Across the country, states and communities are mobilizing to focus attention on young children and families, and many benefits could accrue from an integration of community–school efforts with early childhood initiatives. Ample evidence from research supports such integration. Recent studies demonstrate the importance of early cognitive stimulation and early emotional development, development promoted by a nurturing, reciprocal relationship with a primary caregiver and reinforced by others. But for too many infants and toddlers, this relationship gets off to a poor start, with parents who, because of their own circumstances, place their children in jeopardy. To address this need for better early childhood programs, this paper explores ways to promote the expansion of school–community partnerships (S–CPs) into early childhood learning through maximizing federal policy and employing other new strategies.
Research and comprehensive, high quality early childhood programs suggest that intervening early to strengthen development and parent-child relationships results in long-term positive impact on children, including significantly greater academic achievement, cognitive and language skills, and fewer behavioral problems than evidenced by children in control groups. However, for children in family childcare or center-based care, poor quality is the norm, with the worst care documented for infants and toddlers. As more welfare-to-work parents take low paying jobs, greater numbers of young children are spending more time in childcare and early learning environments; currently, about half of young children are in informal, unregulated childcare. Poor quality childcare is a corollary of poverty, and roughly half of those in extreme poverty—the implications are ominous and pressing. Research has long documented powerful relationships between poverty and poor academic achievement and other risk factors, but primarily in older children. Now there is evidence that poverty is even more harmful for young children, and the more extreme the poverty, the more harmful. Clearly, waiting until these children hit the schools is waiting too long for developing an integrated community response with a set of outcomes that reflect cooperative ventures by educators, human service personnel, and other community groups and family members.
The objectives of school readiness include (a) providing universal access to quality preschool programs that prepare children for school; (b) enabling parents to act as a child’s first teachers, with access to training and support; (c) providing nutrition, exercise, and health care to ensure a child is optimally prepared to learn; and (d) reducing the numbers of low-birthweight babies through enhanced prenatal care. The focus on “school readiness” has directed attention to the development of conceptual frameworks that can capture the complexity denoted by the term, from child factors reflecting socialemotional, cognitive, physical readiness, to family factors, to school factors. Although many people advocate a narrow child focus or even a child-specific focus, there are also strong voices arguing for community-wide indicators that can be used to drive strategic thinking and collaboration.
For all these reasons, S–CPs need to include attention to young children that goes beyond just having a start program on site, or even a family resource center. Current programs throughout the country indicate a solid base on which to build. These programs are sometimes home-based and sometimes included parent education, family support, and family literacy initiatives; sometimes they funded communities or schools in designing their own mix of supports for families with young children. In addition, half the states reported funding family support and parent education strategies for children from birth to 5 years. These programs establish a clear framework for joining the early childhood agenda with early learning goals and with S–CPs.
Currently, only a few states have made young children a high policy priority and mounted multiple strategies promoting their wellbeing. Most efforts focus on family support or on early learning, but, with the exception of some home-visiting and family literacy programs, most programs don’t attempt to integrate an array of services. This lack of comprehensive services and family support—exactly those supports that supplement a learning focus in the community– school vision—is why S–CPs could be so powerful an asset to the early childhood community. Even as youth development is now a part of the community–schools vision, so child and family development should be, too.
The search for sustainable reform has now shifted its approach from “process is all” to “results is all.” Such a mentality gives little thought to what can achieve those results and provides no opportunity for partners to build a shared vision or to think systematically about links between goals, strategies, and outcomes. Because of this result-oriented focus, funds are seldom made available to develop the kind of working relationship among the partners that would sustain the partnerships over time. Furthermore, political and educational rhetoric, and sometimes legislative reality, creates new pressures to deemphasize many pathways to real educational reform and to focus exclusively on achieving simple goals. Concerns about teaching to the test or narrow visions of school readiness (e.g., knowing 10 letters of the alphabet) are real. The challenge for S–CPs is to use outcomes to broaden the vision of how to get to real learning, real family support, and real community collaboration to change the “learning life” of students. Building and sustaining meaningful cross-agency collaboration with a vision that includes strong family involvement, linking formal and informal supports, and enhancing educational outcomes are not easy tasks. The following dicta seem critical for developing and sustaining S–CPs:
– Strong and sustained leadership is key.
– Building a shared vision for change is labor intensive and requires a mix of clear vision, achievable goals, and opportunistic risk-taking.
– Integrating family, student, and teacher voices is both challenging and essential.
– Engaging broad community support and involvement, including business support, can make a difference in political and fiscal sustainability.
– S–CPs must take on the characteristics of the local culture; they are unique enterprises.
Federal assistance can help overcome challenges in three key areas: integrating early learning more deeply into the S–CP movement, expanding the leadership and vision of S–CPs to more communities, and assessing results in a way that holds schools and communities accountable for students’ outcomes and also provides information about sustaining and deepening the partnerships. Schoolwide programs and other federal actions have promoted greater flexibility than was previously permitted in using federal funds and in consolidating resources. This flexibility is not yet, however, widely used to promote S–CPs specifically or educational reform in general. Furthermore, benefiting from this flexibility, especially across programs, remains enormously complex. One other emerging and not yet fully developed characteristic of recent federal legislation is the use of incentives and performance bonuses to reward states which exceed federally framed goals. These changing perspectives on crafting federal policy offer new possibilities for how the community–schools movement might promote federal policies that can move this complex and crucial agenda forward. Here, in the hope of stimulating debate, are some principles for federal legislation, along with some specific recommendations, particularly related to the early learning challenge:
– Federal legislation might create incentives to promote systems-level development that include S–CPs. Incentives can help existing programs and new ones direct their attention to include community-based initiatives for young children and families, and encourage integration with any ongoing school–community efforts. The incentives might consist of implementation and bonus funds for initiatives that show evidence of systems change and improved community indicators and educational outcomes.
– Legislation should continue to promote flexibility in existing federal education programs and more consistency in the ways flexibility is defined across programs.
– Federal agencies can promote among themselves easier resource sharing, better strategic planning, and new initiatives.
– The federal government, both through legislation and agency (especially interagency) initiatives, should promote a strong research and development agenda to facilitate more effective learning.
Federal policy alone is not sufficient to change schooling in America to meet the vision and goals set forth by the S–CPs. But it clearly has played a key role in helping to develop the S–CPs of the 21st century, and it can, and must, continue to play an important role in shaping and implementing the vision of S–CPs for the future.