Early Learning Initiative Takes New Approach In Preschool Education

It's a Thursday morning at the McCabe Center in St. Petersburg and Gloria Howard is reading "Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear?'' to a class of 3-year-olds. The children sit on the carpet in front of Howard, most finishing the sentences for her as she turns the pages. One child, recovering from a crying jag, sits quietly on Howard's lap as she reads.

Howard, a 38-year veteran in early childhood education, holds a bachelor's degree from Springfield College in Tampa. Most of her career has been spent teaching preschool, but she says there's a difference in the McCabe experience.

While many preschools present weekly themes for students to explore, the innovative Quality Early Learning Initiative (QELI) followed at McCabe focuses its curriculum on one topic for four to six weeks.

"We didn't have the teaching strategies [we have here],'' she starts to explain. As she talks, a child falls down on the playground, another child looking on, guiltily. Howard walks over to the fallen child, calmly extending her hand to comfort her. "Let's go get some water,'' Howard soothes. The guilty child isn't acknowledged.
Part and parcel to QELI is the practice of conscious discipline, where attention is given to positive behavior rather than negative.

Robert Ellis, Family Engagement Specialist at McCabe, explains the basic concept. "There are no time outs; we don't say no. We tell the children what we want them to do, rather than what we don't [want them to do].''

Born Of Research

Three child care facilities in Pinellas are serving as pilot programs for QELI, an initiative created by the Juvenile Welfare Board of Pinellas County (JWB) to improve quality of care and instruction for children from birth to 4 years old. The Quality Early Learning Initiative is built on Eight Components of Early Learning that include classrooms led by a teacher who holds a bachelor's degree or higher, family engagement and an evidence-based curriculum in a quality environment.

Outcomes are measured using an online software program called Teaching Strategies Gold, which assesses each child's progress to help teachers develop individual teaching strategies. The software will eventually assess parent involvement and its effect on learning outcomes.
"The Quality Early Learning Initiative was several years in the making,'' explains Karen E. Boggess, MSW, JWB Program Development Manager. "The board and its management took a hard look at what they were funding and saw that we needed to change the trajectory for those children most at-risk. It was a huge philosophical shift. It was no longer about how many children can we get into care but rather what can we do for the children we are already funding and what is the best investment we can make in them.''

In 2012 the Pinellas JWB initiated a bidding process among child care agencies in the county's five most at-risk areas to find three facilities willing to give their proposed program a shot. United Methodist Cooperative Ministries/Suncoast Inc. (UMCM) won the bid. They currently implement the tenets of the initiative at UMCM's Center for Early Learning at McCabe United Methodist Church, as well as UMCM centers at St. Paul's Lutheran Church in north county and St. Mark's United Methodist Church in mid-county.

Developing Teaching Strategies

Using an iPad is also critical to the QELI process. Teachers use iPads to record each child's progress in real time, which is then uploaded to the Teaching Strategies Gold software, where it can be assessed for developing one-on-one instruction as well as shared with parents.
Howard says she loves using the technology, preferring to capture behavior in real time instead of writing it down from memory once the school day is over.

"We can document and catch what they're doing in say, dramatic play or science,'' Howard says. "It helps us develop teaching strategies. And I don't miss the paperwork.''

Ashley Riggs, Howard's assistant, joined McCabe after working another popular preschool. She says her current position allows her to focus on a smaller number of kids than in the past.

"Here we have separate classrooms,'' she explains. At the preschool where she once worked "it was split shifts, in the morning and a couple hours in the afternoon. But here we have them all day. Here I can actually be involved with them. You show them something and then they're like, 'Oh, Miss Ashley I did this; I did that.' It shows that they are responding and are listening and learning from you. That's always rewarding.''
But a few admit that implementing conscious discipline has been a challenge. "We're used to doing things a different way. But I'm getting the hang of it,'' says Kendra Alexander, who works as an assistant in the 4-year-old VPK room.
As Alexander speaks, a child comes to her and says another child is yelling at her. Instead of addressing the yelling child, Alexander encourages the offended child to speak for herself. She meets the child's troubled gaze at eye level. "Tell him to use his words when he talks to you.''

Says, Kathy Tremblay, McCabe's director, "Many of the teachers come from environments that kind of have the daycare mentality. So it took a little bit of time to get past that and now they enjoy the experience. They understand the components. And the parts of the curriculum JWB demands we've excelled in.''

Why QELI? Why Now?

"Our Future: The Evidence Base on Preschool Education'' suggests that early childhood education for low-income families produces positive societal outcomes in terms of higher graduation rates, higher earnings and reduced crime and teen pregnancies.

However, a 2010-11 Florida Assessment for Instruction in Reading revealed that 44 percent of children in subsidized child care in Pinellas County are not ready to learn when they start school, performing significantly below their peers in Kindergarten.

The Pinellas Juvenile Welfare Board decided to tackle the problem head-on with the new methodology being piloted through the QELI program.

Parental Engagement Is Key

Family engagement is also a key component in the QELI. As Family Engagement Specialist, Ellis says he has seen a shift for the better in parent perception.

"I have one parent who wouldn't talk to us at all,'' explains Ellis. "She'd come in here and give Kathy a big growl. A very aggressive look. She'd take the long way around to drop off her child so she wouldn't have to talk to us. But now, actually after communicating with her and letting her know we care about her children, she now stops and says hi.''

Latrese Harris is a very satisfied parent with two children enrolled at McCabe, 3-year-old Jamia and 2 year-old Jania. "My 3 year-old-already knows that her and her sister's name start with a J. She also can identify the names of her classmates. She couldn’t do that before. There's a lot of curriculum and they go at it hard. They keep this pace and nothing is acceptable but the best.
"I am thankful that I got my kids in there. I'm a single mom and trying to find day care not just for one but for two kids is hard. The teachers like me because we're a team and we work hand-in-hand. When they tell me what they're working on at school we work on it at home. McCabe is helping me, too. If I'm not in school, I'm working. And this really helps out with my schedule.''

"There's a personal relationship with the kids,'' Harris continues. "I can tell they love to learn. They love to go to school. They don't cry like they used to. My kids were the only older kids in the other setting. Once they started this school, their people and talking skills got better. They're saying things they never said before. It's awesome. There should be more like this school. For five days out of the week, I don't have to worry about anything. They're not just sitting them in front of Dora all day.''

Missy Kavanaugh, a freelance writer based in Safety Harbor, FL, enjoys writing children's books, helping children and adults reach their creative potential and kayaking the waterways that surround the Tampa Bay region. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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