“Voices from the Field” Interview with Melody Arabo

Melody Arabo

Melody Arabo

Melody Arabo is the 2017–18 Teaching Ambassador Fellow for the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and was honored to serve as the 2015 Michigan Teacher of the Year. She has been a third grade teacher at Keith Elementary in the Walled Lake Consolidated School District since 2002. She has a bachelor’s in elementary education and a master’s in teaching and curriculum, both from Michigan State University. Melody is a wife, mother of three, speaker and presenter, author, and bullying-prevention advocate.

ED: How did you begin your career in education?

Melody: I never planned to be a teacher. I was planning to go into marketing and advertising. I had big plans to live in a city and take a train to work. When I was 19, I found out about a paraprofessional job at a local elementary school. They were looking for someone who spoke Chaldean, which I do, so I applied and was very lucky to get the job. It changed my career trajectory. I loved the school and the principal, and really loved the kids. I quickly realized what a positive impact you can have so quickly on young learners. I enrolled in an associate’s degree program at our community college focused on elementary education and then moved to Michigan State University to complete my bachelor’s (and eventually my master’s) degree in teaching and curriculum.

As a paraprofessional, I worked with kids in kindergarten through second grade, which I enjoyed. But during my year-long student teaching internship, I ended up in a third grade class. I realized I loved kids in third grade. They are independent enough to tie their own shoes and blow their own nose, but are still young enough that we can shape their learning, curiosity, and engagement. After student teaching I landed a job as a third grade teacher in the same district where I started as a paraprofessional, and have been teaching there since 2002.

ED: How did you become interested in the School Ambassador Fellowship program here at ED?

Melody: In 2015, I was honored to be the Michigan Teacher of the Year and spent the year working outside of the classroom. My biggest take away from that experience is that the educator voice is really lacking in critical policy discussions. I wanted to figure out how I could help increase teacher leadership and expand the role of the teacher voice in policy making. When I heard about the School Ambassador Fellowship program it seemed like a perfect next step, so I applied. The program enables outstanding teachers, principals, and other school leaders to bring their school and classroom expertise to the Department and exposes them to the heart of the national dialogue about education. In turn, school ambassador fellows are better equipped to facilitate the learning and input of other educators and community members.

In 2016, I was a part-time fellow for one year. This meant that I still had my classroom in Michigan and engaged and worked with ED remotely. It was an intense year, because I was staying involved at the classroom-level while being engaged in state- and federal-level activities. I am now the lead fellow here in DC and a big part of my work is with the part-time campus fellows, located around the country, who are still working in classrooms and schools. We have a fantastic group of 2017–18 fellows and my role is largely to support and connect them to work going on here at ED. I also have the goal of strengthening ED’s outreach to, and engagement with, educators. To accomplish this, we have been hosting monthly conversations on important educational issues to engage educators in the field. For example, one of our recent monthly topics was STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), particularly how teachers are incorporating STEM in the classroom. For each conversation, we pose a question about the topic via Twitter to generate conversations among educators, encouraging them to share examples of innovation. We then collect their input and feedback, and develop a toolkit of resources around that topic. Additionally, we are tapping into teachers by asking them to write for ED’s Homeroom Blog on each of the monthly topics. I also work with our fellows to promote and encourage teachers to sign up for ED’s monthly newsletter developed for teachers, The Teachers Edition. We have involved each of the fellows in Teach to Lead, an initiative that expands leadership opportunities for teachers and further develops their ideas.

ED: What are some of the challenges you have experienced as a teacher and what strategies have you tried to overcome them? 

Melody: I am a general education teacher, but I am also a parent of children with special needs. Through struggling to navigate special education as a parent, I have realized that I am ill prepared to teach children with disabilities and see there is a huge need to bring the special education and general education worlds together. We really need to rethink teacher training; general education teachers need more training on how to teach children with disabilities and to work with special educators. I realize now that if I had known more about some of the best practices in special education, such as positive behavioral intervention and supports (PBIS); how to do functional behavior assessments (FBA) and behavior plans; universal design for learning (UDL); and response to intervention (RTI), I could have had a more positive impact on not only students with disabilities in my class, but could have better met the needs of all of my students.

In my experience, co-teaching isn’t used widely. Children with disabilities are often pulled out of classrooms for their special services and I think that because of this we are missing an important opportunity to bring special educators and general educators together. After my twins began having challenges, I became more active in the disability community and realized how limited my experiences had been in a classroom. I never had a student with autism, cerebral palsy, or other more noticeable disabilities. As a parent, I’ve realized how important it is for children with disabilities to be included in general education classrooms and schools. As a teacher, I’d really like to learn different strategies and different techniques that would benefit all of the students in my class. I think we can do this by better connecting the professionals; it is a disservice to children to have those two worlds—special education and general education—segregated.

ED: What suggestions do you have for improving the quality of early learning and education?

Melody: I believe one of the most important things we can do is to raise the importance of the educator’s voice in making policy decisions. Teachers need to be part of the conversation. The educator’s voice is there but typically only in the policy discussions. Educators need to also be part of the decision-making process, since they are the ones who know what’s realistic and what’s not. I also hope that more educators will become policy makers. From the parent perspective, I think family engagement is critical and we need to do a better job making information easily accessible for families. When my kids were first diagnosed with developmental delays, I mainly relied on other parents, which was wonderful because it created a support network for us. I believe we need to do more to connect families with other families when making educational decisions—families are more powerful and informed when they are connected.

My specific advice for educators interested in becoming part of important local, state, and national conversations is to start looking for leadership opportunities in your community, district, and beyond. Develop your leadership skills, brand yourself as expert in an area, and let policy makers know. For example, based on your expertise and experience you could be an Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) expert, or a STEM expert, or an expert in best practices for increasing positive social emotional and behavioral skills. Engage in social media by following other teacher leaders, ED, state-level policy makers; develop your own website and blogs; and build an audience. It is okay if your audience is small at first, but you have to put yourself out there to engage. I really like the teacherprenuers initiative, where teachers think of themselves as innovators but also take on entrepreneurial leadership outside of the classroom. I would love for this to be part of teacher training. It is really empowering for teachers that think this way and have already begun engaging outside of their classrooms. So I encourage teachers to think like a teacherprenuer. This can be as simple as having a business card or presenting at a conference, and will begin to shift their idea of what it means to be a teacher and a leader.

Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Melody Arabo
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Melody Arabo, 2017–18 Teaching Ambassador Fellow for the U.S. Department of Education.

“Voices from the Field” Interview with Julie Sarama & Doug Clements

Julie Sarama and Doug Clements

Julie Sarama and Doug Clements

Julie Sarama is Kennedy Endowed Chair in Innovative Learning Technologies and Professor at the University of Denver. Her research interests include developing and evaluating research-based educational software and other technologies, using learning trajectories in standards, assessment, educational technology, curriculum and professional development, developing and evaluating research-based curricula, and asking successful curricula to scale using technologies.

