Wyoming looks to revamp early childhood education
Efforts at improving pre-kindergarten education in Wyoming took a step forward last week when a legislative committee advanced a proposal to create an Office of Early Childhood Education. Members of the Joint Education Committee voted in favor of drafting a bill that would house the new office within the state’s Department of Education.
The new office aims to increase collaboration on early education between the Departments of Education, Health, Family Services and Workforce Services. The four separate agencies manage almost 50 disparate state programs aimed at improving the health and education of Wyoming’s youngest residents.
The move comes at a time when Wyoming lawmakers, state agency officials and school administrators are increasingly focused on early education. A broad coalition is working to address the gaps that exist between pre-kindergarten (pre-K) programs and the state’s heavily funded K-12 system. The effort seeks to build bridges and coordinate services across state agencies, school districts, pre-schools, day care centers, and non-profits.
The interest is driven by the idea that pre-K education is a high-return investment for the public that can yield lifelong benefits to individuals and society at large. That fits with the findings of Dr. James Heckman, a Nobel Prize Laureate from the University of Chicago who is one of the leading scholars on the value of early childhood education. On his blog, Heckman writes that, “Every dollar invested in quality early childhood development for disadvantaged children results in a 7-10 percent return per child, per year.”
When students come to kindergarten with basic academic and social knowledge, they are poised to jump on the public school conveyor and keep their development on track through high school and post-secondary education. On the contrary, if children lack good learning opportunities before entering the public school system, they often start out behind and may never catch up.
If students come to kindergarten without necessary social and developmental traits needed for learning, it can inhibit their ability to read. Students who can’t read well by 3rd grade will face challenges for the rest of their education because after that, reading ceases to be taught as a skill and is instead used for gaining knowledge about all subjects.
A study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that students who aren’t adept at reading by third grade are at four times greater risk of dropping out from high school. Those who enter adulthood without a high school diploma are subject to poorer health and higher rates of poverty. Those demographics ultimately lead to high-use of costly government programs ranging from Medicaid to incarceration.
Wyoming’s momentum on the early education issue coincides with trends at the federal level. Over the past year, President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have pushed for greater investment in pre-K education to the tune of $75 billion, which they suggested could be paid for by a hike in taxes on tobacco. A proposal unveiled in the president’s State of the Union address earlier this year would create universal pre-school availability for families at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level.
At the same time, the Obama Administration has urged closer connections between the federal Department of Education and the Department of Health, which houses the nation’s Head Start programs.
Innovation in Hot Springs County
As Washington D.C. moves national policy on pre-K education, Wyoming’s lawmakers have their attention focused on local solutions that seek to enhance existing pre-K programs and increase parent involvement in their children’s education.
Among those who testified in favor of the Office of Early Childhood proposal before the Joint Education Committee last week was Superintendent Dustin Hunt of Hot Springs County School District No. 1. In 2009, discussions with faculty in his district revealed that nearly half of children entering kindergarten would need special intervention to improve their reading skills.
“Our assumption was these kids aren’t going to preschool, but that group of kindergarteners only had five students that had not attended preschool,” Hunt said.
On further investigation, the school district discovered that state expectations for what children should know in kindergarten had increased, but the new benchmarks had not been conveyed to the pre-K practitioners out in the community.
The district considered opening up its own full-fledged pre-school, but recognized that could cause tensions by taking clients away from local pre-K businesses. Instead, the district opted to hire a liaison to meet together with local pre-schools and daycares.
“There are lots of resources in early childhood, and in Hot Springs County we needed the opportunity to pull those resources together,” Hunt said. “What our liaison does in our community is take a group of people that are working extremely hard and get them all working toward the same goal.”
In addition, the district made an effort to seek community input on what skills kids should have when they enter school. “We started having our discussions with the community about what we want our kids to be able to do on entering kindergarten,” Hunt said. “I think it is very important for our local communities to set what they feel is kindergarten readiness,” he added.
The district then created a program of weekly class sessions where parents could bring their children into the school, and through their own participation, learn how they can help support their child’s learning and reading skills. The district also created a “Books for Babies” program to ensure parents with newborns leave the hospital with a book to read to their child.
“Our program developed the Wyoming way,” Hunt said. “We worked with our community. Nothing was mandatory, and given a great opportunity our parents and our community came through for our children and are working as hard as they can to get them prepared for an outstanding k-12 schooling career.”
The program was implemented in 2009, and in 2011 students entering kindergarten showed a 21 percent improvement in scores on the DIBELS test (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills). By 2012, 86 percent of the children entering kindergarten earned DIBELS scores showing they would likely not need intervention. (See these articles by County 10 and the Casper Star-Tribune for more.)
Separately, Superintendent Hunt noted that children requiring Title I intervention dropped from nine pairs to three pairs, creating a savings of $150,000 for the district. “As you look at some of the data in the kindergarten scores, that number of kids needing intervention continues to shrink,” Hunt said. The Hot Springs County program has shown success in preparing students for kindergarten, and the district intends to keep tracking their results using data throughout the K-12 process.
The program has attracted attention from 16 other districts that have copied the model, including schools in Converse County and Park County. Some of the interest in the program came from the promotional work of the Ellbogen Foundation, a Casper-based non-profit that sponsors Wyoming Kids First. The Ellbogen organization held a conference in February 2012 in Hot Springs County attended by 100 people.
