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Volume 21, Number 4
July/August 2005

Bridging the PreK–Elementary Divide

Concerns about early achievement gaps prompt programs that link prekindergarten with elementary school


1Nap time is over, and most of the students in Miwa Takahashi’s prekindergarten class at T. T. Minor Elementary School have put away their sleeping mats and split into two groups. Eight youngsters take seats at a table with their teacher, while nine others gather around an instructional assistant a few yards away. It’s time for one of their favorite daily activities: Plan-Do-Review.

“Tell us, tell us … what you’re going to do,” sings Taka­hashi to a tune her students seem to have heard many times before.

Using hand puppets as she talks, Takahashi signals to a four-year-old boy. “Zuberi, what are you going to do?” she asks.

“I’m going to go to the block area,” the youngster shyly replies.

“What are you going to do there?”

“I’m going to play with markers.”

“And are you going to draw something?”

“I’m going to draw a zebra.”

“And what else?”

“And that’s it.”

Armed with a plan, Zuberi is on his way—but not before Takahashi helps him jot down a few words about his chosen activity in a journal. During the next 15 minutes, she and the instructional assistant engage in similar exchanges with each student. The youngsters leave their tables one by one to go “do” whatever activity they have selected—building something with Legos in the block area or whipping up a pretend meal in the house area. Some of the kids work alone; others team up with classmates.

About 45 minutes later, the small groups reassemble, discussing how things went and how they might have done them differently. “The materials, classroom setup, and daily routines are all focused on sharing control with the children,” explains Doris Toy, a T. T. Minor kindergarten teacher who is observing Takahashi’s classroom. “They learn to problem-solve with each other and to work well together in groups. Perhaps the most powerful thing they gain is confidence in making decisions.”

Plan-Do-Review and preK–kindergarten collaboration are key elements of the High/Scope Educational Approach, a highly regarded program that encompasses curriculum, teacher training, and research, and which is incorporated into the New School Foundation program at T. T. Minor, a preK–5 school in central Seattle serving predominantly African American students from low-income families. “We started with preK as an integral part of our plan because we knew it was important to grab kids when they’re young,” says supermarket mogul Stuart Sloan, who formed the foundation seven years ago to help create and fund successful models of innovation that could be replicated locally and nationally.

Educators and a growing number of policymakers share Sloan’s perspective. Across the country, individual schools, districts, and even whole states are beginning to deliver public education to increasingly younger learners. Several decades ago, it was rare for children to step into any kind of classroom before kindergarten. But by 2001, 43 states were offering preK in at least some form to four-year-olds and, in a few instances, to three-year-olds.

Dick Clifford, a senior scientist at the FPG Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, estimates that about a million four-year-olds—roughly 25 percent of the total nationwide—now participate in educational programs under the auspices of public schools. “It’s a very exciting time because there’s a lot going on,” says Clifford, who plans to open a pilot elementary school that incorporates preK by 2009. “We’re in this transition period that’s going to last for a number of years as we try to sort out what we’re doing with children prior to kindergarten entry.”

One big reason for the increased sense of urgency around preK is the large number of children who are failing to meet educational standards in the early grades, says Clifford. “Many state preK programs have been established to serve children thought to be at risk of later school failure,” he notes.

There is currently a mixed and poorly coordinated system of delivering services, Clifford adds, that includes public schools, Head Start, and for-profit and nonprofit private child-care programs. “Parents have been left to their own devices to figure out what their children need and to make the connection to those services,” he says. “What we’re seeing now is a move to bring coherence and to build a real system of services—and the schools are going to play a very significant part in all of that.”
Transforming the “Worst Performing School”

Although Sloan of the New School Foundation had kicked around the idea of a school bridging prekindergarten and the elementary grades for several years, it wasn’t until he met the late Seattle school superintendent John Stanford that the project began to take shape. “It took him ten ­minutes to hear my pitch. And then he said, ‘When do we get started?’ I was in shock,” recalls Sloan, who expected his idea to be a much tougher sell. “He gave me the worst performing school in the district, and it was fine with me.”

In 1998, the New School Foundation began pumping more than $1 million a year into T. T. Minor. The funds were directed toward full-day preK and kindergarten programs, as well as smaller classes, lower teacher-pupil ratios, teacher home visits, a year-round school calendar, staff development, school uniforms, and a robust child wellness program—many of the same components that Clifford and other researchers have identified as crucial for effective early childhood education.

The new program at T. T. Minor was implemented only in preK and kindergarten for the first year. After incorporating one additional grade per year into the new program, it now offers an aligned curriculum in prekindergarten through grade five.

The school turned a corner in 2001 with the arrival of Gloria Mitchell, a principal who had previously been working in the more affluent neighboring community of Belle­vue. When Mitchell took over at T. T. Minor, none of the school’s fourth graders were passing the math portion of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL), the state standardized test, and just 15 percent and 19 percent, respectively, met state standards for reading and writing.