Douglas H. Clements is Kennedy Endowed Chair in Early Childhood Learning and Professor at the University of Denver. Previously a kindergarten teacher and preschool teacher, he has conducted research and published widely in the areas of the learning and teaching of early mathematics and computer applications in mathematics education. His most recent interests are in creating, using, and evaluating a research-based curriculum and in taking successful curricula to scale using technologies and learning trajectories.

Doug and Julie have collaborated over the past 20 years on research and implementation projects focused on improving early math development in young children.

ED: How did you begin your career in early learning and early math?

Doug: I was always interested in math and was planning on being an engineer but after I graduated, I decided to go into early education. My first job out of college was teaching kindergarten. As a teacher, math was the shining star for me. I was so interested in young kids’ thinking around math. When I went back to school to get my doctoral degree, I focused my dissertation on preschoolers’ thinking about early math. How do young kids learn math ideas and skills? How do they think about early math? What are the best ways to teach early math?

Julie’s background was in teaching high school and middle school math. In the 1990’s we became involved in a National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded project on developing a kindergarten-through-fifth-grade math curriculum. We had developed some of the technology for the kindergarten piece of the curriculum, but weren’t able to complete it since the project ran out money. Thankfully, NSF soon came out with a call for a focus on early math, and then we had the opportunity to really start our work on early math and began developing what we call our Building Blocks project.

Julie: Previous efforts around early math focused on activities or developing ideas that sounded cool but weren’t based on research. Alternatively, we focused on identifying (from the research base) the specific features that help young children in early math. In the first year of Building Blocks, we worked on identifying the early math learning trajectories for young children. Doug reads everything from everyone; he looked at studies from a variety of related fields (developmental science, cognitive science, mathematics education, early childhood education, etc.). We pulled from all of those areas to help us develop these learning trajectories. What do kids learn, when do they learn it, and what can we do to help them progress? In the end, we developed an assessment and curriculum to help teachers understand learning trajectories. Later we were very lucky to receive funding from NSF and the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute for Education Sciences for our TRIAD project. This allowed us to develop the needed professional development materials and scale-up approaches for our work. Through TRIAD we were able to help early childhood teachers across multiple sites (e.g., Boston, Buffalo, and Nashville) understand the learning trajectories and how to implement the assessment and curriculum. This was especially important given many early childhood teachers often report they went into early childhood so they wouldn’t have to teach math!

ED: How has your research improved the quality of early learning and influenced approaches to teaching early math?

Doug: Everyone can write more cute activities that might touch on basic math concepts, but with the growing consensus on the ways young children learn to understand mathematical concepts and engage in mathematical thinking, we believe that understanding the early math learning trajectories is critical for early childhood educators to teach early math.

Julie: Learning trajectories have three parts:

  1. a learning goal (i.e., target, benchmark, expectation);
  2. a developmental path along which children develop to reach that goal; and
  3. a set of activities matched to each of the levels of thinking in that path that help children develop the next higher level of thinking.

The idea behind a learning trajectory is that these are the stepping stones to get you to your goals. Each of these stepping stones represents a significant change in the way kids think; they are the developmental progressions or descriptions of kids’ behavior that give us a hint of where a kid is developmentally. The activities that follow are critical to help move children from one stepping stone to the next.

Through our TRIAD project we taught early childhood teachers to understand how young children think about math; how to identify where kids are with their mathematical thinking; and then to provide instruction or activities that take the kids to the next level of mathematical thinking. We found that teachers when given this framework and the learning trajectories became excited about teaching math. When they saw their students’ growth along the learning trajectories, it was transformative. Teachers often tell us “I had no idea young children could learn this or think like this.”

ED: What are some of the challenges you have experienced in this work and what strategies have you tried to overcome them? 

Doug: The biggest challenge is the perception that math doesn’t belong in early childhood and that we don’t need to teach it yet. Another challenge is the false dichotomies that our field creates such as academics versus non-cognitive skills, or teaching math versus teaching literacy. We know we can teach math and literacy and social-emotional skills in early childhood. We know that early math skills are fundamental to children’s overall learning. Along with one of our post-doctoral researchers, Alissa Lange, we found improvements in oral language in classrooms that implemented Building Blocks. The learning is connected.

Julie: An effective strategy for overcoming the negative perception about math in early childhood is getting out there and talking about it. You really need a Doug! He travels a lot, spreading the word and accepting speaking engagements to all different kinds of groups about the work we are doing. Writing research articles isn’t enough. You also need your champions. The teachers we trained in our TRIAD project continue to implement Building Blocks without any coaching or support. We went back two years later and were shocked and delighted that they had all increased their fidelity of implementation, meaning they were implementing Building Blocks the way it was intended. Six years later, the teachers who were still teaching continued to implement Building Blocks. It is important to share their experiences.

[Check out this video report on the successful implementation of Building Blocks in Boston]

ED: What suggestions do you have for others interested in supporting early math development in young children?

Julie: When you focus on math, either alone or as part of a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) initiative, be sure to focus on the learning trajectories, not just math activities or projects, and embed math growth.

Doug: Professional development (PD) is critical and you need to start-off thinking about the PD as lasting for at least year. We know that a math day or a math workshop won’t change classroom practices, yet this is what we continue to offer to teachers. We need to be honest and start planning alternatives. Through foundation funding we developed a website with resources that support teachers to better understand learning trajectories. The website is called Learning and Teaching with Learning Trajectories (LT2), and is a great free resource for programs wanting to get started in thinking differently about early math.

Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Julie Sarama and Doug Clements
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Julie Sarama is Kennedy Endowed Chair in Innovative Learning Technologies and Professor at the University of Denver. Douglas H. Clements is Kennedy Endowed Chair in Early Childhood Learning and Professor at the University of Denver.

“Voices from the Field” Interview with Lillian Durán,
 National Center on Improving Literacy

Lillian Durán standing in front of a school

Lillian Durán

Lillian Durán, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Department of Special Education and Clinical Sciences at the University of Oregon. Her research is focused on improving instructional and assessment practices with preschool-aged dual language learners (DLLs). Dr. Durán leads National Center on Improving Literacy’s (NCIL) work on creating and translating resources for DLLs, and provides expertise on the topic of recommended practices in assessment and intervention with young DLLs with and without identified disabilities. Prior to Dr. Durán’s work in higher education she worked for 9 years as an early childhood special education teacher. 

ED:  How did you begin your career in early learning and early literacy?

Lillian:  I started my career as an early childhood special education (ECSE) teacher in Prince George’s County, Maryland. I was hired without special education licensure to teach a self-contained special education preschool class that was deemed “cross-categorical,” meaning the children all had disabilities but the type of disability varied by child. Around this same time I enrolled in a master’s program at George Washington University. I eventually became licensed and graduated with a degree in ECSE.

My next job was working with an early intervention home visiting program in rural Minnesota. We worked in home settings with infants and toddlers with identified disabilities, birth to age three, and their families. Many of the families were native Spanish speakers. Through this work, I started to become very interested in young dual language learners (DLLs). I grew up in a multi-lingual house. My mother was German and father Mexican, so I grew up learning and speaking 3 different languages and always saw the value in being multi-lingual.

