Learning Community unveils ‘a game-changer’ for early childhood education

January 30, 2015

Omaha World-Herald

By Joe Dejka


Six Omaha-area school districts will serve as test beds next year for a new concept in early childhood education that school superintendents hail as rare, innovative and the best hope for lifting kids out of poverty.

Details of the plan released today show that the comprehensive program of birth-to-age-8 interventions will be launched at 10 sites serving 12 schools in the Omaha, Millard, Bellevue, Douglas County West, Westside and Ralston districts. At all the schools, at least half of students are eligible for free or reduced-price school lunch.

The program will combine home visits for children from birth to age 3, high-quality preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds, and a consistent curriculum and support for children in kindergarten through third grade.

All 11 districts in the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties will receive training or consultation and assistance in early childhood education.

The program is not about setting up new preschool classrooms, but instead enhancing and improving the learning going on in existing ones. The program will provide 29 professionals who will work with schools, districts, communities and families to improve children’s learning experiences and strengthen families’ connections to schools. It will directly or indirectly affect more than 21,000 high-poverty students, officials say. About 4,300 children will see the most direct effect as 25 school-based home visitors, family facilitators and educational coaches work at the 12 schools.

Full implementation will start in the summer.

The three-year program has been approved by the Learning Community Council, but it still depends on the council approving a ½-cent property tax increase that would fund the program at about $2.5 million a year.

Omaha Public Schools Superintendent Mark Evans said the program “will change lives.”

“I’ve never been a part of anything this comprehensive,” said Evans, whose district will have four elementary sites.

Jim Sutfin, superintendent of the Millard Public Schools, called it “a game-changer.”

Millard will have two sites.

Gretna Public Schools Superintendent Kevin Riley said it’s “an opportunity to build something special.”

Riley said he’s confident that the program — a collaboration between superintendents, the Learning Community and the Buffett Early Childhood Institute — will prove its worth.

Sam Meisels, the institute’s founding executive director, said the program takes the best practices in the field of early childhood education and applies them during a child’s most vulnerable and impressionable years.

The program aims to eliminate or reduce income-based social, cognitive and achievement gaps.

“This is not a guarantee, but this is our best shot,” Meisels said.

By focusing on a child’s first eight years, the program has the greatest chance of making an enduring impact on the child, he said.

During these years, key brain circuits are being built, language is learned and ways of interacting with others are established. If the essential foundation is in place by third grade, children have the “tool kit” for complex learning, problem solving, and sustaining productive and caring relationships, officials said.

Meisels said hundreds of studies point to the success of early childhood education efforts, but too often the effects fade because the effort is not sustained.

With a birth-to-8 program, there is “a high probability that what kids learn in that period will serve them well for really decades to come,” he said.

Kids living in poverty face a “cascade” of obstacles weighing against their achievement, he said. They can lack prenatal care, health care, housing and food. They often miss out on the rich vocabulary environment of more affluent children, he said. And they can miss out on quality time spent with parents, he said.

The effects on achievement are negative and cumulative, he said.

Christine Maxwell, the institute’s director of program development, said chronic poverty is often related to educational levels.

“Think about kids who never get out of their neighborhood because of lack of transportation, because of lack of family time, violence in the neighborhood.

“So you have children who really haven’t been in museums with their families, don’t have the opportunity to even go to the grocery stores with the families, or don’t have a grocery store in their neighborhood.”
Maxwell said the institute will apply research-based practices that have proven track records — they won’t be reinventing the wheel.

“I think the one thing we are doing differently is combining them in comprehensive ways,” she said.

The focus will be on quality, which is essential for results, she said.

But the effort will also focus on systems of support, which are important in dealing with families in poverty, she said.

“What we know about vulnerable children and families, if there’s a crack to fall through, they will fall through it,” she said.

Ten home visitors will work with about 20 families apiece — a total of 200 kids. Home visiting will focus on fostering language development, parent-child interactions and a supportive parent-child relationship, she said. The home visitors can identify children who need referral for other services, she said. One goal of the visits will be to familiarize parents with the school their child will attend.

At age 3, children will enter a school-based or other preschool program.

Within those classrooms, teachers will get focused professional development, “not just the workshops where they shake their head and then come back and nothing changes,” Maxwell said.

About 4,100 children will be served through the programs in pre-kindergarten through third grade. Nearly 17,000 will be served indirectly through the training and technical assistance.

Evans said the program will lift kids out of generational poverty.

Sutfin said the whole state can learn from the program.

“This is good for the city of Omaha,” he said. “We can become a beacon for early childhood, and the power of that can flow through our entire state.”

Melissa Poloncic, the Douglas County West superintendent, said the program reflects the “true sense” of why the Learning Community was created. She said she sees potential for expansion to other small districts statewide.

“The expertise surrounding this project is something that I’m very excited to be able to be a part of,” she said.

The program is built on a plan developed by Learning Community superintendents, with help from the institute, at the request of state lawmakers.

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