Preschoolers in Bremerton's Early Childhood Care and Education group use books, rhyming games, finger plays, and other strategies to build children's phonemic awareness.
Early childhood education simple as A-B-C
Through an innovative partnership in Bremerton, Washington, between the Bremerton public schools, Head Start, and community preschools and childcare centers, more than 50 percent of youngsters in this small urban school district start kindergarten knowing the alphabet.
But that wasn’t always the case. Just seven years ago, only 4 percent of Bremerton’s incoming kindergarteners knew their letters, compared to 60 percent of children nationwide. Bremerton’s students, 59 percent of whom come from economically
|Name: Bremerton Public Schools
|Students per teacher: 17.3
|Economically disadvantaged: 59.3%
|English language learners: 2.5%
|Students with disabilities: 13.7%
|Asian/Pacific Islander: 9.0%
|American Indian/Alaska Native: 3.7%
disadvantaged backgrounds, were behind the curve even before they stepped into a classroom. School officials realized they couldn’t wait to address the problem once these children started public school. So in 2001, Bremerton School District launched its Early Childhood Care and Education Group (ECCE). The program had an ambitious goal—have all children reading at grade level by the end of third grade.
“We know children who start behind often stay behind,” says Vicki Collins, Bremerton School Board Director. “We had a huge number of children entering our schools as kindergarteners unprepared. Research shows early childhood education can prevent the need for special education and academic intervention later in a child’s educational career. This results in a substantial cost savings for our district. We couldn’t afford not to do it.”
School officials reached out to the district’s Head Start partners first, who were already working with the public schools to serve children with disabilities, explains Linda Sullivan-Dudzic, who supervises the ECCE as special programs coordinator for Bremerton School District. The district didn’t stop there. Sullivan-Dudzic and her staff contacted faith-based and community preschools as well as home-based childcare centers about joining the program.
The preschools embraced the effort. “Head Start has been mandated to make the transition to kindergarten as easy as possible for kids, so to have an opportunity where the school district was interested in making that transition better for kids too, most Head Starts will jump at that chance,” says Jill Brenner, child development manager for Kitsap Community Resources, which manages Head Start programs in four school districts, including Bremerton. “You don’t often see preschool programs and their school districts working so closely together.”
Bremerton officials and members of the preschool community developed a five-year plan designed to increase the number of kindergarteners with early literacy skills and decrease the number of children requiring remedial services, says Sullivan-Dudzic. Then, with input from the preschool partners, Bremerton selected a curriculum aligned with Washington’s early learning benchmarks.
Today, Bremerton provides its eighteen preschool partners with curriculum materials, monthly professional development, and on-site support and training, says Sullivan-Dudzic. The preschool directors meet monthly with Sullivan-Dudzic as well to discuss student performance, trends and research in early childhood education, and effective teaching strategies.
In exchange, the preschool teachers provide the school district with qualitative assessments of their students’ progress. Twice a year, members of Sullivan-Dudzic’s staff also evaluate the nearly 800 three- and four-year-olds enrolled in the program. Sullivan-Dudzic regularly reports to the School Board and shares the data with the preschools as well so they can adjust their instruction if necessary.
“We are honored to be part of the program,” says Carverlynne Prothero, program supervisor at Emmanuel Lutheran Childcare Center. “It’s definitely a blessing to our center because we are nonprofit, so we don’t have the money to spend on these wonderful materials.”
Bremerton is happy to pick up the tab. While a set of curriculum materials costs the school district $2,000, the district saves $2,500 for every kindergartener who does not need remedial reading services, says Sullivan-Dudzic. “All I need is one kid coming out of that preschool who does not need remedial help to make up that first year’s investment,” she says.
The entire program costs the district about $85,000 a year, she says, which covers materials, teacher training, and an annual preschool fair to promote the program to parents and attract new preschool partners. From the beginning, Bremerton has funded the program with state money from Washington’s Initiative 728 (I-728), which earmarked extra funds for six specific program areas—including prekindergarten programs—designed to improve student achievement. Bremerton also received a grant to provide information to parents about the importance of reading to young children and applied for grant money to provide weekend and evening training to home-based childcare providers.