I was surprised at the number of Spanish speakers in rural Minnesota. Many were agricultural workers and in some of these rural districts 30–50% of the families were Latino. I started helping these rural school districts by conducting Spanish language assessments, which piqued my interest in DLL assessments and literacy. I ended up enrolling in a doctoral program and working with Scott McConnell, at the University of Minnesota, who developed the Individual Growth and Development Indicators (IGDIs) to measure preschool literacy. The focus of my doctoral work was on

  1. assessment and intervention with DLLs whose home language was Spanish and
  2. second language acquisition.

I have been an associate professor at the University of Oregon’s Special Education Department for the past two years and last year had the opportunity to join NCIL.

ED:  What efforts have you and NCIL been involved in to improve the quality of early learning and early literacy?

Lillian: NCIL’s efforts in early learning are emerging. Our first year has really focused on laying the groundwork. We have been busy:

  1. building our repository of existing resources,
  2. developing professional development materials for educators and families around evidence-based instruction, screening, and assessment for students with literacy related disabilities including dyslexia, and
  3. forming partnerships with key stakeholders and audiences.

NCIL has a number of activities planned this October to raise awareness and improve understanding of dyslexia. I was specifically brought onto the NCIL team because of my expertise in screening and progress monitoring, especially for young DLLs. I am also a co-principal investigator for a research grant, funded by ED’s Institute of Education Sciences, focused on developing a Spanish version of the IGDIs for both screening and progress monitoring. This research and expertise will be wrapped into NCIL’s body of work.

In the second year of NCIL, we will focus more intentionally on early learning, particularly screening and assessment tools.  We are forming a partnership with the American Academy of Pediatrics to develop a simple tool that pediatricians can use to identify risk for reading-related disorders. We are excited to begin work with preschools, including building partnerships with existing Head Start and statewide Pre-K programs that are interested in improving early literacy screening, monitoring, and instruction. I have an early childhood background and it is my role on the NCIL team to ensure we are thinking about how to translate our work so it is appropriate for younger children and the various early learning programs they participate in. Working in an elementary school or classroom can be very different than working in an early learning program. There can be so much variability across different early learning programs—the education level and expertise of the teacher, whether or not they implement a specific curriculum, the overall quality of the program, and much more. You really need to understand the program and meet them somewhere in the middle if you want to be successful in helping them improve their instructional quality and contributions to early literacy. Our specific early learning work scope is still in development, but we are hoping to identify local Head Start and Pre-K programs to partner with and, within these programs, to establish regular early literacy screenings. We also hope to teach evidence-based intervention strategies to teachers within the programs so that once children are identified there is actually a system of targeted and systematic instruction in place to meet their identified needs.

ED:  What are some of the challenges you have experienced in this work, and what strategies have you tried to overcome them?

Lillian: One major challenge is helping practitioners and administrators understand the systematic need for universal screening. Universal screening isn’t just about identifying children who may have a developmental delay or disability; it is also about identifying the instructional needs of all children. We need to do a better job getting this message across.

Related to this is figuring out how we train and support teachers to differentiate instruction. Once you do know where the kids are functioning (e.g., in a multi-tiered system of support, once you know which tier level the kids are), what do you do? How do you differentiate instruction based on children’s instructional needs? This is the research-to-practice challenge. Through research we can identify instructional approaches to meet the needs of various children, but translating these practices into real classrooms and early learning programs isn’t always easy. We need to understand the context and build strong partnerships with programs. We need to understand what programs are currently doing to see how the research-based practices can be embedded. For example, do programs have enough staffing to support the implementation of new instructional approaches? Do programs have an existing curriculum that these practices align with?  We need more people that are focused on this challenge—getting evidence-based practices into the hands of people working with children. I believe what’s crucial to this is researchers taking time to roll up their sleeves and get into classrooms, working directly with practitioners. This allows researchers to partner with programs to work through the practical challenges that always come up.

The final challenge I’ll mention is the need to address and improve the overall quality of early learning programs. I worked with migrant Head Start programs in Utah to implement a semi-scripted curriculum focused on early literacy and language. We found that with the right support they were able to easily implement this early literacy curriculum, and then found that it changed teachers’ practice throughout the day (not just when they were implementing the curriculum). The teachers were hungry for guidance and support on how best to help their children. Again, the message here is that researchers need to become more embedded in the classroom, conducting more focused observations of how what they’ve developed could be implemented in different classrooms and programs. A researcher’s work isn’t done after developing a product or intervention; this is just the beginning. The next critical step is figuring out what support is needed for the product or intervention to actually be translated into daily practice on a large enough scale to actually make a difference.

ED:  What suggestions do you have for others interested in supporting literacy development in young DLLs?

Lillian: My first bit of advice is to understand your own attitudes toward DLLs. This can be tough, but thinking from a strengths-based model is much more effective than from a deficit model, where you primarily think of the kids as not knowing English. Bilingualism is an asset and not a deficit. If we attend to children’s home language in addition to English when it comes to assessment and intervention, we will have a better picture to understand a child’s language and literacy development. This provides tremendous information when determining whether there is a language or literacy delay or disability. Additionally, it is important to learn more about bilingual development. What may be considered a concern with regards to monolingual development may actually be typical when children are developing two or more languages. Finally, seek out bilingual resources and hire bilingual staff.  And simply hiring bilingual staff is only the first step—they need support and training in order to implement evidence-based interventions. I’ve been in many preschool programs where there is a lack of attention to what the bilingual staff are doing. They need:

  1. training about language development, assessment, and interventions and
  2. curriculum and supports in place to guide their instructional practices.

Overall, the big frame is prevention. We need to screen and monitor the progress of all young children and ensure the instructional approaches we are using with young DLLs are meaningful and effective. By intervening early, we will hopefully prevent reading problems from developing down the road. Early intervention is a cornerstone in preventing reading difficulties and I hope to make that a key focus of NCIL. A house is only as solid as the foundation.

Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

From Daughter’s Advocate to National Advisory Board Member

One mother brings personal experience to the new
National Center for Improving Literacy

Laura Shultz boating with her daughter, Catherine.

Laura Shultz boating with her daughter, Catherine.

Laura Schultz is co-founder of Decoding Dyslexia Maryland and previously worked as a Congressional Staffer for Rep. Helen Delich Bentley and later as the Director of Federal and State Government Relations for a national trade association in Washington, D.C. She has a background in public policy and consulted for a Florida-based public relations firm for many years before “retiring” to focus on dyslexia advocacy to help children who struggle to read, write and spell in public school. She has two children, one a senior at Leonardtown High School and the other a junior at the U.S. Military Academy. Her husband is active duty Navy and they are a proud military family

Something was wrong, but no one could quite figure out what to call it.

At age three, my daughter Catherine spoke very few words compared to her brother. Early evaluations revealed that she needed speech and occupational therapy services.

Catherine displayed behavioral issues including aggression, which the school psychologist later attributed to possibly too much stimulation. At other times, she was withdrawn. She was held back in preschool because of these issues.

When she entered kindergarten, Catherine had meltdowns because of her frustrations with language.

