To build early learning, we must build communities
One of the instructional leaders from our curriculum department was in a district office building recently and asked a young child, probably about three years old, what color a nearby book was. Before he could even respond, his parent said, “Oh, he’s not in school yet.”
It’s a simple anecdote, perhaps forgettable, but it reveals an attitude that’s becoming more pervasive than it should be with parents of young children: that school is where learning begins, that education doesn’t happen at home, but with teachers.
I’m a firm believer, however, that the family is a child’s first teacher. At Marion County School District, we embody that philosophy and share it with our community to ensure students enter our schools ready on the first day. Here’s how we do it.
Promoting the Power of Parents
The first step must happen in the home. Conversations, reading to children, asking them about the things they learn in preschool, and many other interactions families have with their young children all contribute to their education. A lot of parents don’t see the value of their role in educating their child, whether because they didn’t have academic success themselves or simply because they think only institutional education qualifies as teaching. Parents are a huge piece of the puzzle, however, and we need to help them fill that role.
We repeatedly tell them, “Your role is very important and you’re equipped to teach your child.” Simply saying that, however, is not enough.
Prioritizing Early Education
Next, educators must walk the talk and make early education a priority within our district. This has recently become easier through the South Carolina Child Early Reading and Development Program. Available in most South Carolina districts, this program helps us ensure that eligible four-year-olds in our district receive high-quality preschool.
The number of seats funded through CERDEP is limited, however, and not all students are eligible. We are fortunate to be able to extend a supplemental program, Waterford UPSTART, to students enrolled in our program. This program provides parents no-cost access to high-quality early learning with a personalized online curriculum focused on literacy, numeracy, and early STEM concepts. If the family doesn’t have a laptop or Internet access, Waterford will provide them, again at no cost.
Bringing children into the district for preschool demonstrates our commitment to early learning, but it doesn’t necessarily empower families to take themselves seriously as teachers of their own children. For that, we look to partnerships with the larger community.
Marion County is a Title I district, so we’re required to hold parenting activities. Within the schools, we have all the traditional gatherings, such as Donuts for Dads and Muffins for Moms, but we pair those fun events with some learning for the parents. Parent breakfasts, for example, are great community-building events in their own right, but we want family members who attend to participate in a workshop as well. Several times throughout the school year, each of our schools offers parent workshops with activities that support the curriculum.
We also partner with our faith communities. In a rural community such as ours, connection to a faith-based institution is something most of our students share, and the respect their family members hold for clergy is significant. We leverage that by working with faith-based organizations.
Often that’s as simple as passing along information or resources to the clergy. I have a regular coffee chat with clergy members and I always provide them with resources such as a high-frequency word list to share with their communities. They get packets for every grade from kindergarten to 5th, and I encourage them to make it part of their Sunday school or create some kind of challenge for their young people to participate in.
We also like to extend invitations to these folks related to whatever is going on in the district. We say, “If you need us to come to your church for some type of event, our staff will be on site. We can provide some type of workshop to make sure parents are engaged.”
At my most recent coffee chat, for example, my math coordinator came along with me and extended an open invitation by saying, “I hear parents are struggling with this new math. I'm willing to come and have a math workshop at your church.”
Multiple Modes of Media Outreach
In these high-tech times, there are many other ways for us to reach our community members. As I write this, I’m looking forward to expanding upon the many opportunities to reach our families through webinars and podcasts.
I also go on the old-fashioned radio once a quarter to provide updates and other information, because not everyone is a tech whiz. Many of our grandparents, for example, take a very active role in raising our students, but most of them aren’t downloading podcasts. They do know how to tune a radio, though!
Connecting with Daycares
We are actively working right now on strengthening our connections with our local daycares.
Our relationships with these centers are good, but we’re acting to improve the academic nature of those relationships by looking at how we can best align our education objectives. Do we need to share our curriculum with them? Do we need to include them in some of our training?
We can’t just say, “Those children are with daycares now so we don’t need to worry about what they’re learning.” Children in all the local daycare facilities will someday soon be Marion County students, so we do have to ensure that they have the experiences they need to come to our district ready to learn.
As educators, we’re advocates for children, but we can’t do it on our own. We have to be advocates for families, as well. As the African proverb says, it truly does take a village.
Kandace Bethea is the superintendent at the Marion County School District, where they use Waterford UPSTART to deliver an in-home early learning curriculum. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @bethea_kandace.
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