SOMERVILLE – A comprehensive
report commissioned by the schools, the City and the School Committee on preparing children for kindergarten recommends that rather than pursuing solely school-based universal preschool for 4-year-olds, that the community establish an innovative early childhood system for pre-kindergarteners of all ages via a provider network, which would include Somerville Public Schools, nonprofit and private early childhood care providers and other local agencies working collaboratively to support universal kindergarten readiness.
The report, presented to the School Committee on Tuesday and titled SomerReady: Creating a Citywide, Universal Kindergarten Readiness System, calls for coordination and collaboration among the existing early education and care services in Somerville, including the City, School Department, Head Start, non-profit providers, and private and faith-based groups.
The report cites research showing that providing children and families with education and support beginning with pregnancy and continuing until kindergarten, rather than waiting until the child is three or four years old, is critical to creating the foundation for a child’s success in school. A strong early education and care system is needed to deliver programs and services to all families and children. Critical programs and services noted include:
Home visits by health or child development specialists
Early intervention and special education services
Physical and mental health services
The report states that because both public and private organizations in Somerville already offer these programs and services, these existing resources should be coordinated and enhanced for infants through 4-year-olds, rather than the City pursuing a solely school-based universal preschool. It recommends instead that public, private and nonprofit providers work collaboratively in an integrated system to provide a set of streamlined, coordinated and comprehensive services to all families, ensuring that each child and family receives education and support, all with the same high standards. Joint professional development for all service providers in the system and a more structured support system for early childhood programs across the city is also recommended.
“This impressive study recognizes the complexity of raising children who are ready to take full advantage of all that our schools offer, especially for families who may experience additional challenges,” said Somerville School Committee Chair Christine Rafal. “The recommendations could be seen as a modern way to implement the traditional wisdom that it really does take a village (‘Ville-age) to raise a child to his or her fullest potential.”
Recommendations for instituting this integrated early childhood strategy include a new Director of Early Education and Care, who would be responsible for coordinating these efforts. It also includes creating a single point of entry into Somerville’s early education and care system, with Somerville Public Schools’ Parent Information Center (PIC) expanding to include early education and care information and referral. A new website would also provide families with an overview of all the programs, services and options available in the city.
The proposed plan would transition from the current and somewhat separate public and private systems to an integrated approach through which public and private services collaborate in providing support for young families. The goal is to provide universal kindergarten readiness for all Somerville children, and bring greater continuity to those children’s experiences across the education and care settings of their pre-kindergarten years while also offering flexibility and choice to families to choose a provider setting that best suits their child.
“High-quality preschool education has been shown to narrow the achievement gap by as much as half, according to the National Education Policy Center, but it’s more than just preschool that can make a difference. As we know in Somerville, it takes a holistic approach, supporting our children not only academically, but in all areas of their lives,” said Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone. “This should be a fundamental right for every student, not a luxury, and this report makes innovative recommendations on how to provide this to all of our children, from diapers to day one of kindergarten, by utilizing both public and private resources in a collaborative way that preserves flexibility for our families.”
The report is in response to a 2013 request from the Somerville School Committee and the Mayor’s Child and Youth Study Team, which is a joint effort by the City and schools, to study kindergarten readiness in Somerville. Initially focused on the future possibilities within Somerville Public Schools’ SMILE preschool program, the report’s authors found that focusing on the broader idea of universal kindergarten readiness, instead of only universal preschool, would better serve the diverse community in Somerville while capitalizing on the resources and programs already available.
“Our focus on universal Kindergarten readiness based on research and best practices to maximize student potential supports our community’s vision and desire to share best practices and learn from one another, and develop an approach that works for our community,” said Tony Pierantozzi, Superintendent of Schools. “Somerville is a unique community that brings together a wide range of cultural experiences and knowledge. We want to build on that collective wisdom.”
The report outlines how Somerville is well poised to play a leadership role in the creation of a robust and coordinated network of early education and care, with many of the necessary elements already in place, recognizing that no one sector—public schools, the City, private providers or other community agencies—can achieve universal Kindergarten readiness alone.
“The report includes recommendations for a bold commitment to early childhood education in Somerville, a commitment that will advance our city’s role as a state and national leader in support for early learning,” added Dr. Vince McKay, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment. “These steps represent good social policy as well as good economic policy. One of the most compelling arguments for investments in the early years is that they have been widely proven to reduce later social and economic costs. This is the right thing to do, now, for our children.”
Authors of the report include Moncrieff Cochran, Professor Emeritus in Human Development at Cornell University; Assistant Superintendent Dr. Vince McKay; Anna Doherty, Director of SomerPromise; and Nomi Davidson, Director of the Somerville Family Learning Collaborative. Dr. Cochran was brought in to lead the initial Kindergarten readiness study in Somerville. In June 2008, Dr. Cochran completed a 35-year career focused on early care and education, parent empowerment, and parenting education at Cornell University. From 2008-2011, he was a Visiting Professor of Child Development in the Eliot Pearson Department of Child Development at Tufts University, where he assisted in the re-design of the Early Childhood Education Program and established a collaboration with the City of Somerville. He has served on the national Governing Boards of the Family Resource Coalition and the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). From 2007 to 2009, he served as Senior Advisor to the NAEYC Office of Applied Research.
“If Somerville could implement a Kindergarten readiness plan this comprehensive,” Dr. Cochran tells us, “the City would become a leader not only in Massachusetts, but nationwide.”
The report was also informed by broad community input and ongoing work by various early childhood groups, including members of a citywide Advisory Group overseeing grant implementation efforts of an Early Education and Care (EEC) Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge Grant (ELCG) awarded last year to support initial alignment efforts of early childhood services across the city.
“As a member of the Alignment Grant Advisory Committee, it’s been exciting to collaborate with the schools, city, and other community partners,” commented Allen Kesten, Special Projects and Early Learning Mentor for the Community Action Agency of Somerville (CAAS) Head Start. “We are all committed to improving and expanding programs and services for young children and families, as well as enhancing professional development. CAAS Head Start looks forward to new partnerships with the Somerville Public Schools as we explore creative models of joint programming between Head Start and SMILE, working toward Universal Kindergarten Readiness.”
“I have been working in the community for almost 40 years, as director of the Open Center for Children,” added Gale Morano. “The alignment grant has brought the community preschool programs together with the public school teachers of the lower grades to share training in the use of a comprehensive child assessment tool currently in place in the preschool programs and soon to be implemented in the public kindergarten classes. Both groups have visited each other’s classrooms, met and worked together collaboratively and gained a new respect for and appreciation of the work of community preschool and public school educators in the city. It has been both exciting and gratifying to participate in this work.”