What I saw was her having difficulty finding words and using incorrect language, which resulted in a scrambled output of the words she could find.

After three years in preschool and a year of kindergarten, she could not identify her letters and sounds, write her own name or spell simple words. I felt strongly that we were looking at a reading problem, and my advocacy finally resulted in her being found eligible for special education as a child with a “specific learning disability.”

As Catherine prepared to enter first grade at age seven, I was frightened and frustrated feeling that my child was in crisis and it did not seem that the district’s special education personnel knew how to address her reading and writing needs.

The years of pull-out services, small-group instruction and reading interventions produced few results.

Unfortunately it would take another six years from the time she was identified as having a “specific learning disability” before we understood her specific learning disability was dyslexia.

One year her teacher pulled me aside to share the Patricia Polacco book, “Thank you, Mr. Falker” and encouraged me to read it to Catherine. It was the first time anyone almost mentioned the common learning disability by name.

By fifth grade, our developmental pediatrician formally diagnosed Catherine with dyslexia. We shared the news with her school team hoping that we would finally be able to get the appropriate instruction in place for our daughter.

Unfortunately, we still found it difficult to bridge the divide between the evidence-based interventions being recommended and the programs and expertise available in our school.

By seventh grade, we had to move on to seek private reading and writing instruction for Catherine.

Through pinpointing Catherine’s dyslexia and getting her the proper services she needed, she is now a high school senior pursuing a certification in Computer Aided Design and Drawing (CADD), taking two English courses and making plans for college.

Laura Schultz and daughter, Catherine

Laura Schultz and daughter, Catherine

Students like my daughter sit in every classroom in every school in every state. They are ethnically, culturally and socio-economically diverse. Many of these students will have access to the resources our family ultimately pursued and that is good, but truth be told, many more will not and that is a problem.

Unidentified dyslexia often creates social and emotional difficulties for struggling children. Parents’ and schools’ lack of understanding and awareness of dyslexia and other disabilities can exacerbate a child’s struggles unnecessarily. I knew other families and schools would benefit from knowing about early reading interventions that included phonological awareness and decoding instruction—this type of instruction would not only reduce the underlying cause of a child’s anxieties or challenging behaviors, but would also teach them to read.

My family’s experience, in what I would describe as an excellent public school system, motivated me to reach out to other parents of children with dyslexia. I knew that many of these families were experiencing similar situations and that collectively we may be able to raise awareness and bring much needed resources to our schools and communities.

We established Decoding Dyslexia Maryland, a parent-led grassroots movement that offers awareness, support and advocacy for children with dyslexia, their parents and educators.

Through my advocacy work with Decoding Dyslexia Maryland, I was asked to serve as a parent stakeholder on the Family Engagement Advisory Board for the National Center on Improving Literacy* (NCIL), which was funded by Office of Special Education Programs in September 2016.

NCIL is an important component of the U.S. Department of Education’s mandate under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to support students with learning disabilities such as dyslexia. The center is tasked with:

  • Developing and/or identifying tools to screen for and detect reading challenges early;
  • Identifying evidence-based literacy instruction, strategies, accommodations and assistive technology;
  • Providing information to support families;
  • Developing and/or identifying professional development for teachers on early indicators and instructional strategies; and
  • Disseminating these resources within existing federal networks.

Schools today are searching for information and assistance in implementing the evidence-based instruction outlined in ESSA and required by many of the new dyslexia laws passing in state legislatures across the country.

As I near the end of my family’s personal pre-K-12 journey, I’m excited to be able to offer NCIL the benefit of my daughter’s experiences to help change the way students with reading challenges and dyslexia are identified and taught to read.

It’s my expectation that NCIL, in collaboration with parents, educators, community partners, and reading researchers, will offer our public schools the information and guidance they need to bring the science of reading into their classrooms and to close the research-to-practice gap that sometimes hinders their ability to deliver best practices in literacy instruction to the students that need it the most.

This October, Learning Disabilities Awareness Month, is the perfect time to learn more about the mission of the NCIL and to spread the word to your schools and communities about dyslexia and this new research-based resource. Encourage teachers, principals and families to visit the NCIL website and make suggestions about the types of information, tools, trainings and resources that are most needed.

* The National Center on Improving Literacy is a partnership among literacy experts, university researchers, and technical assistance providers, with funding from the U.S. Department of Education.

Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

“Voices from the Field” Interview with Nina Brown, Early Childhood Special Educator in Fairfax County, Virginia

Note: October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month.

Nina Brown

Nina Brown

Nina Brown earned her master’s degree in education from George Mason University and is currently a teacher in Fairfax County, VA, where she has spent the majority of her career. Prior to that, she taught in Liberty County, GA. She has dedicated her career to teaching young children with disabilities and partnering with their families to help build a foundation for educational success. She recently graduated from George Washington University with a degree in education leadership and administration in special education, in hopes of continuing to support students and families throughout the county.

How did you begin your career in early learning and special education?

As a child, whenever we went to visit my grandparents, we would always spend time with my aunt in her group home. She had developmental disabilities and medical needs that prevented her from living at home. Even though I was only a child, I recognized the limited access and opportunities available to her within her community. She was an adult, but had never attended school, which seemed incomprehensible to me. From a very young age, I knew I wanted to go into a profession where I could advocate for people with disabilities. I combined that with my love for children and eventually earned my master’s in early childhood special education. After 17 years of teaching, I recently earned an education specialist degree in leadership and administration in the area of special education. With this degree, I hope to have a broader impact on children and their families throughout the school district in which I work.

What recommendations do you have for improving educational experiences of children with Down syndrome?

I believe that high-quality early childhood education is fundamental to long term success for all children, but most critically to students with disabilities. Early childhood special education is often the “gateway” to the education system, and it has been my goal throughout my career to be a positive liaison between schools and families.

Two steps fundamental in facilitating positive educational experiences are

  1. helping families access community services and supports, and
  2. incorporating evidence-based instructional practices into classroom activities.

Children with Down syndrome tend to have strong social skills, so building upon those strengths to increase their learning opportunities in all areas of development is beneficial, regardless of their age. Teachers and parents should always have high expectations of the abilities of children with Down syndrome. Children with Down syndrome often know much more than they are able to communicate. The use of visuals and manipulatives in acquiring new skills builds upon their strengths as visual learners. Providing increased processing time and consistency are also instructional strategies that complement the learning style of many students with Down syndrome.

What suggestions do you have for expanding access to high-quality early learning opportunities for children with Down syndrome?

One of my responsibilities as an early childhood special education teacher is to transition preschool students into kindergarten, helping to ensure they will be educated in the least restrictive environment, with their peers, in the school closest to home. It has been my experience that acceptance of students with disabilities varies among schools within the same district, even though inclusion benefits all students, with and without disabilities. Schools may look at a label or diagnosis of a student to help in their decision making for programs and services. I believe it is my responsibility, and that of all teachers, to look at the individual child and their abilities first and foremost. In all aspects of my job, I strive to advocate for the needs of students in order to help build a strong educational foundation to make the most positive impact on their future.

Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

“Voices from the Field” Interview with Wendy Lewis Jackson,
Kresge Foundation’s Detroit Program

Wendy Lewis Jackson, Managing Director at the Kresge Foundation’s Detroit Program

Wendy Lewis Jackson,
Managing Director at the Kresge Foundation’s Detroit Program

Wendy Lewis Jackson is managing director for the Detroit Program at the Kresge Foundation. She co-leads the Foundation’s efforts to revitalize Detroit and to strengthen its social and economic fabric. Her work supports organizations providing economic opportunity for low-income people and addresses the needs of vulnerable children and families. Prior to joining Kresge in 2008, Wendy was a program director for Children and Family Initiatives and executive director for education initiatives at the Grand Rapids Community Foundation in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She taught at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan, and has co-authored and assisted in the publication of several reports and publications that address community needs and problem solving.

ED: How did you begin your career in Early Learning?

Wendy: My educational background is in political science and social policy. My career in philanthropy began at the Heart of West Michigan United Way in Grand Rapids, Michigan where I served as a senior associate responsible for grants in the areas of health, community development, and human services. From the United Way system I began working with the Grand Rapids Community Foundation. My professional focus has been to address issues that affect vulnerable children and families. In particular, how philanthropy can be used to change the trajectory of children’s lives by providing comprehensive supports to families and communities and ensure economic stability. My work over the years has included early childhood, child welfare, and K-12 education reform. My work in Detroit at the Kresge Foundation continues these themes with an emphasis on early childhood development and learning.

ED: What efforts have you and your organization been involved in to improve the quality of early learning?

Wendy: The Kresge Foundation is a national foundation that works to expand opportunities in America’s cities through grantmaking and social investing in arts and culture, education, environment, health, human services, and community development in Detroit. In my role at Kresge, I work to advance tangible and sustainable near- and long-term progress in Detroit. The Detroit program is the Foundation’s largest grantmaking area and we make approximately $30 million in grants each year to advance opportunity and quality of life. About four years ago, we began thinking more holistically about areas of emphasis in Detroit that could improve economic opportunity and reduce inequality. Early childhood became the major focus of our work. In 2016, Kresge launched the Kresge Early Years for Success Initiative (KEYS: Detroit), a five-year, $20 million grant, with the goal to build and improve early childhood systems in the city of Detroit. Within this initiative, the major agenda is to help the city of Detroit get traction to increase quality and to expand access for young children in early childhood programs.

KEYS: Detroit has five components.

  1. The first involves investments in new high-quality early childhood centers in the city. Through a gap analysis and needs assessment on Detroit’s early childhood system, conducted by the Midwest-based nonprofit IFF, we found there is a lack of 24,000 high-quality early childhood seats based on the number of children and their families in need of high-quality early childhood options. We are working to expand the number of seats by (1) investing in up to three new early childhood centers and (2) supporting IFF’s efforts to launch a new grant and loan program in Detroit to improve existing facilities. These grants and loans come with technical assistance to enhance quality.
  2. The second component is a partnership with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, called Hope Starts Here, to help the city of Detroit develop its first strategic framework for early childhood development and learning. Through the Hope Starts Here partnership we set out to engage 50,000 families to learn (1) what families with young children need and (2) how the city can improve its approach to early childhood development and education. We’re using the data collected from these community stakeholders to develop Hope Starts Here recommendations that will be released in fall 2017.
  3. The third component is establishing grant programs for Detroit neighborhoods. This program has not been launched yet, but it is planned to be a new opportunity for local leaders to work on early childhood initiatives within their communities.
  4. The fourth component is related to social investment. We are fortunate at Kresge to have tremendous social investment expertise. We are looking at innovative financial means beyond grant making to be able to provide other financial opportunities for those working in the early childhood space.
  5. Our last component is around field-building—meaning, making investments at the local, state, and national levels for improving data collection, advocacy, and research in early childhood.

We believe that the five components we are investing in will help Detroit’s youngest learners and ultimately have a positive impact on improving opportunities in the city.

ED: What are some of the challenges you have experienced in this work and what strategies have you tried to overcome them? 

Wendy: A major challenge that I have experienced is ensuring better coordination of existing programs. We completed a mapping exercise in Detroit to get a handle on the number of programs supporting young children and their families. We identified over 400 programs that support young children in some way, but they were not working in alignment with the same North Star. This fragmented approach is a huge challenge, but we are trying to capitalize on all of these efforts in early childhood.

Another challenge in Detroit is that many of the facilities that house early childhood programs are in substantial need of quality improvement. Families and their children should be able to receive services with dignity, starting with a building that fosters development and education. KEYS: Detroit is designed to put the necessary building blocks in place to have high-quality early childhood programs. In other communities, they start initiatives with bold goals, such as 90 percent of all young children will be able to access high-quality early childhood programs. In Detroit, there are so many fundamental things that need to be in place before we can begin to think of these goals. So setting up the fundamental structures is what KEYS is designed to do.

ED: What suggestions do you have for others interested in expanding access to high-quality early learning opportunities?  

Wendy: One suggestion is to not lead with the money. Really engage stakeholders and the community from the beginning, get a handle on what the needs are from various perspectives, and then develop a framework and solutions to address them. A community’s engagement is critical and fundamental to addressing its needs. Mobilizing families to become involved and help address the needs of their communities has been a critical element of the efforts in Detroit. A simple way of saying it—you need stakeholders and you need a plan!

Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

“Voices from the Field” Interview with Jack McCarthy, President and CEO of Apple Tree Institute for Education Innovation

Jack McCarthy, President and CEO of Apple Tree Institute for Education Innovation

Jack McCarthy, President and CEO of Apple Tree Institute for Education Innovation

Jack McCarthy is president and CEO of AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation and AppleTree Early Learning Public Charter School in Washington, D.C. AppleTree works to close achievement gaps by developing young children’s cognitive, social, and emotional skills through individualized teaching. They promote learning experiences that are evidence-based and use an approach that integrates what to teach, how to teach, and how to know it’s working. Jack has worked as a social entrepreneur at the intersection of education research, policy, and practice since 1993, combining his experiences in business and politics with a reformer’s sense of urgency about the importance of educating all children to high standards.

ED: How did you begin your career in Early Learning?

Jack: I was tricked into the field of early learning! A friend had brought me in as the treasurer for a non-profit organization with the hopes that I could help them find a building for a charter school they were starting. I had expertise in working with developers, structuring deals, and raising capital. We eventually pulled together financing and renovated a building in 4.5 months. It was a series of complex problems to solve, with unrealistic deadlines, but all for the purpose of providing high-quality programs for kids that needed them. Originally I had no idea how important this work was, but the more I learned and became involved, the more I became committed.

The first schools we opened were middle and high schools, yet most students were reading far below grade level, so it quickly became apparent to me that we were starting too late and we needed to get to kids earlier. This was 17 years ago, when the National Reading Panel had just released their report on the importance of early literacy. There was a growing emphasis on early learning.

