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On May 7, Paul Goren, Superintendent, and Joyce Bartz, Assistant Superintendent of Special Services, presented a report on District 65’s Early Childhood Programs to the School Board.

 “Our goal is to create the highest quality, state-of-the-art early childhood programs for our children and families, especially for Black and Latinx families who are most in need of those experiences,” said Ms. Bartz.

Dr. Goren said, “When we look at our data, we see significant achievement and opportunity gaps for children, especially when they get to third grade and go beyond. Many children are landing at kindergarten and many children are landing at pre-K with these gaps evident. The urgency is loud and clear.”

He said the report sets early childhood education as a priority in the District, and it provides “in a strategic and focused” manner “an appropriate direction for the future programming at JEH [the Joseph E. Hill Early Childhood Center].”

The plan, he said, is to transform District 65 from a K-8 system that provides separate early childhood education programs into a seamless pre-K to 8 system.

The 125-page report (including appendices) summarizes the District’s current programs, discusses the import of data presented by Stanford researcher Sean Reardon, discusses some of the achievement data concerning kindergarten readiness, summarizes the role of a task force and focus groups, and  presents seven recommendations.

The District’s Early Childhood Programs

District 65 serves 474 students in five separate early childhood programs: the Family Center, Early Head Start, Head Start (half day and full day), Early Childhood Special Education; and Preschool for All.

About 75% of the children in the programs are Black or Latinx. The programs primarily serve students from low-income households “who bring many personal assets and reflect a wide range of diversity yet also exhibit a range of factors that place them at risk of being academically and/or socially underprepared when they enter kindergarten,” says the report.

About 80% of the children in the District’s early childhood programs are housed at JEH; the remaining participants receive services at two facilities operated by the Infant Welfare Society of Evanston.

The programs are:

• Family Center – home visiting, 0-3 years, 74 students

• Early Head Start (center based), 0-3 years, 38 students

• Head Start (half day), 3-5 years, 80 students

• Head Start (full day), 3-5 years, 52 students

• Early Childhood Special Education, 3-5 years, 70 students

• Preschool for All, 3-5 years, 160 students.

Opportunity/Achievement Gaps

The report says, “District 65 has long recognized the persistent disparities in educational attainment based on race, income, first language, and disability status.” Despite efforts “to reduce and eliminate the opportunity and achievement gaps, significant gaps persist in all grades.”

Data presented by Dr. Reardon at a forum at Evanston Township High School in May 2017 “highlighted the need for the District to look more closely at educational opportunities prior to enrollment in kindergarten,” says the report.

“In Evanston, Black students score a little bit below the national average of all students in third grade and a little below the national average at eighth grade,” said Dr. Reardon.

He added that Black students in District 65 scored higher on average than Black students in 78% of the school districts in the nation.

Hispanic students at third grade are scoring “a little lower than Black students,” said Dr. Reardon, “but they’re substantially outperforming by eighth grade. Hispanic students are making more progress than the national average.

 “The average [White] third-grader in Evanston is scoring at the seventh-grade level nationally. The average eighth-grader is scoring at about the 12th-grade level.

Thus even though each of the student groups in Evanston were growing academically between third and eighth grades, the gaps that existed at third grade remained about the same at eighth grade. The Chart below, illustrates this point.

Based on his analysis of about 215 million standardized test scores taken by 40 million students in grades 3-8 in every public school in the United States between 2009 and 2013, Dr. Reardon said the nationwide trend is essentially the same.

On average, all student groups – Black, White, low-income, non-low-income – are showing roughly the same amount of academic growth between third and eighth grades. The difference is their starting points at third grade.

Dr. Reardon said school districts and whole communities need to consider strategies that address the opportunity gaps that exist before third grade, including starting at birth. “I think as a society, not just in Evanston – this is something we see nationally – we have to start thinking about how to do that.”

District 65’s 2017 achievement report shows that opportunity and achievement gaps are present at kindergarten. The percentage of students who meet the District’s kindergarten readiness benchmark in 2017 was 34% for Black students, 39% for Hispanic students, and 68% for White students. The Chart below shows the trend for the last five years. 

Ms. Bartz said, “As we look at our achievement data and data from other sources, it’s clear we need a two-pronged approach: maintain and expand our efforts in Grades K-8 to eliminate opportunity and achievement gaps that we experience in District 65, but also to strengthen our work with children and families prior to children’s enrollment in kindergarten.

“To help us develop and clarify our plan for improving our pre-K programs, we looked for volunteer help of experts and key community stakeholders who formed an Early Childhood Task Force,” Ms. Bartz said. “We asked the Task Force to do a general review of our current efforts and to suggest some paths we should consider in developing our early childhood improvement plan.”

Administrators also gathered input from five focus groups, three composed of parents, one of JEH staff, and one of community members.

