What Can We Learn From Other Promise Neighborhoods About Helping Kids Transition to Kindergarten

In the STEPS schools, only about one in four kids are ready for kindergarten, according to the Alaska Developmental Profile. To discover ways we can help better prepare kids for Kindergarten, the Early Childhood Work Group looked at another neighborhood that succeeds in bringing kindergarten readiness scores up from 25% to over 60% in about five years time. In mid-January, the workgroup talked with Carolyn Willis from the Mississippi Delta Health Alliance, which has supported the efforts of two Promise Neighborhoods – the same collaboration-based grant from the Department of Education that funds STEPS Alaska – called Deer Creek and Indianola since 2013.

 

One of the primary obstacles the Health Alliance faced as they began supporting collaborative efforts five years ago was a lack of direction – 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 in kindergarten ready to learn, but Head Start and private organizations were using different measures to assess readiness and their efforts were not aligned to support each other. In order to alleviate these issues, key partners had to come together, work toward aligning their contributions, and agree that they were ok with giving up some autonomy and share data in the effort of establishing supportive partnerships.

 

The involvement of the Promise Neighborhood initiative included the establishment of three workgroups with focuses on data, parental engagement, and the quality of kindergarten transition programs. The primary focus of their efforts was:

  • Expanding dual enrollment in kinder-ready programs
  • Increasing training opportunities for early care providers in rural areas
  • Developing a six-week summer transition camp

They readily accepted the differences between their urban and rural childcare needs, and made efforts to ensure their training opportunities extended to a variety of childcare professionals, including those in Head Start, center-based childcare, in-home/informal childcare, 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.

 

Our STEPS Neighborhood will face similar difficulties as we develop sustainable solutions for our communities, and prioritizing the support of under-served rural areas will be crucial to our ability to reach our most vulnerable populations.

 

The six-week summer transition camp had the two-pronged benefit of making the transition more gradual for the Kindergarteners and enabling teachers while allowing other 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 a couple hours of professional development in the afternoon. This program matched Head Start requirements around transitions, leveraged funding available through Title 1 support, and was so successful that the state will now be taking on the funding for it going forward.

 

So what lessons can we learn from the Mississppi Delta Health Alliance and their partnerships that operate 3000 miles away from Southeast Alaska? Even though our histories and cultures vastly different and we have added transportation and connectivity challenges, 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 dual/whole population enrollment in early childhood programs help address the kindergarten enrollment issue (families not enrolling kids until just before or even after school year starts)? What are our measures of success?

 

Early thoughts on these questions include looping in additional community partners to help disseminate information or host childcare groups, offering training to members of the community to expand opportunities for childcare, and aligning the efforts of existing programs like Baby Raven Reads, Imagination Library, Head Start, and summer transition programs already offered by school districts. Difficult questions often lead to complex answers, and solutions will only function if they are shaped by those directly involved with the work on a daily basis. We look forward to continuing to explore and implement these solutions with you all in the coming years.