We started a demonstration preschool in Washington, D.C. with TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) child care subsidies and private foundation funds. We discussed with experts and other smart people how best to promote early literacy skills for preschoolers and began to build our model.

In 2005 we were awarded an Early Reading First (ERF) grant from the U.S. Department of Education (ED). That’s when we became much more structured with our approach. ERF gave us the opportunity to build an exemplary model and to be much more intentional with promoting early literacy. We had something that made sense. However, in order to also address early math and social, emotional and behavioral development we had to use two additional curricula.

We continued our research-to-practice approach, working with a growing number of preschool classrooms, looking at outcome data, and collecting lots of feedback from teachers and coaches to continuously improve our practices. At the suggestion of experts in 2010 we developed our own approach, Every Child Ready (ECR), to support literacy, math, and social, emotional, and behavioral development within one curriculum. With Investing in Innovation (i3) funding from ED, we were able to strengthen our ECR model. Over the years the funding from ED provided us with the network and ability to bring really smart people together. We established our vision and goals, and then created an environment where innovative problem solving could happen.

ED: What efforts has your organization been involved in to improve the quality of preschool?

Jack: Our biggest contribution has been to develop this comprehensive early learning instructional model Every Child Ready, which includes what to teach, how to teach, and how to know it is working. ECR is a research-to-practice model that uses children’s academic and social-emotional outcomes, teacher quality data, and educator feedback to drive ongoing refinement and development. In developing ECR we took the time to figure out how you really move the needle on improving child outcomes.

A critical piece is to know if what you are doing is working and figuring out if you are making progress. ECR includes progress-monitoring tools focused on language and literacy, math, and positive behavior. Through ongoing observation we can monitor whether and ensure that kids are making progress in all of these areas. The ongoing progress monitoring provides data that are useful to teachers, instructional leaders, administrators, and others. We believe this is a big contribution to the field.

We’ve talked to so many different people over the years that want to do what’s right for kids. People look for one silver bullet, a simple answer to the complex issue of creating high-quality programs. The thing that is so humbling is that there isn’t one solution, rather it is that the 100 one percent solutions need to be organized and executed effectively in a controlled environment that makes it easier for teachers to provide highly individualized instruction. That is what ECR does really well. We are excited to be working towards making this innovation practical by putting it on a technology platform.

The other important piece to our work is expanding high-quality preschool through the unique D.C. charter preschool space. By being creative and flexible, we’ve been able to expand the use of our model across the city. We’ve done this through three approaches.

The first is through the AppleTree Early Learning stand-alone preschools. Through these we currently serve 650 preschoolers at 6 sites across the city.

The second is through our Apple Tree@Partnerships, where we partner with several different charter schools that serve older children. In these charter schools, we operate their preschool program under a contract and serve 700 preschoolers.

The third is supporting (but not administering) the implementation of our preschool model in additional charter schools. This last approach is reaching another 2000 kids. We have been in conversation with a couple of big-city school districts interested in ECR, so we see potential to further the work but need to think carefully about our capacity and how best to scale.

ED: What are some of the challenges you have experienced in this work, and what strategies have you tried to overcome these? 

Jack: When we started working with schools that were focused on older children there was a tendency that they wanted to “push down” their curriculum to preschoolers. We had some critical conversations about why that wasn’t going to work, and why it was important for preschoolers that learning occurs through play and other fun activities. We continue to work on this challenge, this vertical integration piece—how does ECR align with what is happening with the older grades in a school?

Another challenge relates to capacity. This is hard work and in order to do it well you need to have resources to build capacity and to support what should be happening in classrooms. In the non-profit world, raising capital to build internal capacity to manage larger projects or evaluate outcomes can take years.

We’ve been lucky to be working in an environment in D.C. that is committed to preschool. We’ve been working where the operation funding is abundant. But growth capital and facilities funding are big challenges. We can’t do everything we want with the operation funding. For example, we’ve been challenged with finding funding for our technology platform, to make the ECR tools widely available and more practical to use. In early learning we all feel this sense of urgency to address all of the issues at once, but the reality is that the pace and type of funding don’t always line up. You are resource constrained in some ways and not in others. This is part of non-profit management.

It is exciting to be working at the intersection of policy, research, and practice and to be managing each of those pieces with integrity so that we are both altruistic and thoughtful. For example, we don’t want to bring things to scale that won’t have an impact.

ED: What suggestions do you have for others interested in expanding access to high-quality preschool programs?

Jack: Reach out and engage experts and other smart people. I continue to find that people involved in policy, research, and practice in this sector are very willing to share their experiences with what works as well as what doesn’t.

Early on we did a lot of listening and learning and asking for feedback on our ideas. Get involved or learn from the broad early learning community, attend meetings, conferences, and have conversations about different ideas from various people that have been thinking hard and trying different things that support young learners.

The other important piece is to recognize that it is important to make your program vulnerable, and be open-minded and humble in the name of trying to improve in all areas. For example, when we first started we were pretty focused only on early literacy, but over time, through our experience, conversations, and feedback, it became clear that we needed to build in a focus on social-emotional development.

Our research-to-practice, continuous improvement approach helps us to be flexible in improving our work. Learning how to listen is critical and so is being on the lookout for new opportunities. For example, I’ve been on D.C.’s Early Childhood Development Coordinating Council and have met so many young child care center directors who don’t necessarily have specialized knowledge in early childhood, but they do have the entrepreneur’s vision and they want to provide high-quality care. We need to figure out how to use opportunities like this to increase access to quality early learning. By being open minded, flexible, and solution-focused we can solve these complex issues related to improving the quality of programs serving our youngest learners.

Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

“Voices from the Field” Interview with Deborah Dixon,
American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA)
Director of School Services

Deborah Dixon, ASHA Director of School Services

Deborah Dixon, ASHA Director of School Services

“True collaboration requires a lot of trust, but once you build that trust you understand that no one person can be responsible for a child’s progress”.

As part of Better Hearing and Speech Month (BHSM) ED interviewed Deborah Dixon, M.A., CCC-SLP, who is American Speech-Language-Hearing Association’s (ASHA) Director of School Services. Deborah leads ASHA’s schools team to provide resources, technical assistance and contemporary information to school-based speech-language pathologists (SLPs). She has presented to many state and national organizations and serves as ex officio to several ASHA committees. Some of her areas of expertise are integrating state standards; workload strategies; the role of the SLP in multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS) and response to intervention (RTI); dynamic service delivery for SLPs; eligibility and dismissal criteria for school SLP services; and contemporary issues in school practice.

Note to readers: Given the importance of high quality early learning opportunities for young children with disabilities, OSERS will periodically highlight voices from the broader field of early learning in our blog.

ED: Speech-language pathologists (SLP) are trained to work across the age span, why did you become interested in working specifically in schools?

Deborah: Most of my practice career [as an SLP] was in and around Pittsburgh in various school districts. I was always interested in working in a school setting since the most important things in a child’s life happen in the context of the child’s family and in their schools. In the school setting I enjoyed building relationships with teachers and other colleagues, families, and children. Working with children at an early age allows you to watch them change and grow overtime and to have an impact on many aspects of their development, including social, emotional, language, and literacy. With a preventive mindset, we can catch children early when they are struggling with language or communication, and then work with them and the adults in their lives to improve their outcomes.

