Building Bridges from Pre-K to Elementary in Chicago

Everyone wants the schools that serve disadvantaged students to improve their instruction, but actually making that happen is difficult. A new report from Chicago-based Business and Professional People for the Public Interest (BPI) details how a group of 11 low-income, predominantly Latino schools have started to create change. Notably, the schools have built bridges to their pre-K programs and started to explore new methods for helping English-language learners build their English and literacy skills.

BPI, a longtime partner with some Chicago schools which focuses on improvement from the inside, built relationships with six Latino-majority schools on Chicago’s Northwest Side. BPI brokered a connection with California-based Targeted Leadership Consulting, an education consulting firm with a track record of success in San Diego’s Chula Vista School District. TLC began work with Chula Vista in 2001, when the district’s Academic Performance Index was 653 on a 200-1000 scale, below the state’s benchmark of 800. By 2011, the district’s overall API had risen to 861 and ranks first in California for the academic performance of its English-language learners.

What did TLC bring to Chicago? A six-step framework for school improvement:

1. Build shared leadership across the school–and across K-8 and pre-K, a notoriously tough divide to bridge;

2. Focus everyone on one instructional area, like literacy, that will improve learning for all students;

3. Look at the data and use it to guide teacher training and improve instructional practice;

4. Select a handful of effective teaching strategies and build teachers’ expertise in them;

5. Partner with parents and community in the work;

6. Put money and other resources behind each step.

Repeat, repeat, repeat. Truth is, many school buildings never get past step one.

This report’s most useful section is the chapter on pre-K. Building bridges from K-8 down to pre-K is especially difficult. In most schools across the country, pre-K runs on a different day than the K-8 schools, making it tough to bring teachers together. Here in Chicago,  pre-K programs don’t have attendance boundaries but neighborhood schools do. When some pre-K children won’t be going to that particular elementary school for kindergarten, it conceivably reduces the school’s motivation to connect with that pre-K.

Bringing pre-K teachers to the table and choosing an instructional focus that applied from pre-K through 8th grade helped. Five of the 11 schools in BPI’s network included pre-K teachers on their instructional leadership teams; the rest kept them connected through a schoolwide representative like a literacy coach. All of them chose to work on reading comprehension, an important skill that can begin early by helping children from pre-K and up to ask questions, predict upcoming events and retell a story. A follow-up survey shows nearly all pre-K teachers were involved in schoolwide professional development, and “area” (subdistrict) leaders added targeted training on guided reading and reading comprehension activities for pre-K and kindergarten teachers.

The BPI work has led the area to look deeper into the question of how best to educate bilingual learners. In general, the Chicago Public Schools  system uses a three-year transitional bilingual education program, where children begin instruction mostly in their first language (here, Spanish), gradually tapering off until students have enough proficiency in English to make sense of an all-English classroom. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. In reality, too many of Chicago’s ELL’s are lost between Spanish (or another home language) and English. Growing numbers of Chicago schools are experimenting with dual-language instruction in an effort to maintain and increase home-language skills while ensuring a strong foundation in English, too. In Chula Vista, 10 schools offer dual-immersion to about 2,000 students.

TLC helped the 11 schools examine a variety of bilingual program models, including time for explicit development of English-language skills. The group created a committee to determine a comprehensive bilingual instruction model for the area and all schools have structured their day to include time for explicit English-language development.

I’m hoping some enterprising Chicago reporter will head out to one of these schools and show us what all this looks like on the ground. In the meantime, reporters who want to know what school change looks like in action might want to find out if TLC is working in their area.

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