Mitchell rolled up her sleeves and got everyone behind integrating the school’s full-day preK and kindergarten programs into the overall curriculum. “I think every child deserves a good first start,” Mitchell says.

Seven years into the program, there is now evidence that the changes at T. T. Minor are having dramatic effects. The school’s fourth graders have made solid gains on the WASL, with 24 percent meeting the math standards, 40 percent meeting the reading standards, and 44 percent meeting the writing standards last fall. In fact, T. T. Minor moved off the state list of failing schools after demonstrating marked improvement for two consecutive years.

Teachers at T. T. Minor are convinced that children’s early experiences in the school’s preK and kindergarten programs are key factors in these improvements. “I’ve noticed a huge difference [from the students who haven’t been through T. T. Minor’s program],” says Jennie Matsuda, a teacher who arrived at T. T. Minor two years ago to teach kindergarten and now teaches first grade. “[T. T. Minor students] knew how to sit in a circle. They knew what sharing was. They had much more vocabulary. They knew how to problem-solve more. They were simply able to pick up and learn much more quickly.”

Jen Fickel, another first-grade teacher, notes that T. T. Minor’s preK and kindergarten students have also learned to use computers. “I’ve had three new kids this year, and the computer is so foreign to them because they haven’t had the technology component,” she says. Second-grade teacher Drew Gagne sums up: “The kids who have been through our preK and K program are light-years ahead of others in terms of school readiness.”

Mitchell says that the quality, full-day preK program gives young children a leg up on reading as well. “That first year, in September or October, the book might be upside down,” she says, “but that pretend reading really sets the pace for January, when they can look at a word and know it says ‘book.’ They start exhibiting those readiness-to-read skills that our kids, if they hadn’t had those preschool experiences, wouldn’t have until the following year in kindergarten.”

Branching Out

Attempting to build on the success of T. T. Minor, three years ago the New School Foundation embarked on another project linking preK with elementary school, called the New School at South Shore. This time the school started from scratch, opening its doors in 2002 with 102 racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse preK and kindergarten students. Because of the variety of languages spoken, administrators set aside about five seats in each 17-student classroom for English-language learners and bilingual children.

Using space in a former middle school building and adding one grade per year, the school is expected eventually to serve 500 students through the eighth grade. Unlike T. T. Minor, which had to fight for years to shed its underperforming reputation, the integrated preK–elementary program at the New School at South Shore opened to high expectations—and a long waiting list. “T. T. Minor had to break a lot of ground,” says Gary Tubbs, the original principal at the New School who spent last year working side by side with incoming principal Chris Drape. “We appreciate that, and there were a lot of lessons learned.”

Like T. T. Minor, the New School also uses an aligned curriculum across the preK, kindergarten, and elementary grades. Also like T. T. Minor, it puts a strong emphasis on family involvement. “Parents feel like we’re advocates for them,” Tubbs says.

In addition to having a Parent Alliance Group, teachers at the New School (as well as T. T. Minor) pay visits to the home of every child before classes start each September. That includes every child about to enter preK and kindergarten. “I love the home visits we do at the beginning,” says Chantel Anderson, a new preK teacher at the New School. “Because of them, when the kids showed up for school, I wasn’t a stranger and nobody cried.”

Although the New School has only been up and running for three years—and can thus far only report the progress of its preK through second graders—there is hard evidence that the program is having an impact. Each fall and spring, K–2 students in the Seattle school district take the Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA), which measures students’ progress in reading and comprehension. Only about 44 percent met the standard last fall, but Tubbs, Drape, and their staff have been laser-focused on the subject—using one reading specialist to do nothing but work one-on-one with struggling students. Preliminary results from the latest round of testing show that nearly 100 percent of kindergartners, more than 90 percent of second graders, and more than 80 percent of first graders are now meeting or exceeding the district standard. “We are quite excited by the DRA results,” says Drape. “Clearly, all the hard, passionate work of our students, staff, and families is paying off!”

Sue Miller Wiltz is a journalist in Indianapolis and has been a correspondent for Newsweek, People, and Court TV.

This article is part of an ongoing series on the education of children from preK through grade 3, made possible through the support of the Foundation for Child Development.


For Further Information

For Further Information

National Center for Early Development and Learning Pre-Kindergarten Study. “Pre-K Education in the States... Who Goes to Pre-K and How Are They Doing?... Who Are the Pre-K Teachers?... What Are Pre-K Classrooms Like?... How Is the Pre-K Day Spent?” Early Developments 9, no. 1 (2005). Chapel Hill, NC: FPG Child Development Institute.

High/Scope Educational Research Foundation, 600 No. River St., Ypsilanti, MI 48198-2898.

The New School Foundation, 2100 24th Ave. So., Ste. 340, Seattle, WA 98144; tel: 206-323-1007.

The New School at South Shore, 8825 Rainier Ave. So., Seattle, WA 98118; tel: 206-252-6560.

T. T. Minor Elementary School, 1700 East Union St., Seattle, WA 98122; tel: 206-252-3230.