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Pathways to Strong Early Learning Environments

The Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative kicked off its professional learning efforts with a one-day convening of policymakers and practitioners at HGSE.

The Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative kicked off its professional learning efforts this week bringing together state-level leaders from across the United States and its territories to discuss how to develop higher quality early care settings.

With only two out of 10 prekindergarten programs being considered “high quality,” Professor Nonie Lesaux noted how many districts are eager to expand early education and yet there remains a vast need for improvement. “Getting there is not about downloading on the field but more collective action,” Lesaux said.

The one-day convening, “Pathways to Strong Early Learning Environments: Making High Impact Decisions and Learning Improvements,” was the first in what will be many efforts to bring together early education leaders through the Saul Zaentz Professional Learning Academy. Announced in May 2016, the Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative at HGSE promotes the knowledge, professional learning, and collective action necessary to cultivate optimal early learning environments and experiences. 

Lesaux and Associate Professor Stephanie Jones, faculty directors of the initiative, began the day by providing a snapshot of the current science on early learning and its future.

“We are getting more precise about what we can and can’t get from early education,” Lesaux said, noting that it’s important to step back and ask questions about what is happening when we see student growth in classrooms and examine new models closely. Through their Early Learning Study — a large-scale, population-based study — they will examine the changing demographics of children and the range of settings which children learn.

Reflecting on the field’s past and future, Lesaux observed that the focus of early childhood education is already shifting from the “whole child” to blurring skill areas and bridging strategies, examining the impacts of stress, and harnessing the power of the learning environment over characteristics of a child.

“Our view signals a need for policy reform,” Lesaux said, adding that every level of the system must influence the basic interactions and core relationships in early education.

Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, shared similar observations when discussing how to develop higher quality settings. “We know a lot about effective curriculum but almost none of that is out there when you look in the field,” he said.

Pianta spoke about how the focus on preparing a child for preschool has influenced the field by moving away from an emphasis on relationships and interactions. Pianta noted a real opportunity for leaders to drive the needs in the field.

Throughout the day, participants heard from researchers about how to implement change into their practice, and had opportunities to discuss with each other.

In two breakout sessions, Professor Paul Reville and Senior Lecturer Liz City led participants in exercises to put into practice changes in their schools, districts, and states, and to hone their leadership skills. Reville discussed the balance of working with, and in educating, one's authorizers, and City shared perspective on how asking the right questions before designing a potential solution can have a big impact on tackling and resolving problems in education settings. Participants worked in small groups to discuss their experiences and begin to develop ideas and plans for how they might implement what they have learned as part of the convening.

In closing, Professor Deborah Jewell-Sherman, former superintendent of Richmond Public Schools in Virginia, gave a moving presentation on how demography does not equal destiny. She empowered and motivated participants to strive for the best for children in their schools and communities through her own personal journey and story of growing up in the Bronx, N.Y. and in revisiting her former preschool.

“The work you do matters to families, children, and communities,” said Jewell-Sherman.


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