Taking the Hot Springs model to Cheyenne
At a legislative meeting last June, the legislative Joint Education Committee met with the Joint Labor, Health, and Human Services committee. Together the two committees of lawmakers asked state agency leaders to collaborate on myriad services in the field of early childhood. Currently the state has roughly 50 programs spread across four agencies that contribute to the health and education of children before age five.
Like the pre-K programs and the school district in Hot Springs County before it took action, no one had brought those separate entities together to focus on the common goal of providing services to children — all of which will help ensure they are well prepared for kindergarten. With money coming from many sources — and tied to programs for specific populations like special needs — the efforts hadn’t been directed toward a common end-goal. Coming out of the June meeting, the Joint Education Committee assembled a group to consider how to shift past distributions among many different early childhood development programs toward a more a common educational goal.
The resulting collaboration, put forth by the Early Education Steering Committee, consisted of representatives from each of the four departments involved with early childhood, plus Superintendent Dustin Hunt from Hot Springs County and representatives from the Ellbogen Foundation, the Wyoming Business Council, UW, and several other entities.
The coordinator of steering committee effort was Jillian Balow, administrator for the Family Assistance Division in the Department of Family Services, working under agency director Steve Corsi.
Also contributing to the effort were Tobi Wickham-Cates, who administers WY Quality Counts for the Department of Workforce Services, and Tiffany Dobler, special Programs Divisions Director with the Wyoming Department of Education.
“We all kind of talked about our pieces of early childhood that we own and touch,” said Tiffany Dobler. “After Dustin (Hunt) explained his [Hot Spring County] program and we heard what is happening, we realized the we don’t have a liaison. We don’t have an agent who can bring these pieces together.”
That effort led to the proposal that passed a Joint Education Committee meeting last week, asking for the creation of an Office of Early Childhood in the Wyoming Department of Education. As proposed the new office won’t oversee or have control over early childhood programs in other agencies, but it will help coordinate those efforts and try to ensure that they are directed toward the common end of preparing children to enter the K-12 system. Importantly, it will also gather data, analyze it, and use to enhance existing programs.
“This is a truly a way for the four lead agencies to come together in a way to gather information to look at all the things that are going on,” Balow said. “The Department of Education has access to the K-12 data. That’s important. They can gather the data and coordinate all these things. It’s a Memorandum of Understanding of these four agencies.”
Balow noted that while the state plans to coordinate its efforts in Cheyenne, it doesn’t plan on taking an active presence in local communities. Overall, members of the steering committee and the Education Committee preferred a policy of growing the early education efforts “the Wyoming way,” meaning that communities and districts will set up their own curriculums for pre-K education, as opposed to having those ideas dictated from the state.
However, they will have a guide for their efforts in the Wyoming Early Learning Foundations, a document produced by the Wyoming Early Childhood Advisory Council and the WY Quality Counts program in the Department of Workforce Services. The Wyoming Early Learning Foundations lays out 10 domains across a broad set of academic and social skills that pre-K students need to master to excel in kindergarten.
Wickham-Cates said the Early Learning Foundations were created through a grassroots effort that involved community colleges, the University of Wyoming, and the Wyoming Early Childhood Advisory Council. The domains are connected to the Common Core, a nationwide effort created by states to unify learning benchmarks for each grade level while leaving curriculum decisions up to local control.
“[The Early Learning Foundations] are not a curriculum,” Wickham-Cates said. “This is a tool for resource providers including childcare providers and K-12 staff to use to find some common ground.” The effort to coordinate early childhood education in Wyoming won’t rely on a large state-funded effort. Instead, it is intended to work to connect agency programs with local school districts, childcare providers, and preschools, aiming to coordinate toward a common goal of kindergarten readiness.
“The Hot Springs liaison program is really the beacon, and has had a lot of attention through the state,” Balow said. “Really, we want to remove any barriers and leverage our programs against one another so that communities are more successful at setting up those types of [liaison] programs.”
Hunt and others close to the effort stressed that early childhood education programs will be different in every community. “This is a triad partnership between local state and federal to come together to support kids in local communities with the local control driving it,” Wickham-Cates said.
She added that every community in Wyoming looks different, with Cheyenne not resembling Jackson, and Jackson bearing no resemblance to Meeteetse. “Our needs are so different that we can’t prescribe, holistically, what is best for children in local communities,” Wickham-Cates said.
At the same time, some communities in Wyoming might not have the population or resources to set up pre-K programs. In those cases, Balow said the state and non-profits could end up providing more support.
“For those communities that can’t start their own program we need to have a structure in state government and private entities,” Balow said. “We need a structure in place to assist communities to identify their need and stand up a [program] that ensures their children to be successful in school.”
By getting local parents and teachers involved in setting their specific plans for their kindergarten readiness target, the state agencies hope to foster local control and local buy-in.
“The communities know best what their needs are,” Wickham-Cates said. “We plan on letting the communities take control of that and find out what training what they need. We don’t want to tell them what they need … We are going to connect the dots. We are not going to control the dots.”— Gregory Nickerson is the government and policy reporter for WyoFile. He writes the Capitol Beat blog. Contact him at email@example.com.
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