Jan. 18, 2021
Children exist in a rich context of their families, communities, and schools. For young children, 45 percent of whom live in low-income households, schools that act as hubs of resources for families and children beginning at birth can help ensure that they have the support they need to be ready for kindergarten and succeed in elementary school and beyond. With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the concept of school-community partnership to meet the needs of the whole child is even more important, as a growing number of families experience homelessness, hunger, a lack of health care, disruptions in child care, and a need for other critical resources.
During the last months of 2020, New America joined with the AASA (The School Superintendents Association), NAESP (the National Association of Elementary School Principals), CCSSO (Council of Chief State School Officers), EDC (Education Development Center), and NAECS-SDE (the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education) to host a series of four webinars focusing on the following themes: Collaboration to improve teaching and learning; coordination of comprehensive services; partnership with families; and leadership structures that are strategic and continuously improve. Each theme was adapted from the First 10 model, a comprehensive approach to addressing young children’s development, designed by David Jacobson of the Education Development Center.
Below are 10 takeaways from the webinar series:
- Deep listening is the starting point for understanding the needs of families, communities, children, and educators.
Schools should begin the process of creating holistic, supportive environments by asking what services and supports are most needed. This deep listening can occur in informal ways, such as community cafes, or in a more structured format, led by family liaisons and P-3 coordinators conducting needs assessments or home visits. Either way, establishing a culture of openness and asking, rather than assuming, is the best place to start. Panelist Katie Hernandez, Principal of George Washington Elementary School in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, explained that before the pandemic, she and her colleagues would go on neighborhood walks to “have conversations on the stoop or out of apartment windows,” engage in dialogues with parents during monthly workshops, and review feedback from the needs assessments conducted by their community school director to drive decision-making around programs and services offered by her school.
- Equity and cultural responsiveness should be at the forefront of program design.
In Chicago Public Schools, for example, Bryan Stokes, Chief of Early Childhood Education, cited the district’s equity office, equity framework, and shared vision of success as driving components for achieving greater equity. He explained that the district’s targeted universalism approach sets high goals for all students and provides unique resources to help each student reach those goals. Other webinar panelists pointed to the need for providing better cultural responsiveness training for staff, ensuring that resources are available in the languages that families speak, hiring staff that are representative of the communities they serve, and designing instruction that is culturally and linguistically inclusive.
- Child and family engagement must start early.
One common technique for early family partnership raised during the webinar series is the play-and-learn group, in which coordinators bring caregivers and their young children together to interact in a fun, low-stress environment and learn new strategies to practice at home. Joe Vonderhaar, Principal of Sandoz Elementary School in Omaha, Nebraska, highlighted the importance of making sure that his building is welcoming to families with infants and toddlers as they host play-and-learn groups, with designated spaces and resources appropriate for the littlest learners.
- Parents are ideal partners and leaders.
Play-and-learn groups provide an opportunity for parents to take the lead in planning and executing activities such as movement and music, reading books in their home language, and art projects that are relevant to their culture. Other examples of authentic parent partnership raised in the webinar series include a caregiver leadership group, in which parents read child development studies and created stations at play-and-learn groups to educate one another, and weekly family book clubs geared towards specific cultural and linguistic communities led by parent volunteers, an approach taken by CentroNía in Washington, DC and Maryland.
- School staff can help children and families navigate systems of support.
In Orlando, Florida, the city’s Parramore Kidz Zone uses the Harlem Children's Zone's student advocate model, which assigns around 40 students to a school-based advocate who acts as a link between the child’s family, community, and classroom, and helps children access housing, clothing, and academic support. Several panelists highlighted during the webinars that liaisons can be especially helpful for parents who are recent or first generation immigrants to assist with navigating systems such as schools, health care, and transportation, and for identifying and applying for other supports.
- Relationships are at the heart of successful programming.
Whether the goal is to encourage family partnership, build connections between early childhood educators and their students, establish channels of communication between early childhood programs and elementary schools, or create statewide systems of early childhood support, relationships and friendships are key. When Rhode Island’s Woonsocket Education Department and Woonsocket Head Start team went to a summit about kindergarten transitions, their partnership began by simply sitting together at the summit and engaging in conversations about Woonsocket children’s needs. They eventually formed a unified group that called themselves “the Wedheads,” and became one of twelve districts across the United States to be selected by the Office of Head Start to participate in a demonstration project for their collaborative kindergarten transition program.
- Evaluation and data drive improvement, funding, and decision making.
Evaluation has been an essential component of success for Millard Public Schools in Nebraska. The district uses an array of evaluation tools including HOVRS for home visiting, CLASS to measure quality of instruction and interactions, MAP to measure students' academic growth, and an adapted version of the Minnesota Executive Function Scale to gauge social emotional development. The district also uses data to evaluate how resources are being used. For instance, when the district conducted an evaluation and found that their family resource center was not reaching the targeted population for whom it was intended, they made the difficult decision to reallocate funding to social workers and home visitors, which ultimately resulted in the intended families receiving better services and supports.
- Good leadership requires clear goals, shared understanding, and includes many voices.
Webinar panelists highlighted the importance of creating leadership teams that were representative of the cultural groups within the community and bringing together people with different areas of expertise to broaden the groups’ thinking. Panelists also described the need for better early childhood training for elementary school principals and superintendents during their pre-service programs in order to be fully prepared to serve as instructional leaders and support children before they even enter kindergarten programs.
- High-quality models already exist.
High-quality, research-based models of comprehensive early childhood programming such as Head Start, the Harlem Children’s Zone, Boston Public Schools, Judy Centers, and Chicago’s CPC P-3, have decades of experience and countless studies proving their efficacy. Panelists repeatedly mentioned how their schools and programs have borrowed and learned from these effective approaches while tailoring them to fit their community’s unique context.
- The pandemic has laid bare long-existing inequities as well as their solutions.
COVID-19 has widened disparities and left millions of families even more vulnerable than before. More than ever, it is clear that schools are an ideal hub for services, support, and resources, regardless of whether they are able to provide education in person or at a distance.
While schools alone cannot solve the devastation this pandemic continues to bring, the comprehensive supports that school-community partnerships can provide—health care services, technological assistance, child care, housing, nutrition, home visiting, transportation, career supports, and mental health services—will be essential as we rebuild and look to the future.
Enjoy what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter to receive updates on what’s new in Education Policy!