D65 Administrators’ Recommendations

 The achievement goal stated in the report is “to make demonstrable progress in reducing the achievement gaps and increasing kindergarten readiness of Black and Latinx students over the next 3-5 years. The changes proposed here are designed to reduce the number of students who are not ‘kindergarten ready’ by at least 50% within five years (by the 2023-2024 school year).”

Ms. Bartz said as the District looks at trends and more sophisticated measures “we may tweak that goal. But our intent and target will always be to make a huge dent in the number of kids who are not kindergarten ready, and ultimately we want all of our students to be kindergarten ready.”

The report contains seven recommendations prepared by District 65 administrators, with input from the Task Force and the focus groups.   

Recommendation #1: “Develop a comprehensive, strategic plan for the early childhood programs.”

Ms. Bartz said, “The plan should be visionary, but also detailed. It should have a clear focus on improving outcomes for Black and Latinx students.”

Ms. Bartz said the plan will be developed with input from community stakeholders and education experts, and the District’s current early childhood programs should be aligned into a single, coherent program. In addition, the plan should clarify the curriculum and social and emotional learning guidelines, and identify steps to develop a culturally relevant curriculum. The plan should also include a first-class assessment system and provide for professional development.

Recommendation #2: “Better integrate early childhood programs into the District’s organizational structure.”

Ms. Bartz said this includes aligning the early childhood curriculum more closely with the District’s K–8 curriculum, social-emotional learning programs, special education program and equity-focused initiatives. In addition, the District should create structures to improve the transition between Pre-K and Kindergarten.

Recommendation #3: “Reconfigure existing funding to best align with program priorities.”

Ms. Bartz said the District should put the early childhood programs “at the heart” of the equity agenda to eliminate opportunity and achievement gaps, and the District’s priority placed on early childhood education needed to be reflected in the District’s budget. Among other things, the Board should consider increasing the staffing levels for the early childhood education program, she said. To remain budget neutral, the District should consider trade-offs, or reallocating funds from K-8 programs to early childhood.

Recommendation #4: “Examine hiring and staffing policies involving early childhood personnel.”

Ms. Bartz said the Task Force recommended that the District should focus employee recruitment efforts to help increase the number of Black and Latinx staff, and it should improve the recruitment processes for early childhood programs. The District is already doing this, said Ms. Bartz.

Recommendation #5: “Build upon partnerships with other Evanston early childhood providers and with relevant community stakeholders, particularly within Black and Latinx communities.”

As part of this recommendation, the report says the District should strengthen collaborations with Evanston Cradle to Career and other community organizations and early childhood providers, establish an early childhood learning community, and gather input about the appropriate balance between academics and play-based approaches. The District should also increase collaboration with other local agencies to improve support and wrap-around services to families.

 Recommendation #6: “Develop a comprehensive evaluation plan for JEH programs.”

Administrators recommend that the District collaborate with Northwestern/Evanston Education Research Alliance, and develop a plan to provide timely feedback to administrators, teachers and staff.

Recommendation #7: “Strengthen relationships with parents and families to ensure that all families are welcomed and involved members of the JEH community.”

Ms. Bartz said, “Creating a stronger community of JEH families will help make our programs better, provide more effective support of parents, and pay long-term benefits as those parents become active in their children’s school and transition to kindergarten.”

Lack of Specific Strategies

Several members of the community said the report does not recommend specific instructional strategies or programs to prepare more children for kindergarten readiness, but is a plan to develop a comprehensive plan, with six other recommendations.

Alex Morgan, a Board member of OPAL, said the report sets big goals, “but tells us very little about how we actually concretely can move forward.”

District 65 Board member Rebeca Mendoza said, “I want to stress the urgency of this work.” She said the Task Force was put together because these issues were already known, and most of the data had been previously presented to the Board before.

“I still don’t feel like I know what we’re going to be working on exactly in the year to come, and how we’re not going to be in the same place next year,” said Ms. Mendoza.

Dr. Goren said the District is in the process of hiring a new director of the early childhood programs, and the new director will play a key role in developing a comprehensive plan for the early childhood programs.

Dr. Goren explained, “We didn’t want to have the absolute plan already done and hand that plan [to the new director] and say now you’re accountable for this. That person has to put their signature on that.” He added that the District will be moving ahead with some of the other recommendations next year.

Andalib Khelghati, Assistant Superintendent of Schools, said, “What this does is it brings together a lot of disparate data. What we gain through this kind of a report is that it gives the leadership that is identified for the program “guidance and focus for the development of strategies. I would argue that given that we want this to be a more robust program, it needs this kind of coherence and what this does is it really brings together the different components.

“The comment about urgency of strategy is absolutely correct, but we are here at this point. … This sets the foundation. We will now evolve in engaging that leader [the new director] in the shared planning with the other school leaders in the District. We don’t want to have the same separateness again. What this document does is it gives this person a jump start. We are now in a positon to take on the charge that’s required.”