ED: What is the SLP’s role in an early learning or school environment?

Deborah: When most people think about a speech-language pathologist, they think about helping children with make correct speech sounds, but an SLP’s role is much broader and includes all aspects of communication. SLPs serve an important role in assisting students to be “reading ready” by helping them hear and process differences in sounds, expand their vocabulary, use and understand grammar, build skills to summarize and sequence information, and problem solve and interpret idiomatic language. They support both oral and written language. SLPs also help students engage socially with one another; helping them learn a wide variety of verbal and nonverbal skills that support more successful interactions with peers and adults.

One of ASHA’s major strategic goals is to promote cross-discipline collaborationencouraging SLPs and their colleagues in schools (teachers, parents, physical therapists, occupational therapists, etc.) to work more collaboratively to address the needs of the whole child. We need to bring the various perspectives from different professions together to conduct child assessments, develop an intervention approach focused on improving outcomes for children holistically, and assess whether what we, the professionals, are doing is working. True collaboration requires a lot of trust, but once you build that trust you understand that no one person can be responsible for a child’s progress. A team made up of the family and professional, each with different expertise, can make all the difference.

ED: What are some of the challenges in this work, and what strategies have you tried to overcome them? 

Deborah: One of the biggest challenges is the school day. For meaningful collaboration, professionals need time to meet regularly. It is a huge struggle to find collaborative planning time because of the way schools are scheduled. One solution to this is getting buy-in from program or school leadership on how teams need to work to ultimately benefit children. Currently there isn’t a great understanding of the different roles and responsibilities of specialists (SLPs, OT, PT) in early learning programs and schools, or how they contribute to improving the developmental and educational outcomes of all children.

One successful strategy for improving collaboration is integrating SLP services into the program or classroom. If an SLP works in the general education classroom, the teacher sees their expertise in action and vice versa. The SLP also witnesses experiences the demands the teacher faces every day. Both professionals gain a new appreciation for roles and expectations, and have an opportunity to work together. Another strategy is to make staff assignments based on workload and not simply on numbers of children.

When there is concern in a school such as literacy rates or behavioral problems, bringing a team together can be really effective. Schools and early learning programs need to create a learning community that engages professionals and families to collaboratively develop solutions for such issues, including using data to inform interventions. If, as members of such a team, we all understand what we each other are trying to achieve, we can work together much more efficiently and effectively.

Families are a key partner in this collaborative work. We are getting better at figuring out how to engage working families. This is important, because most families do want to be involved. We must use technology and innovative solutions to involve families. We often tell families, “you need to work on this,” but we don’t engage with them on the other piece, how you build this into your everyday activities. This type of engagement can go a long way, and provide great support and perspective for the family and professional. For example, how do you use the grocery store to facilitate speech and language development?

ED: May is Better Hearing and Speech Month (BHSM). Why is it important to have a BHSM?

Deborah: BHSM is an annual opportunity to raise awareness about communication disorders, share strategies for building communication skills every day, and promote the important role SLPs and audiologists play in helping to build communication skills.

This year’s BHSM theme is “Communication—the Key to Connection.” This provides an opportunity to underscore that we engage with one another through communication. As adults, we are role models for children in our communication; even in terms of our problem solving, disagreeing, etc. Being very deliberate in terms of modeling positive communication skills is important. Additionally, being aware of and understanding the cultural nuance of communication gives us an opportunity to embrace and celebrate our diversity.

More information on BHSM can be found at: http://www.asha.org/public/

Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Deborah Dixon, ASHA Director of School Services
Posted by
American Speech-Language-Hearing Association’s (ASHA) Director of School Services

“Voices from the Field” Interview with Jeana Ross, Secretary of the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education

“Invest in your teachers and provide them what they need to be a true early childhood teacher that is responsive and sensitive to children”

Jeana Ross, Secretary of the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education

Jeana Ross, Secretary of the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education

Secretary Jeana Ross was appointed to lead Early Childhood Education in Alabama in 2012. Under her leadership, the Department of Early Childhood Education has maintained the highest quality rating for its First Class Pre-K program, based on the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) quality benchmarks, while the program underwent the largest growth in its history. Since Secretary Ross joined the department, the voluntary high-quality pre-K program has grown from 217 classrooms to more than 800 classrooms located in all 67 counties of the state. The state’s early learning home visiting and family support services have grown from serving 13 counties, to a total of 43 counties through Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) grants and additional state funds. Secretary Ross has led the department in writing and receiving federal grant awards totaling over 100 million dollars. She focuses her leadership efforts on serving children and families while maintaining the highest levels of transparency and accountability.

Note to readers: Given the importance of high quality early learning opportunities for young children with disabilities, OSERS will periodically highlight voices from the broader field of early learning in our blog.

ED: How did you begin your career in the field of early learning?

Jeana: I obtained my bachelor’s degree in early childhood education and I hold a master’s degree in education leadership. While in my undergraduate program, I studied psychology courses focused on babies and young children and became intrigued with children and their development. I was certified to teach pre-k to third grade and began my career teaching a combined class of second and third graders in rural Alabama. As my career advanced, I became one of the first kindergarten teachers in Alabama Public Schools, a full-day program. When starting my own family, I took a break from my career to raise my two sons. My love for children’s curiosity and delight of discovery created a strong desire to always participate in and facilitate the pure joy of learning. I returned to the field in 1997, teaching preschool, and was provided the opportunity to write school readiness standards for the county school district. My accomplishments resulted in my serving as a coach for other teachers across the state. Through my work in public schools, I began building pre-k programs in different school systems and participated in an advisory role as the state began its pre-k program. When my current position became open in 2012, I interviewed with the governor and was asked to serve as the department leader. The Alabama First Class Pre-K Program has in the last 4 years increased the number of children enrolled from 3,906 (6% of) four-year-olds to 14,598 (25%).

ED: Why do you and your state believe it is important to focus on improving the quality of pre-k?

Jeana: The effects of early learning experiences in the first five years of a child’s life have long-lasting impacts. High-quality programs have positive effects for children, which can lead to later success in school, work, and life. In Alabama, early childhood professionals are committed to quality. Through their efforts, parents and businesses became a part of the advocacy work highlighting the need for high-quality preschool programs in our communities. We have an Alabama School Readiness Alliance that is comprised of several nonprofits and business organizations, and this group is the greatest supporter in the state for legislative funding for early childhood. As a result of all the advocacy work, Alabama has made high-quality pre-K part of the law in the state.

ED: What are some of the challenges your state has experienced in this work and what strategies have you tried to overcome these?

