By Pat Wheatley and Anthony Berkley

Communities, school districts, and policymakers are creating new ways to teach and nurture children from birth through third grade. National and state leaders are taking notice, and more importantly taking steps to replicate successful programs across the map.

The time is right, too. President Obama is asking states and communities with innovative ideas to help reshape American education. To propel these innovative ideas, two new federal funds for innovation will provide a total of $5 billion to inspire communities to shake up the education landscape.

While all levels of education need shaking up, it is important that we start with early learning to get our kids on the right track as soon as possible.

Young children learn more, do better in school and, ultimately, in the world of work when they move seamlessly from home to child care to preschool to the early grades. Unfortunately, far too few children experience such seamlessness, thanks to a poorly implemented educational system that moves them from one place and grade to the next with no sense of continuity.

Communities large and small – urban and rural – are hard at work to change that. Promising early learning initiatives, supported through a W.K. Kellogg Foundation-sponsored project called SPARK, Supporting Partnerships to Assure Ready Kids, are helping communities to smooth those crucial transitions from home, child care, and pre-school to elementary school. SPARK efforts bring together schools, early care and education providers, families and community partners to make sure that children are ready for school and that schools are ready for them.

California communities are embracing these principles and innovative practices to improve student and school readiness to build the foundation for long-term student success. New ideas are the order of the day, especially in California communities already reeling from a state budget crisis that only deepened as the national economy nose-dived. In one community – Santa Barbara – a collaborative that involves First 5 Santa Barbara County, the Carpinteria Unified School District, public and private service providers, philanthropic and community organizations, is working to ensure coordinated services for families and children beginning at the earliest ages. The focus for services is clear: enhancing school readiness and success in the early grades and beyond, improving child and family health, and strengthening the capacity of vulnerable families to thrive.

Efforts are underway to share the lessons learned through SPARK and other early learning initiatives. Governors’ forums help spread good ideas and practices, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation partnership with IDEO, a renowned design and innovation consulting firm, assists communities in improving their learning systems. Instead of relying on outside experts — the usual method for reforming schools — these communities are looking inward, tapping parents, teachers and even students to help generate solutions that work for them.

The best programs, we continue to learn, link parents, teachers, and students and create strong connections between classrooms and communities, building an educational continuum.

We have the chance, thanks to these dynamics, to revolutionize learning and set our children on a path to long-term success.

Communities like Santa Barbara are already creating new pathways and connections that support early learning and success in school. Such groundbreaking strategies can help shape federal and state policies. In turn, federal and state governments must allow communities the flexibility to implement policies that help their children learn best.

Creating and championing innovative programs that communities throughout America can adapt — may well turn this time of economic crisis into one of meaningful and lasting education reform.

The best ideas for education, we’ve long known, bubble up from the community level. Thanks to the President’s $5 billion initiative, the stars seem aligned to give this type of bottom-up innovation serious consideration.
Wheatley is executive director of First 5 Santa Barbara County. Berkley is deputy director for education and learning at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

Copyright (C) 2010 by the American Forum. 1/10