How does a community start with kindergarten readiness rates of 25% and improve to 60% after just a handful of years?

According to the Alaska Developmental Profile, only about one in four children who attend STEPS Alaska parent schools are ready for kindergarten. With support from the STEPS AK Promise Neighborhood grant, an Early Childhood Work Group is focused on aligning and enhancing approaches to improve kindergarten readiness and explore approaches to better serve kids in Southeast Alaska. The group recently learned about how another Promise Neighborhood grantee in rural Mississippi increased kindergarten readiness from 25% to 60% in just five years.

In mid-January, the workgroup talked with Carolyn Willis with Delta Health Alliance, which has supported the efforts of two US Department of Education Promise Neighborhoods grants in Deer Creek and Indianola starting in 2013.

Back then the rural region struggled with providing quality child care and a clear vision for improving kindergarten readiness – there were plenty of programs but no clear, common targets or definitions. It was easy to agree, for example, that everyone involved wanted students to arrive prepared for kindergarten, but each organization (non-profits, private childcare providers, school districts, and Head starts) used different measures to assess readiness and their efforts were not aligned to support each other.

We had a bunch of programs but no one was actually moving toward a central theme, and what we adopted very early on was … one result; and that result is that every child – all children – enter into the kindergarten ready to learn.  And when you start with one central result that everyone can rally around, it makes the journey a little bit easier.  The other thing that we had to ask ourselves is what each person in the room was willing to give up, collectively … [to] make sure that those resources are all being geared toward making certain that all children enter into kindergarten ready to learn.


Carolyn Willis

Each organization agreed on some shifts in the ways they worked together to better serve families and establish effective partnerships. After some honest conversations, organizations moved to more joint decision-making, visioning, and sharing credit in order to be an effective partner in the larger effort. This often meant shifting to a different assessment tool, changing calendars, sharing information and using common outreach tools.

To enhance the work in their neighborhood, key partners working on early childhood established three workgroups focusing on data, parental engagement, and the quality of kindergarten transition programs. The Promise Neighborhood set goals to:

  • Expand dual enrollment in kinder-ready programs (in other words kids would be enrolled in more than one program, like Head Start + Imagination Library.)
  • Increasing training opportunities for early care providers in rural areas
  • Developing a six-week summer transition camp

The Delta Health Alliance also recognized that childcare needs were often met in a less formal way, especially in rural areas, where training was hard to access for these care providers. The Alliance developed strategies to ensure training opportunities extended to a variety of childcare professionals, including those in center-based childcare, in-home/informal childcare, Head Start, and paraprofessionals. Furthermore, the calendars for these providers were synchronized with the local school districts, which allowed for shared professional development and reduced the number of absences at Head Start by providing parents with aligned schedules.

The six-week summer kinder transition camp had the two-pronged benefit of making the transition more gradual for the Kindergarteners and enabling teachers and child care providers to learn from each other in a teaching environment. In this model, lead teachers set the tone for less experienced teachers during morning programming with children, and then participate in several hours of professional development in the afternoon. This program matched Head Start’s requirements around transitions, leveraged funding available through Title 1 support, and was so successful that the state and private donors have will now be taking on the funding for it going forward.

These strategies helped systematically develop a higher quality of early child experiences that were tailored to fit the region and culture. Striving for “dual enrollment” in programs helped ensure that more kids had a variety and depth of positive early learning experiences. And using the assessment tools that were aligned helped child care providers, pre-school and Head Start teachers, and families understand what it looked like to be ready for kindergarten. As a result, they could better help foster those literacy, numeracy, social and emotional, and self-regulation skills. The impact of their efforts resulted in their 35% jump in test scores.

So what lessons can we learn from the Mississippi’s Delta Health Alliance and their partnerships? Even though the Delta Health Alliance is 3,000 miles away from Southeast Alaska and our histories, cultures, and geography are vastly different, the core questions are quite similar: How can we share resources to have a greater impact? How do we increase attendance and engagement in existing programs and understanding of early childhood development in general? Could sharing data and focusing on enrolling kids in more than one early childhood program help support and reach families not enrolling kids until just before or even after the school year starts? What are our measures of success?

Already Southeast Alaska’s early childhood community has some great examples of collaboration. The Central Council of Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska’s Head Start Program, the Sitka School District, and the Sitka Tribe of Alaska have been partnering to pool resources to support the culturally-responsive Wooch’een Preschool program. In Juneau, the Partnership for Families and Children is a long-standing network of organizations that meets monthly to share information and coordinate events. More recently, AEYC-Southeast Alaska and Tlingit & Haida have started to offer joint childcare trainings.

Educators are also constantly pulling from multiple resources. Hoonah’s Parents as Teacher coach Jamie Erickson has found it helpful, for example, to use Baby Raven Reads books published by Sealaska Heritage Institute during her home visits.

The next step for the STEPS AK Early Childhood Work Group is to reflect on what we’ve learned from Mississippi as well as what’s working here and Southeast so we can deepen the partnerships and define the systems that will hopefully result in the same jump in kindergarten readiness over the next five year.

If you are interested in being a part of the on-going conversation on early childhood and kindergarten readiness and have success stories to share, contact