Focus Starting at Birth

The report itself does not specifically place a focus on the 0-3 group, but several Board members did.

Board member Sergio Hernandez said, “Most of American education focuses on that K-12 place. And for so long, we have neglected those very formative developmental years. The science tells us the brain, the neurons all connect and most of our brain is shaped within a few months. It’s critical that we get this right. I agree with Rebeca [Mendoza], we’ve got to get it right by starting with our 0-3 programs, our home visiting program. I’m glad to hear we’re going to look at other programs.

“That’s one recommendation from myself,” said Mr. Hernandez.

“Another recommendation is looking at a birth to third grade continuity framework,” said Mr. Hernandez. He added that the Illinois State Board of Education has been preparing a framework for a birth-to-third-grade group and will provide technical assistance to school districts that choose to look at this age range.

“I love the idea of birth-to-third-grade assessment,” said Board President Suni Kartha, adding that it could include an assessment of social and emotional learning, in addition to the assessment of literacy skills. 

“I hope that that is something that we can look into,” she said.

Ms. Bartz said one thing “we really want to work on in the District is the Family Center, where we begin with children at the age of six weeks.” 

Reallocating Funds

Dr. Goren said, “There’s not a substantial amount of new money coming to the District, so if we’re going to think about the pre-K programs, and prioritize the pre-K programs in a way that meets the needs of the District, we’re going to have to think about where there’s trade-offs financially.” 

“One of the things we could do a better job on is ensuring the funding ultimately benefits all three of our programs, the Family Center, Pre-K for All, and Head Start,” said Ms. Mendoza.

Board member Joey Hailpern said it is cheaper to invest more in early childhood education, than in remediation later on. “This is a good place to put our money where our mouth is.”

Ms. Kartha said, “The recommendations are great. I think that we just need to solidify that into an actual plan and strategies on how to move forward. From a Board perspective we need to understand what is our role in supporting the plan. And it sounds like resource allocation will be one of the primary ways that we do that. We need to be able to have those conversations early.”

Board member Candance Chow said “I totally agree we have to focus on early childhood education,” and she pointed out that the students in the District’s early childhood programs constitute one-fourth of all students the District will be serving in grades K-8.

She said if the Board is going to transfer funds from existing programs to early childhood programs, the Board needs to begin looking at information on costs and potential impacts beginning early in the next school year.

She said for her, the first recommendation to prepare a comprehensive plan is the key. She said the Board should be involved in that process.

Early Experiences Physically Shape a Child’s Brain

The brain is composed of billions of highly integrated sets of neural circuits (i.e., connections among brain cells) that are “wired” under the interactive influences of genes, the environment and experience.

The prenatal environment, “can have a profound influence on [the brain’s] architecture,” says the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (NSCDC). After birth, a child’s experiences play “an increasingly important role in shaping the architecture of developing neural circuits so that they can function optimally for each individual child.”

Positive experiences, such as exposure to rich learning opportunities, leave a “chemical signature” written on the top of a gene that result in healthy systems, such as effective learning and memory. Negative influences, such as environmental toxins or stressful life circumstances, leave a chemical “signature” on top of a gene that can lead to the development of unhealthy systems, such as setting a stress response system activation too high or too low.

By age three, a great deal of brain architecture is developed. But vast regions of the brain that are responsible for higher order functions – including most cognitive, social, and emotional capacities – have not yet begun to mature or are at very early stages of maturation. Thus, for most functions, the window of opportunity remains open well beyond the age of three. This is subject to one important caveat. NSCDC says, “More complex brain circuits build upon earlier, simpler circuits.”

“Building more advanced cognitive, social and emotional skills on a weak foundation of brain architecture is far more difficult and less effective than getting things right the first time,” says NSCDC.



Gap is Measureable at 18 Months

The advantage of reading to a young child and using more cognitive language in a household shows up early in children. In a research paper, “SES differences in language processing skill and vocabulary are evident at 18 months” (2013), Stanford University researchers concluded, “The most important finding was that significant disparities in language proficiency between infants from higher- and lower-SES [socio economic status] families were already evident at 18 months of age, and by 24 months there was a 6-month gap between the two groups.”

The researchers also concluded, “Such a large disparity cannot simply be dismissed as a transitory delay, given that differences among children in trajectories of language growth established by 3 years of age tend to persist and are predictive of later school success or failure.”

Many previous studies have found substantial disparities at ages three, four and five. For example, one study estimated that in the first four years of life, a child in a “professional” family would have been exposed to accumulated experience of 42 million words compared to 13 million for a child from a low-income family. Another study estimated that “linguistically disadvantaged” children know about 5,000 words compared to “more advantaged” children who know about 20,000 words at the time they begin school. There is a substantial relationship between vocabulary size in kindergarten and subsequent academic success or failure.  See “The Effects of Vocabulary Intervention on Young Children’s Word Learning, A Meta-Analysis” (2010).

Larry Gavin

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...