By Laurie Potts and Anthony Berkley

All levels of education need shaking up, but none more than the long-ignored area of early learning.

Now the stars are aligning to give this type of bottom-up innovation serious consideration.

The President 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, enough to launch what Education Secretary Arne Duncan has described as “education reform’s moon shot.” These funds aim to do nothing less than inspire communities to shake up the education landscape.

We know that 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 herky-jerky educational system that moves them from one place and grade to the next with no sense of continuity.

Communities large and small – rural and urban – are hard at work to change that. Promising early learning initiatives through a W.K. Kellogg Foundation-sponsored project called SPARK, Supporting Partnerships to Assure Ready Kids, are working to smooth those crucial transitions from home, child care and preschool to elementary school.

The goal: to make sure that children are ready for school and that schools are ready for them.

Communities around the country are embracing these principles and innovative practices to improve student and school readiness and the opportunities for long-term student success. In Coos County Oregon, Southwestern Oregon Community College and the Commission on Children and Families Early Childhood Committee have for many years built collaboration among programs and services for young children and their families within local communities. The partnership, working with and through the college’s Childhood Education & Family Studies program, community organizations, local schools, and Head Start/Early Head Start programs, serves to strengthen the links and alignment of early childhood programs and services with schools. Successful parenting education programs, a parent-child cooperative preschool, and ongoing teacher and early care provider training have their roots in partnership efforts.

Efforts are underway to share the lessons learned through SPARK and other early learning initiatives, including networking activities, Governor’s fora, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation partnership with IDEO, a renowned design and innovation consulting firm, to help communities improve 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 link parents, teachers, and students and create strong connections between classrooms and communities, building an educational continuum.

Communities, school districts, and policymakers are creating new ways to teach and nurture children from age 3 through third grade. National leaders are taking notice and, more important, taking steps to replicate successful programs across the map.

Communities such as Coos Bay are continuously searching for and creating new pathways that support early learning and success in school. Community forums and other strategies identify needs, strengths, and next steps that are then put into action. One undertaking has culminated in the development of a local community school where children participate in enrichment programs, parents can take parenting and early childhood education classes, and social service supports from community partners, are available, right at the school. Such groundbreaking strategies can help shape federal and state policies.

Oregon must work toward tapping into the $5 billion in federal funding to further innovate and expand existing early education programs. We cannot afford to miss out on this tremendous opportunity to better our communities through investing in our children’s futures.
Potts is childhood education director at Southwestern Oregon Community College. Berkley is deputy director for education and learning at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
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