Strengthening the Building Blocks for Effective Early Learning

By Chris Times, Kathleen Theodore, and Ramona Chauvin

March 22, 2018

These days, early childhood learning is much more than ABCs and 123s. Early childhood educators construct a foundation that prepares children for life-long learning. Providing support for these educators was the focus of a regional convening hosted by the Southeast and Midwest Comprehensive Centers (SECC and MWCC) at American Institutes for Research (AIR). The Nurturing High-Quality Early Learning and Leadership Across the PreK–3 Continuum Early Childhood Institute was held September 26–28, 2017, in Atlanta. Over several days, state-based teams engaged in sessions led by experts in the field, heard about the progress and challenges of other states, and discussed strategies for improving early childhood learning supports for implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Materials from the institute’s sessions are available to view and download.

During the convening, teams from Illinois (MWCC); Indiana (Great Lakes Comprehensive Center); and Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina (SECC) collaborated to identify strategies and practices for improving preK–3 learning, programs, and leadership in their states.

Illinois early childhood team

According to Taishya Adams, MWCC strategic partnership lead, staff from Illinois were excited to meet educators from other state agencies, learn more about initiatives that can inform their work, and take time as a state project team to develop action plans. “The institute gave us highly valued time to discuss the practicality of policies being developed at the state level with actual practitioners in the field,” explained Illinois state team member Lynn Burgett. (Pictured is the Illinois state team, from left to right: Burgett, Early Childhood Division supervisor, Illinois State Board of Education [ISBE]; Marci Johnson, director of teaching and learning, ISBE; Kimberly Nelson, executive director of early childhood, Rockford Public Schools; and Peggy Ondera, director of early learner initiatives at School District U-46.)

On the first day of the institute, Kristin Bernhard, deputy commissioner for system reform at the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning (DECAL), discussed Georgia’s Early Learning System. Day 1 also included panel sessions with speakers from the Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes (CEELO), EducationCounsel, the National Council of State Legislatures, and the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. These early childhood experts discussed embedding early learning into consolidated state plans for ESSA and leadership development in preK–3.

The topic of leadership took center stage as the day progressed. Experts from the National Association for Elementary and Secondary Principals (NAESP) discussed its pilot in Alabama to provide an evidence-based, blended-learning professional development program designed to develop the early learning leadership competencies of school and district leaders. Jeana Ross, secretary of the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education, shared Alabama’s vision for early childhood education and its progress in developing a strong preK–3 continuum. Johnette Burdette, AIR senior technical assistance consultant, discussed the SECC’s role in partnering with NAESP to develop online lessons for early learning leadership competencies.

Don Doggett leads breakout session.To wrap up the first day, Don Doggett (standing in picture), superintendent of McCormick County School District in South Carolina, led a breakout session on high-quality leadership in the age of ESSA. He elaborated on state, district, and local policy levers and the need to increase partnerships and collaboration with internal and external service providers. State teams collaborated to identify strategies and suggestions for increasing the quality of leadership and closing leadership gaps.

On Day 2, the institute focused on preK–3 literacy, as a panel responded to participants’ questions about such topics as communicating key messages about early learning, kindergarten transition, implications of state policies, and early literacy interventions. Dr. Carey Wright, state superintendent of the Mississippi Department of Education, shared Mississippi’s pathway to high-quality early childhood education. Dr. Jim Squires, senior fellow at CEELO and the National Institute for Early Education Research, emphasized well-rounded education during a session on using fine art to promote early learning.

During the working lunch sessions, Kathleen Theodore, early childhood project lead for SECC, facilitated a presentation about the online site for the Early Childhood Community of Practice and extended an invitation to prospective members. In addition, other experts discussed:

  • Needs assessments and program design activities for local education agencies
  • Geographic information system and data analysis tools that can be used to better connect the context of children’s early experiences with the K–12 system

Throughout the early childhood institute, members of state teams thoroughly engaged in learning and collaboration, and several expressed that it was a fantastic and informative experience that provided a lasting impression. Results from the feedback survey indicate that participants received timely information and resources that will benefit them in their work. One participant said, “Thank you so much for inviting us. This opportunity to meet people and make connections was invaluable. I would have liked even more days at the institute! I hope you do more on more topics related to literacy, as well as another early childhood one.”

To allow state teams to build on their initial work at the institute, the SECC Early Childhood Community of Practice is hosting a series of webinars on key topics. The first webinar, ESSA Planning and Implementation: Integrating Early Learning into State Accountability and School Improvement, was held in January 24, 2018. For information about upcoming events, visit SECC’s calendar of events.