In three years, the Early Works initiative has forged system change between a school district and one Head Start program, a change that at the outset seemed almost impossible.
Three years ago, the Children’s Institute started an early learning demonstration project with community partners including Mt. Hood Community College Head Start, Multnomah Early Childhood Early Education/Early Intervention, David Douglas School District, and Earl Boyles Elementary. The partners planned an unusual arrangement: to use these publicly funded programs in harmony in one school, in order to maximize the program’s benefits for children in this high-needs community in Southeast Portland.
The partners began with one classroom of 3- and 4-year-olds, squeezed among the existing elementary classes. Today, among other features, the initiative includes three newly constructed early learning classrooms and a courtyard with equipment designed especially for young children.
The journey has involved learning and growth for everyone involved. An example is the way that the staff and teachers at the school have learned to blend Head Start protocol and regulations with the elementary curriculum.
On a recent Tuesday morning, six 3- and 4-year-olds sat around a table practicing the letter P while teaching aid James Sanford guided them. “Up, down, around,” he said, “What sound does P make again?”
“This is a great example of the ways we are aligning the preschool curriculum and practice with that of the rest of the school,” says Principal Ericka Guynes, observing Sanford with the students. “We know what the Creative Curriculum standards are around literacy for kindergarten and we’re helping to make sure that these kids will meet them.”
Mt. Hood Community College Head Start Program Manager Pam Greenough Corrie says this emphasis on literacy and preparation for kindergarten is something that the Head Start staff has understood with a new urgency as a result of this partnership. “I do think we have learned a lot more about public schools and their expectations and how they function,” she says.
Even small things such as walking in a line down the hall or sitting still in groups, Corrie says were not necessarily part of their Head Start practice before the Early Works program. After three years of operating in a school environment, she says, she understands how beneficial it is for kids to practice these skills before they reach kindergarten.
Conversely, Guynes says the Head Start program has influenced the elementary school in small and big ways – the most notable of these in the way they think about not only academic but social-emotional development in early childhood. A big part of this social emotional development is family engagement. “We’ve learned to relate to families and welcome them in a whole new way as a result of Head Start,” says Guynes. Federal Head Start protocol includes significant interaction and engagement with parents, including regular meetings and home visits on behalf of teachers.
Guynes says this is both a formal and informal change, from the relationships between parents and students to the organized home visits the teachers do with their students. “The Head Start program has taught us about the importance of meeting parents where they are,” she says.
In fact, this culture change has affected not only into the preschool but the other grades as well. After seeing first-hand the impact that home visiting can have on families, the kindergarten teachers at Earl Boyles independently organized and planned to do their own home visiting this year.
Despite the increased number of preschoolers in the 2014-15 school year — there are roughly 90 students between the three classes — Corrie says she feels the preschool has reached a point where the teachers and staff need less support from outside partners. “They really have a team that has their own expertise, and they can build on each other’s expectations and experience,” says Corrie. “So we can scale back a bit.”
This harmony is easy to see on any given day in the preschool classroom, where 3- and 4-year-olds easily transition from academic practices such as understanding patterns and letter and name recognition to social emotional development such as teeth brushing and eating family-style in the classroom.
On one recent morning, 3- and 4-year-olds sat around the table eating a meal of apple sauce, tater tots, cheeseburgers and corn. “Before we use the ketchup, let’s set up our table,” teaching aid Sanford said gently to one little girl. In response she quietly put her ketchup bottle down, identified her name using her nametag at the table, and sat down patiently to wait for her classmates to join her.