Guest Blog: Chris Perrius, Great Oakland Public Schools
A group of Oakland PreKindergarten (PreK) teachers is closing the opportunity gap for 3 and 4 year olds. Read alouds, meaningful transitions, extended conversations and opportunities for writing are giving children the boost they need to be kinder ready. This work is critical to ensuring that their children are reading on grade level by third grade – a key predictor of school success, high school graduation and future success in life.
Oakland PreK and Transitional Kindergarten (TK) teachers are working to improve their students’ literacy with the help of SEEDS of Early Literacy, an initiative of the Kenneth Rainin Foundation. Sherry Burrell, director of the YMCA 21st St Preschool, expressed her enthusiasm for the initiative. “All the classrooms are offering richer opportunities for our children because the learning and materials from SEEDS have really given us a boost. Our team is learning new ways to build literacy skills, and also to create more fun and engaging schedules that are sensitive and encouraging to children,” said Burrell.
A group of SEEDS PreK teachers met recently after work to see how well their students are doing and to share ideas on how to improve their results. The focus of this training of preschool teachers from around the city, particularly from West Oakland, was learning how to use student data to plan how they will help individual students in specific ways. The teachers dug into this technically challenging work with gusto.
First, they reviewed data of how students progressed from fall to winter on a range of assessments – including letter naming, letter sounds, rhyming, and vocabulary – that research indicates are strong predictors of literacy readiness for kindergarten.
All students were shown as on or above target, near target, and far from target. The students who are far from target are not on track to be ready for kindergarten. Kate Horst, instructor and founder of SEEDS of Early Literacy, emphasized that the students who are behind will likely stay behind if they enter kindergarten unprepared. She also celebrated the big growth children had made so early in the year. After reviewing the data, Horst prompted teachers to identify best practices, noted below, for moving scores into the green (on or above target) and out of the red (far from target).
What did you do that moved children to have so much more language and vocabulary?
- We repeated reading alouds with the same book each of the weeks and made our themes reflect the new vocabulary.
- We made sure that we gave children time to think and respond to our questions.
- I gave children descriptive affirmations and encouraged them to talk more.
- I did fun songs every day.
How can we support children who are far below target?
- I need to spend more time having conversations with the children who are far behind so they can practice using vocabulary.
- The children low on letter sounds transitioned into the classroom late so they missed the beginning of the year work we did. We can use time each day to work with them to catch them up.
- I can sing a rhyming song with them each day on the way outside.
- I can make sure I spend time with her during free choice time listening to her ideas and encouraging her to talk.
The training demonstrated the power of assessments to inform planning in real time. The data presented was very specific, enabling the teachers to focus on what to do with students in the coming weeks and months given the data picture of their progress.
Dr. Marc Hernandez, an expert on literacy assessments from the University of Chicago, also attended the meeting and commented on the efficacy of assessment data informed instruction. “Once teachers start using data, they don’t want to go back,” Hernandez said. Not having student data “is like trying to save money without knowing what’s in your bank account.”
This work also builds a common understanding among teachers about how to improve student literacy, and it can be integrated into any existing program. What is crucial is that this work begin early, the way it’s happening in Oakland PreK and TK programs. “There is a real gap that has to be addressed,” explained Hernandez. “It’s never too late to accelerate older children’s learning, but it is much harder to catch up when students enter kindergarten behind. And it is very easy to integrate this literacy work into play, social-emotional development, relationships, creative expression, and other preschool activities. It’s not an either-or proposition. This is really something we need to invest in.”
Horst couldn’t agree more. “This group of teachers is a model for the nation. They have demonstrated the ability to look at child-specific data and then make individual plans on how to improve instruction while being sensitive to each child’s development,” said Horst. “This is a high level of using data to inform instruction. They are stellar at providing children with high quality learning as well as warm and positive relationships.”
Contributed by Chris Perrius, who has been leading the fundraising and communications efforts of Great Oakland Public Schools since 2013. Chris is also a member of the Board of Directors of Oakland Kids First. An Oakland resident with two children, he has a BA from Ramapo College of NJ and masters degrees from North Carolina State University and the University of Chicago.