THE BLOG
10/07/2013 12:05 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Community School Collaborations--A Lifeline for Early Learning Program Success

Guest Bloggers: Janet Brown, Senior Early Childhood Program Specialist and Kwesi Rollins, Director of Leadership Programs at the Institute for Educational Leadership

In Lifelines for Poor Children, economist and Nobel laureate James Heckman argues that quality early learning programs represent our best national education investment due to evidence of societal benefits from longitudinal studies of Perry Preschool and Abecedarian early childhood programs.

The Perry Preschool Project and Abecedarian programs worked extensively with families in their home and community contexts. Successes from such early learning and family support efforts suggests that cross sector community collaborations, such as those in community schools are ideal contexts for scaling up early childhood programming for low income children and families. Such schools share program approaches with Perry Preschool and Abecedarian including home visiting and follow up supports for children and families in their communities.

Perry Preschool teachers conducted weekly home visits to families during the two years their 3 and 4 year olds participated in the program. Abecedarian--with 15 home visits per year and ongoing support until age 8--provided children and families with a seamless array of early learning resources including summer activity packets, assistance with summer camp experiences, visits to the public library, and tutoring in reading skills. Similarly, community schools partner extensively with health and social service providers, libraries and museums, offer tutoring and other expanded learning opportunities and serve as neighborhood hubs to ensure that children and families have what they need to be successful - in school and in life.

The Coalition for Community Schools' Early Childhood/Community School Linkages Project applied some of the implementation lessons of the Perry Preschool Project and Abecedarian programs in three community school settings. Preliminary results from Linkages highlight the success of a few simple practices that led to improved school readiness (for parents and kids!), helping to ensure effective transitions of preschool children to school settings.

Based on learnings from the Linkages Project, The John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and the Institute for Educational Leadership (IEL) have advanced a theory of change that identifies practices that improve early learning program coherence at three levels 1) the early childhood/school setting 2) collaborating systems level and 3) individual child and family levels. Recommended practices enable community schools to ensure continuity for families and children from the start of early learning throughout their transition to public school.

Heckman notes that the investment in fostering children's early life skills and their families' parenting skills enables low income children to reap lifelong benefits. And while he doesn't talk explicitly about community contexts as part of the early learning investment, perhaps that is due to a presumption of community collaborations as a 'best practice' in supporting children and families. This practice is at the center of the community schools strategy and a key element in all of IEL's early learning initiatives, as evident in our partnership with Ellen Galinsky's innovative Mind in the Making initiative.

As community members, parents, educators, leaders, and policy makers around the country try to take action in response to the child development and early learning research, they need to incorporate early education strategies in ways that make sense for their communities. By translating the idea of improved linkages into an actionable framework for creating coherence between early learning and elementary education IEL is working to accelerate efforts to ensure that all children thrive as they move through their early childhood and early elementary years.

These efforts are not a substitute for a deeper national investment in early learning, but they are fundamental to strengthening existing early childhood programs, and must be a core element of any new programming as well.

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