Why These School Districts Serve Children Beginning at Birth

BELLEVUE, Neb.—The family engagement room at Belleaire Elementary School in the suburbs of Omaha is bustling on a late October morning. Kindergarten teacher Kelsea Heesacker comes in to chat with the school counselor and to grab a winter coat for a little girl who came to school without one. Meghan McCormack, whose job is to visit families in their homes, pulls on her own coat as she hurries outside to meet a mom whose kids aren’t old enough for school yet. And Breanna Gruhn-McLaughlin, a family facilitator who plans monthly get-togethers for families, pours over a stack of manuals on how to nurture parent-child relationships.

The hum of activities in the family room represents a much larger initiative. Belleaire is one of 10 schools in the Omaha metropolitan area that are rethinking the scope of early childhood education.

Traditionally, early childhood education focuses on serving children before they reach kindergarten. But more recently, researchers have begun to think about early childhood education as encompassing the first eight years—years that are critical for neural development and where early interventions can have a profound impact in later years.

Omaha’s model draws on that research and looks for systematic ways to link the years before mandatory schooling kicks in with the early elementary school years.

Neural connections formed during the first months and years of life; Source: C.A. Nelson (2000); Credit: Center on the Developing Child.

So what does this change mean for early childhood educators and school leaders in Omaha? For starters, school leaders have to think about infants and toddlers as part of the school community and reach out to their families early. They need to train educators in the field of child development and psychology. A recent professional development conference for Omaha-area educators, for example, focused on the topics of executive function and self-regulation in babies, preschoolers and young children.

Schools also need to make sure that events are welcoming for families of very young children. At Pinewood Elementary School in Omaha, for example, school leaders have installed changing tables in some bathrooms to allow parents of infants and toddlers to comfortably attend events.

This is a radical departure from how Belleaire’s principal, Nikole Schubauer, used to look at her role as a school leader. “It started with a mind shift,” she says. “We don’t just think of preschool through 6th grade anymore here.” Schubauer explains that now she needs to think about kids before they enroll in pre-K.

More than a mind shift, it also requires significant investment in the early childhood workforce. The ten Omaha schools have hired for a variety of new roles—home visitors and family facilitators to connect families to schools, educational facilitators to help teachers collaborate and coaches to help train them in their new roles. These new players are tasked with thinking creatively about how to break down barriers between families and schools, between early childhood programs and elementary schools, and between teachers in different grades.

Schubauer points out that many of those barriers are systemic. For example, though she has degrees in both early childhood and elementary education, her classes for those degrees were always separate. “They’ve always been siloed for so long,” she says. “Now I love that it’s melding together.”

Developing a Plan to Support Early Childhood Education

In 2013, 11 school districts in Douglas and Sarpy counties in Nebraska came together with a plan to collectively tackle the issue of early childhood education in schools with high concentrations of poverty. Known as the Superintendents’ Early Childhood Plan, as every superintendent in the Omaha metro area has a part in it, the initiative has a budget of approximately $2.5 million annually funded from a tax measure.

The plan is the largest demonstration of the birth to grade three model in the country— supporting numerous initiatives including free professional development for teachers and consulting services for schools that have specific goals related to early childhood, like improving the transition from pre-K to kindergarten.

By far, the largest project within the Superintendents’ Plan is the intensive “School as Hub” programming that’s taking place at 10 schools within the 11 participating school districts, including Belleaire. These schools were selected because in each of them, at least half of the student population qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch.

The idea behind School as Hub is that schools should be a connection point between families and communities, supporting families in navigating education services and resources in the community. To make this a reality, these schools receive additional funding to support new roles to help make those connections.

These districts partner with the Buffett Institute for Early Childhood Education at the University of Nebraska to implement parts of the program as part of its broader efforts to close the achievement gap. The Buffet Institute—a private-public partnership that got its start six years ago with a donation of an undisclosed sum from Susie Buffett, daughter of billionaire Warren Buffett—assists in program design and evaluation. It also provides ongoing coaching to staff members as well as free professional development for all teachers in Douglas and Sarpy Counties.

Making Families Feel Supported

When the Superintendents’ Plan first started, Buffett Institute staff realized they had to define each staff member’s role in a birth to grade 3 context, especially for positions that haven’t traditionally been part of the school district before. Take for example, the role of family facilitator.

“The role is to be a liaison between families and the school, but really that was the only definition that was given,” explains Dalhia Lloyd, a Buffett Institute employee who helps train family facilitators. “Because we work with 10 different schools, each school’s [family facilitator] needs to look different.”

Gruhn-McLaughlin, Belleaire’s family facilitator, sees her role as being a resource for anyone who has questions or is just struggling with everyday parenting problems. The last mother she visited opened up about her struggles with her three-year-old son, who was desperate for attention. Gruhn-McLaughlin asked her open-ended questions so that the mother could reflect on how she could manage his behavior, and also on what she was already doing right.

“What I’m working on with this family is that I want to reduce their stress so that they’re able to focus on what’s going on in school,” says Gruhn-McLaughlin.

Home visitors are also an important part of the Superintendents’ Plan’s focus on family engagement. While family facilitators focus on families of children ages 3-5, home visitors reach out to an even younger set—birth until the age of 3. Home visitors like McCormack reach out to families as early as the mother’s pregnancy. McCormack visits each family three times a month. She might model how to do a read-aloud with a child, counsel the parents on an issue that’s causing them stress or show them how to engage with their children in meaningful ways.