Jeana: Alabama was challenged with a fragmented system of early childhood supports and services for young children. We created partnerships with other groups serving children and families to actively build a more cohesive system. We were creative in our thinking, and looked at the importance of having a data management system for analyzing information, and for continuous improvement and decision making. This enabled us to better connect strategies with fund sources, such as expanding the use of Title I dollars in the pre-k programs and building more collaborative structures in the system for Pre-K and Head Start funds. In addition, Alabama wanted to develop an effective system to support socioeconomically-diverse classrooms and salary parity for teachers. Through building this system and these structures, we now have a formula to improve classrooms, and have created a method to provide supplemental grants to pay pre-K teachers comparable salaries with their K-12 counterparts. When faced with challenges, my advice is to always be creative and persistent.

ED: What recommendations do you have for other states interested in expanding access to high- quality preschool programs?    

Jeana: What I would recommend to other states is:

  1. set high-quality standards, communicate what those are, and demonstrate what they look like;
  2. involve parents, businesses and industry leaders in the initiative; and
  3. provide supports such as coaching and monitoring to maintain quality.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Jeana Ross, Secretary of the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education
Posted by
Secretary of the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education

Voices from the Field Interview with Kelly Bentley, Michigan Department of Education

“Family engagement shouldn’t be a box to
check or a step in the process,
it is crucial to the work.”

Kelly Bentley

Kelly Bentley

Kelly Bentley joined the Michigan Department of Education in June, 2015 as the Project Manager for the Early Learning Challenge grant. She is responsible for leading cross-agency efforts to provide high quality early learning and development opportunities for children age birth to five. She works in close partnership with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, the Early Childhood Investment Corporation, and the Michigan Association for the Education of Young Children implementing a range of activities within the grant, such as leading innovative efforts around family engagement. Prior to working for state government, Kelly spent over 15 years working with children and families, including as an administrator of a non-profit organization providing mentoring opportunities for disadvantaged children and youth.

Note to readers: Given the importance of high quality early learning opportunities for young children with disabilities, OSERS will periodically highlight voices from the broader field of early learning in our blog.

ED: How did you begin your career in early learning/early childhood?

Kelly: I am relatively new to the early childhood field. I graduated from college with a degree in counseling and knew that working with children and families was my primary interest. I had the opportunity to work with adjudicated youth and their families and with Big Brothers/Big Sisters as a case manager. After a few years under my belt I saw there were larger issues causing these families to struggle. Gradually I moved more into administration and became interested in systems change and the school to prison pipeline, and went back to school to earn my Master’s in Social Work (MSW). Through my MSW program, I interned at the Michigan Department of Education, focusing on issues related to suspension and expulsion, including the development of social emotional learning standards for the state. Through all of my experiences I grew to believe that it is so critical to intervene early with at-risk children and struggling families. Our systems and programs are set up to be so reactive; instead we need to shift our attention and invest more in prevention. That is why I believe focusing on high quality early learning opportunities is so important. There is a direct tie between early childhood experiences and whether kids are proficient in reading by the end of third grade.

ED: Why do you and your state believe that family engagement is so important in early learning/early childhood?

Kelly: The Michigan Department of Education has a goal of our public education system becoming one of the top 10 educational systems in the country within 10 years. Family engagement is a core component of the strategy for getting us there. Our Office of Great Start, which is our early learning office within Michigan’s Department of Education, has a long history of emphasizing the importance of family engagement. One of our core values is that families are primary to all children’s growth and development, so family engagement has always been central to our work. We’ve had a long history of engaging stakeholders, including providers and families, in every aspect of our work and the various programs we oversee. Family engagement is part of the culture of our office and we’ve had strong leadership that values promoting meaningful family engagement for early learning programs, and ensures we are being intentional with engaging families in the work at the state level.

ED: What are the strategies your state is using to promote family engagement in early learning? Have you experienced any challenges to implementing these strategies?

Kelly: We look for multiple opportunities to engage our stakeholders, including families. We have an advisory council that meets regularly and helps to guide our work, and this council includes families. An instrumental report, Great Start, Great Investment, Great Future: The Plan for Early Learning and Development in Michigan, was developed in 2013 with significant input from stakeholders, including parents with young children, and this has been foundational to our comprehensive state plan for early learning and development.

Michigan has helped develop an infrastructure to gather meaningful input from the field, and also to promote the importance of family engagement at the local level—we have 54 local Great Start Collaboratives that are connected to intermediate school districts and include one or more Great Start Parent Coalitions. These have been in place the last 10 years! The parent voices have been critical to the local Great Start Collaboratives and ensure strong Great Start Parent Coalitions. As part of the the launch of the Parent Coalitions, parent liaisons from the Great Start Collaboratives worked specifically with community parents of children birth to kindergarten entry to identify ways to improve their community.

More recently, through funding from the Early Learning Challenge grant, we are developing “Trusted Advisors.” The 60 statewide Parent Coalitions can apply for $5,000–$60,000 (depending on the strategies they propose) to work with their local community and to identify Trusted Advisors—individuals who are connected to local families and may have inroads to help reach the hard to reach families. In their applications, Parent Coalitions are looking at their local data to identify their high risk populations, asking who are the families that aren’t connected to our early learning efforts?, what are the community’s strengths?, and what’s already in place that we can build on and engage these families in meaningful ways both in the learning and development of their young children and in the local early learning programs? We believe that relying on the local communities to generate strategies for how to engage the hardest to reach families will be the key. We know that trust is so important, so if we can identify the right individuals or organizations in a community to help us reach families, we will be much more successful. We are also in the process of hiring eight “Family Engagement Consultants” that will be trained in the Strengthening Families™ approach. These consultants will be available to early learning programs and will provide training, tools and techniques for improving family engagement. These consultants are starting with parent and community cafés (invited gatherings) for some of our unlicensed providers (family, friends or neighbors enrolled to receive our child care subsidy) helping them to build partnerships with families.

Another effort we have underway is working collaboratively with Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to ensure that their Pathways to Potential Success Coaches (eligibility specialists placed in schools) are trained to understand the importance of family engagement, and to view families from a strengths-based approach. The Success Coaches are on the front lines working with families to determine if they are eligible for various social programs, including the child care subsidy. They often don’t have backgrounds in family-centered services but because of their important role, they have the opportunity to help empower families. We are working with DHHS to develop an on-going training model to ensure these folks understand the importance of family-centered services; it is really about shifting the mindset, and understanding how empowering families ultimately helps the child.

ED: What recommendations do you have for other States or communities interested in promoting family engagement in early learning?

Kelly: Coming from an organization that has been upholding family engagement as a core value for the past 20 years, I think it is important to develop a culture that sees family engagement as crucial to the work, that it shouldn’t just be a box to check, or a step in the process. Seeing families from a strengths-based lens, and valuing their role and their input, will help programs build meaningful partnerships with families around individual children and the administration of local and state programs.

Another recommendation is to engage families early so the family-school partnership transcends their child’s educational experience. Be sure you build family engagement into your early childhood program standards, and then build them into your Quality Rating and Improvement System. The time and attention that we spend on planning for, and ensuring, family engagement should be equivalent to the time and attention programs spend on planning for other critical pieces of early learning, such as curriculum, facilities, assessment, etc. One of the challenges to this work is ensuring funding for the development and implementation of strong family engagement plans, and this is where cross-agency collaboration, public/private partnerships, and innovation can help.

Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.