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How Alabama is Strengthening the PreK-3rd Grade Continuum

https://www.newamerica.org/education-policy/edcentral/how-alabama-strengthening-prek-3rd-grade-continuum/

Building a solid foundation of social-emotional, behavioral, and cognitive skills in early childhood is critical for children to successfully engage in more complex, analytical learning in the latter parts of their educational careers. We know that this distinct period of child development spans from birth through third grade, yet policymakers and even educators frequently treat the early elementary years, from kindergarten through third grade, similar to grades 4-12.  As a result, many K-3 students don’t have access to the unique, developmentally-appropriate instruction and supports they need.

New America’s comprehensive review of state pre-K through 3rd grade (PreK-3rd) policies in 2015 found that although no state has successfully created a seamless, high-quality early education continuum, many had taken great strides to do so. Alabama, for example, showed significant progress in certain areas like ensuring pre-K quality and providing access to free, full-day kindergarten. Albeit a relatively small program serving just 25 percent of the state’s four-year-olds, Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program has consistently seen increased funding and expanded access over the years. It is also one of only six state programs that meets all of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER)’s 10 quality benchmarks, having done so for 10 consecutive years.

But while most states have focused their early childhood efforts on expanding access to and improving quality of pre-K, we know that in order for children to sustain the gains made in high-quality pre-K programs, they also need access to high-quality instruction and supports in the K-3 grades. New America’s 2015 analysis revealed that Alabama had room to grow in key policy areas such as providing ongoing K-3 assessments and creating standards and teaching practices that emphasized social-emotional development. This year, however, the state has taken an intentional step towards improving its PreK-3rd continuum by providing supports to schools that are committed to replicating the successes enjoyed in the state’s pre-K programs into grades K-3. This new effort is called the Pre Through 3 Initiative.

First referenced in then-Governor Bentley’s 2017 State of the State Address and later launched by Governor Ivey, the initiative’s ultimate goal is to ensure all students are well-prepared for and reading at grade-level by the end of third grade. It is part of the state’s broader  “Strong Start, Strong Finish” education initiative focused on three stages of education including early childhood education, computer science in middle school and high school, and workforce preparedness. The PreK-3rd component is modeled after the First Class Pre-K program framework and is based on a three-pronged approach to improving early childhood education centered on leadership, instruction, and assessment. In an interview with Jeana Ross, Secretary of the Alabama State Department of Early Learning, she explains that in order to make a program like this work, “there has to be a synergy around all three of these issues.”

The state invited teachers and their principals to apply for a year-long grant that would provide monetary resources for classroom structural improvements, job-embedded professional development for teachers, and leadership training for principals and other school leaders. Secretary Ross explained that making this a grant program was critical both because of its voluntary nature and because the application itself required applicants to be thoughtful in setting a clear mission and vision and creating a detailed work plan.

Thirty-five classrooms from eight school systems were awarded grants last summer and work is already underway. Schools are using the funding—up to $15,000 per classroom—to purchase materials, supplies and equipment. One awardee is Adam Dasinger, the principal at Pleasant Grove Elementary School, who told us in an interview that he has already purchased brand new play structures and other equipment and re-created active learning areas in his classrooms. He said he is grateful that the state provided an expert who could advise him on how best to create a developmentally-appropriate learning environment that would foster student socio-emotional, behavioral and cognitive skill development.

The grant program leaves it up to the individual teacher and leader to decide the specifics of what, how, and when to receive targeted professional development. Teachers have consistent access to coaches who are available to help them consider new instructional or assessment strategies and identify obstacles they need to overcome. The coaches also facilitate opportunities for teacher collaboration across grade levels, which enables better alignment across grades.  Every principal is also participating in the state’s Pre-K-3 Leadership Academy, a blended professional learning program for school leaders with a job-embedded, sustained, and ongoing professional learning experience focused on mastering effective instructional leadership practices that are developmentally-appropriate.

Each school is starting this work from a different place. This means that for some schools, efforts are centered around providing training and supports to kindergarten teachers on critical components of the First Class Pre-K Framework, such as the utility of the Teaching Strategies GOLD assessment. For other schools, where kindergarten classrooms have already established much of this work, their focus may be on extending these efforts into 1st and 2nd grade and encouraging deeper collaboration and coordination amongst teachers across PreK-3rd classrooms.

Efforts to strengthen the PreK-3rd continuum are not new in Alabama. Secretary Ross explainsthat the idea for the pilot itself came from observing local efforts among PreK-3rd teachers to open new lines of communication and create opportunities for collaboration amongst themselves.

This new program has elevated discussion of the K-3 grades to the state level where Governor Ivey and Secretary Ross are advocating for and supporting schools in strengthening the quality of education provided to children throughout this critical period of development. State and school leaders hope to see improvements in children’s social, emotional, and cognitive development as well as to ensure gains made in one year are reinforced and built upon in the next.

The state has secured additional funding, news that Governor Ivey intends on formally announcing December 5th, that will support the program for three additional years and also expand access to at least 35 additional classrooms. The program is currently being supported through the federal government’s Preschool Development Grant program, which is not guaranteed to continue year to year unless Congress appropriates money for it.

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