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From Cradle to Grade

American Teacher
January/February 2012
Feature Story

THERE HAVE BEEN MANY studies over the years documenting the need for smoother transitions from prekindergarten to the elementary level. A new AFT study reinforces that conclusion—and does it in a manner that puts frontline voices at the heart of the dialogue.

“Right from the Start: Transition Strategies for Developing a Strong PreK-3 Continuum,” was funded through the Pew Charitable Trusts and highlights many field-tested measures to building an effective, collaborative environment between the pre-K and elementary communities. Such an environment is indispensable to the long-term success of students—particularly the most vulnerable young learners, AFT president Randi Weingarten stresses.

“Collaborative, thoughtful and intentional transitions to assist children leaving pre-K and entering kindergarten have been found to be especially beneficial to children from lower socioeconomic circumstances,” Weingarten writes in the introduction to the report, citing measures already adopted in several communities.

These efforts, which are highlighted in profiles and case studies throughout the report, include placing preschool classes under the roofs of elementary schools and linking community-based child care center programs to elementary schools to ease the transition for parents and children.

Among the promising strategies singled out in “Right from the Start”:

  • Horizontal alignment, which describes opportunities for educators across a grade level to work together and give children similar, high-quality learning experiences, is a strategy that can be used by teachers at the preschool level—even though they might work in a variety of different settings, the report makes clear.
  • Vertical alignment, which describes opportunities that ensure each grade provides a strong foundation for the next, also is called for and one way to instill an approach based on “bringing kindergarten and preschool teachers together, as well as bringing child care teachers and other early childhood educators together for joint professional development.”
  • Wraparound support—embodied in features like low child-to-teacher ratios, parent participation that includes adult education, home visits, health and nutrition services— should be expanded. “The best aspects of these child- and family-focused settings should be pushed up into elementary schools. One way to achieve this is to look to the community school model.” 

Field-tested and ready

The conclusions in the report are driven by evidence from the field. Highlighted are strong early-childhood education strategies in Cincinnati, Ohio; Los Angeles; Montgomery County, Md.; New York City; Orlando, Fla., Pittsfield, Mass.; and Portland, Ore.

AFT member Sharon Leonard, the prekindergarten teacher at West Oaks Elementary in Orlando Fla., is one of the educators featured in the report and offers a variety of examples showing a rich exchange of ideas between the preschool and the early grades at her school, including input from pre-K educators on students’ placement in kindergarten, and opportunities for preschoolers to visit kindergarten classes and even work with older students. “It just works better for the children when everyone is talking and on the same page,” Leonard says.

The essential role of community leadership is also highlighted and profiled. Cincinnati’s community learning centers, also known as community schools, operate as the core of a network of services and programs for children and families. Through partner organizations, the schools become centralized locations for service providers such as health clinics, dental care, social services, after-school enrichment and recreation—services that extend from newborns through 12th grade.

One of the strongest supporters of community learning centers has been the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers (CFT). “The services to support these students are in the community, so it is only natural to allow these students to receive the services in the schoolhouse,” explains Julie Sellers, president of the AFT affiliate.

And that spirit of collaboration throughout the community is paying handsome long-term dividends for the children, says Rachel Tapp, a preschool teacher at Oyler Community Learning Center, which serves children as young as 6-weeks-old through high school. “There is a sense of hope and pride among our high schools students that is impossible to miss when you walk through our hallways.”

Barbara James, a kindergarten teacher at Riverview East Community Learning Center, says the preparation from pre-K pays off in her classroom every day. “Letter recognition, sounds, socialization and attendance—I really see a difference between my kids who have had preschool and those who haven’t,” says James, a CFT member.

This leg up is particularly important for children from low-income households, she adds. “Getting them into school early and keeping them in gives these students a real boost.

Different perspectives, common goals

The report offers a variety of different perspectives on ways to make the preK-3 learning experience smooth and effective. Included in the report are valuable comments and perspectives from administrators, lawmakers, community activists and labor leaders. They complement the many case studies and frontline perspectives that give “Right from the Start” both power and immediacy.

The educators featured in the report are just a sample of professionals across the country “who are making a difference every day in the lives of our youngest children,” Weingarten writes. “Their efforts deserve our deliberate and focused attention. Their students deserve the best we can possibly give them.

“The strategies identified in this publication are a starting point, but it will take communities and partnerships to make it happen, and our union is fully committed to that effort.”

—Mike Rose