of the bonding that’s going to happen between a parent and a child when they are sitting at the table playing with that PlayDoh and doing things that are developmentally appropriate. We’re going to see so much growth between the parent and the child.”
By providing the recorded lessons and needed materials, they hope to accommodate parents who are working or juggling the needs of multiple children at home. Sherman said, “Our black and brown families are struggling the most with COVID-19 and our teachers have really become a valuable resource for our parents.” Teachers use an app that allows for two-way communication and videos are uploaded for parents to watch on their own time. “When we first started this, all of us were just trying to tread water. But as we continue to do this work and see what is best for our children, it was really important for us not to put added stress on the parents, but just be a resource for our parents,” he said.
While Barraza and Sherman anticipate most children sticking with virtual learning, they are still taking important steps to make in-person learning safe for staff and students. They are looking into adequate ventilation, providing PPE and sanitizing materials in classrooms, and limiting who can come into the school building. They are also making better use of outdoor spaces and plan to have children outside for much more of the day than before.
School leadership is also taking steps to help teachers tackle these new challenges. “As administrators we need to convey that their [the teachers] safety is our priority. We have to do as much as we can to support them,” Barraza said. To help reduce teacher stress, some teachers will be solely responsible for in-person learning and others will be responsible for virtual learning, instead of expecting all teachers to tackle both.
At a time of so much uncertainty, Barraza has taken it upon herself to become well-versed in the latest research on COVID. She said, “We have a responsibility to be informed. That’s what the teachers are expecting of us. If we are going to make decisions they have to be informed by researchers. And it has to be informed by the top researchers in the country.”
HighScope’s San Antonio Hub of Excellence is not letting the added challenges of the pandemic derail their efforts to provide high-quality early learning to an already vulnerable population. They hope lessons from this school year, particularly around intentional parent engagement, will help inform their work even when the country returns to normal. As all schools work to adapt during this crisis there is an opportunity to learn from new practices being put into place that may show a better way for the future.
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