Right: Breanna Gruhn-McLaughlin, the family facilitator at Belleaire Elementary; Left: Meghan McCormack is the home visitor at Belleaire Elementary. Credit: Sharon Lurye.

The schools recruit families who have certain risk factors such as poverty or teenage parenthood—and that recruitment effort, in itself, requires a different skillset than schools typically look for in early childhood staff.

“When you’re a home visitor, you have to be more of an entrepreneur, a salesperson. You have to be willing to make cold calls and talk people into coming. That’s not what folks who have worked in public schools have ever really ever had to do,” says Kim Bodensteiner, director of program development at the Buffett Institute.

In order to do this work effectively, home visitors and family facilitators must understand where families are coming from in order to build trust, especially for families who have had negative prior experiences with governmental institutions such as public schools.

“I would look for someone who is flexible enough to know that there are families who can’t meet until 5:30 in the evening,” says Lloyd.

Family facilitators and home visitors must also have the ability to speak the language of families in the community. Bodensteiner notes that one major area the staff at the Buffet Institute wants to work on is recruiting more Spanish speakers and members of the local community to be home visitors and family facilitators, given that there are many families in the area who speak Spanish only.

When it comes to recruitment of families, sometimes the whole school has to be involved. Teachers, school secretaries and other staff members may suggest home visiting to parents who are expecting new children.

“If the second-grade teacher knows that one of the parents in our classroom is pregnant and they have a relationship already to make that introduction to the home visitor, or if it’s the school secretary that knows the family, they can say, ‘I know this home visitor, it’s a great program,’” says Bodensteiner. The whole school needs to be part of that recruiting and marketing and why it’s a good thing to be involved in.”

And the school has to be flexible in meeting needs they might not have foreseen. Lloyd gave the example of a mother at one of the schools, who was trying to regain custody of her children and needed a place to meet with them for visits over the summer. Since the family facilitators and home visitors work all year long, she turned to them, and they suggested meeting in the school.

“The family facilitator and home visitor were invested in helping this mother get her children back, so they wanted to provide her a place where she could have visits,” Lloyd reflects. “That’s a good example of being invested in the community and not just building community.”

How the Birth to Third Grade Mindset is Changing Schools

How do the various elements of the birth to third grade model work together to ultimately advance academic progress in an elementary school? Take Pam Helmick’s kindergarten class where children practice their authorial skills as part of a new writer’s workshop curriculum. Belleaire’s educational facilitator, Mary Beth Pistillo, helps teachers roll out initiatives like the new curriculum, thinking about what work needs to happen to prepare an infant or toddler for writing when they’re in kindergarten.

Left: Pam Helmick with kindergarten students; Right: Mary Beth Pistillo works with students during writing time in Helmick’s class. Credit: Sharon Lurye

Pistillo says she asks herself questions such as: “What are we doing starting at birth that’s going to strengthen writing when we get into the school?”

How can you prepare a child to write at birth? One obvious way is to make sure there’s plenty of books in the house, so Gruhn-McLaughlin started a book exchange for parents.

Another opportunity is to help families understand how to develop foundational skills. On a recent home visit, McCormack showed a mother how to make a toy by poking holes in a Pringles can and then letting the child put straws through the holes. This helps build the fine motor skills the child will later need to hold a pencil.

“You don’t have to spend a bunch of money on toys to make a difference in your child’s development,” she points out.

Helmick notes that she has seen how helpful it is when parents of students in her class take advantage of the opportunities available in the School as Hub model. She describes how one mother of preschool and kindergarten children visits the family room when she needs support and an “outlet” from the stresses of her life.

“There’s a tight-knit bond between [the family room] to preschool to here,” she adds.

Helmick and other kindergarten teachers routinely huddle with Pistillo to reflect on the lesson and to plan for the next round of writer’s workshops. For example, Pistillo is already thinking about how she can work with the preschool teachers to help next year’s kindergarteners be more prepared.

Kindergarten teachers Pam Helmick and Kelsea Heesacker met with educational facilitator Mary Beth Pistillo and instructional coach Rachael Eversole to plan out writing lessons for the kindergarteners. Credit: Sharon Lurye.

Still, it’s not always easy to break up silos between early childhood and elementary teachers. Collaboration across roles take time and coordination. The kindergarten teachers at Belleaire say they don’t talk that much to the preschool teachers. In part, that’s because while Belleaire has a Head Start and a district-wide special education preschool class on-site, many of those children end up going to a different elementary school for kindergarten.

Still, there are signs of progress. Since the Superintendents’ Plan started, there have been 9,000 home visits to children under the age of 3 and 3,000 parent-child group meetings. Children are starting to come to school more prepared: 13 percent more pre-K students and 16 percent more kindergarten and first-grade students were up to the average range on test scores in the second year the Superintendents’ Plan was in effect compared to the first year.

Kim Bodensteiner says that what’s going on in Omaha can certainly be replicated, but it requires flexibility, to meet the needs of each unique school and family. A school might choose to do center-based programming, for example, instead of home visiting.

“It doesn’t have to look exactly like these 10 schools,” she adds. “The important thing is that approach of the full continuum and connecting families and children across that age span.”

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