But preschool only gets you so far, says Sullivan-Dudzic. So in 2002, Bremerton expanded its early learning efforts by offering full-day kindergarten to a group of academically at-risk children at each elementary school. After one year, the number of kindergarteners reading at grade level increased from one percent to 51 percent. With such impressive results, the School Board took the next step and, in 2006, expanded full-day kindergarten districtwide.
“That was the decision that tested us because it is a big financial gamble,” says DeWayne Boyd, Bremerton School Board Director. “There was some trepidation. But for those students for whom we were already providing full-day kindergarten, the results were so good. We committed to having all-day [kindergarten] for everybody.”
That financial gamble cost Bremerton about $840,000 the first year, which paid for twelve new elementary teachers, says Sullivan-Dudzic. Bremerton again tapped the state I-728 fund, which includes money for extended learning opportunities like full-day kindergarten.
Results outweigh costs
After just one year of universal all-day kindergarten, 92.3 percent of kindergarteners were reading at grade level or higher. By May 2008, 93.5 percent of kindergarteners had met or exceeded that benchmark and only 2.1 percent needed specialized services, down from 12 percent six years earlier. Among last year’s first graders, the first group to attend both the preschool and full-day kindergarten programs, 73 percent were reading at grade level, up from 52 percent in 2002. This year, Sullivan-Dudzic will add the second graders’ academic achievements to her biannual reports to the School Board.
Bremerton’s efforts have earned state and national attention as well. State education officials named Bremerton a “Lighthouse District” and now Bremerton staff train up to ten school districts each year on developing effective early childhood education programs. The National School Boards Association also awarded Bremerton its prestigious Magna Award in 2007.
The results of the Early Childhood Care and Education Group and full-day kindergarten have exceeded the School Board’s greatest expectations, says Collins. In fact, the Board is considering expanding the programs to other content areas such as math and science.
“We now must adjust the curriculum for the first, second, and third grades,” say Collins. “The children are entering those grades with significant academic achievement. That’s a wonderful problem to solve.”
- Build on existing strengths: The ECCE is a community effort, says Sullivan-Dudzic. The school district could not create its own preschool program, so it focused on improving the preschools in the community. An existing partnership with Head Start gave the district a place to start. By targeting the community preschools the district connected with even more children.
- Focus on partnership: From the beginning, Bremerton sought input from the preschools on everything from teaching strategies to training topics. The preschool directors continue to share their thoughts during monthly meetings with Sullivan-Dudzic. Bremerton officials also meet with preschool teachers at their respective schools. “We work hard at making it a partnership with all of the preschool agencies,” says Boyd. “They are part of the planning and organization of this and they feel some ownership in it.”
- Demand accountability: The School Board receives regular reports on the academic performance of the preschoolers in the ECCE and the district’s kindergarteners, first graders, and now second graders. The district also closely monitors its preschool partners to ensure the preschool staff implement the curriculum effectively and attend the required trainings. “We really are results oriented and use data to make our decisions at the Board level,” says Boyd.
- Think outside of the box: Bremerton became one of the first districts in Washington to offer universal free all-day kindergarten. The district launched a major marketing campaign to promote its full-day kindergarten and accepts children from outside of the school district as space allows, says Collins. The district receives additional state funds for the out-of-district students, but does not charge the families to enroll, unlike some other school districts. As a result, Bremerton has seen its enrollment increase, while neighboring districts have experienced declining enrollment.
Linda Sullivan-Dudzic, special programs coordinator
Office: (360) 473-1061
Cell: (360) 536-6221
School board member knowledgeable about the project
Vicki Collins, Bremerton School Board Director
Phone: (360) 373-0069
DeWayne Boyd, Bremerton School Board Director
Phone: (360) 479-7297
Pre-k: What the research shows
From beginner to stellar: Five tips on developing skillful readers
This story was written by Kristen Loschert, a freelance writer living in Falls Church, VA. Loschert has been writing about education issues for ten years.
Posted: December 3, 2008
©2008 Center for Public Education