Family and Community Engagement, Part 1/11: Lessons Learned in Ohio
by Sharon Dorsey
How can elementary schools start kindergartners on a path to success? The backgrounds and experiences of these entering students vary greatly. The standards and expectations for these children continue to increase. The emotions of the children, families, and teachers run high at this transition point. Helping schools address these challenges was the focus of an initiative called Ohio Ready Schools (ORS). The lessons learned in the ORS initiative may assist LiNK sites in accomplishing their goals.
The Ohio Ready School Initiative began in 2006 with the intent to go beyond “low impact” transition and family connection activities like home mailings and open houses. The ORS Initiative aimed to develop “enduring ties” among early childhood educators, care givers, and public school districts “that will lead to cohesive educational programs.” Elementary schools in the Initiative worked to be ready to nurture all children’s learning – birth to Grade 3 – through partnering with feeder early childcare providers and practitioners (e.g. educators and care givers) as well as local service agencies and families. The partnering institutions and families combined their resources to
a) Improve linkages with the early learning community (birth to age 5);
b) Align standards, curriculum and assessment (pre-K to Grade 3);
c) Improve services and communication with families and community organizations;
d) Enhance teacher instruction; and
e) Evaluate the initiative.
This blog is part one of a two-part series where Sharon Dorsey, the evaluator for the ORS initiative, shares the experience of the schools as they worked to build capacity in the area of family and community engagement in their schools. Part one, describes the 11 lessons learned by the ORS sites through almost a decade of successful implementation of family and community initiatives. The intent is to offer LiNK participants a list, which they can skim to locate the content most pertinent and helpful to their sites. Part two spotlights nine specific, field-tested ORS activities, which Kansas LiNK schools can replicate for similar success.
The ORS initiative was piloted for 2 years in Ohio in 32 schools and then implemented for 7 years in over 55 schools many of which were urban or rural. Eleven “lessons” were identified in the pilot through:
• Thirty-four interviews of site stakeholders by the project evaluator;
• Three to five online surveys completed by each site and follow-up clarification conference calls with the project evaluator; and
• Continuous discussions with Ready School teams and observation of Ready School activities made by coaches and the project evaluator.
These lessons were confirmed during the subsequent implementation years.
Lesson #1: Perceptions and Attitudes Matter– Perceptions/attitudes of stakeholders appear to play a significant role in creating a cultural shift to make a school more ready to receive all children and truly become a Ready School. During the first pilot year, three kinds of perceptions/attitudes were shifted or reaffirmed – (1)principals’ personal perspectives on the schools’ roles and responsibilities in regards to transitioning students and partnering with early childhood; (2) families’ positive perception of schools; and, (3) pre-school or early childhood educators’ perceptions. The perceptions of the early childhood educator interviewees were significant and require attention if the program is to be instituted at sites. The early childhood educators, who were always in the minority on the Ready School Teams, revealed their hesitancy to push their ideas and publicly note the major differences/similarities between early childhood education and public kindergarten. The early childhood educators were hopeful about the Ready School program, but feared that their philosophy and educational strategies were not understood nor valued by the K-3 public educators. They expressed a desire for public school teachers to visit the early childhood centers and, hopefully, demonstrate an openness and appreciation for what was being done. It is also significant to note that at least one primary elementary teacher in an ORS site admitted that in the past she had used or even looked at the information on students sent by a feeder pre-school. Structured sharing of the student information from pre-schools to kindergarten teachers proved useful.
Lesson #2: Team Composition, Vision, & Leadership Matter – Ready School Site Leadership Teams need to be strong and cohesive with time to develop the team process, goals, rules, and norms. The teams need a strong leader and should develop a shared vision. For at least one site, all day, off-site, once-a-month team meetings were key to creating in-depth concentration, collaboration across the range of stakeholders, deeper discussion, and more opportunities for sharing perspectives.
Lesson #3:Communication Matters –Communication with the range of stakeholders was cited as necessary to avoid animosity among district schools, gain support, foster collaboration, and sustain the program. Interviewees identified six groups with whom communication should be fostered – the community, local government, schools across the district, the district administration and the board of education, early childhood educators, and families of enrolled children and yet-to-be enrolled children.
Lesson #4: Relationships Matter– Building relationships and connections is at the heart of achieving a smooth transition and school start for children. The involvement of the stakeholders required gathering, listening, and trying to understand each other’s viewpoints and then integrating their suggestions into the activities. Building and maintaining productive relationships with stakeholder groups required continued rethinking and adjustment to previous procedures and processes. Interviewees reported building positive relationships with 1) families especially those of pre- kindergarten and kindergarten children, 2) daycares and pre-schools, and 3) community and government agencies such as the Council on Rural Services, Job and Family Services, and City Council. Broader connections between the whole school district and the early childhood community were identified as desirable by both community agencies and the early childhood interviewees. Successful strategies employed by the Ready School sites to involve early childhood educators included 1) having two or more representatives of private pre-schools on a Ready School Team, 2) having a pre-school representative on each sub-committee organized around an activity, (3) having a recognized leader in the early childhood community serve on the Ready School Leadership Team and act as a liaison with the broader early childhood community, and (4) establishing district-wide periodic meetings among feeder pre-schools/daycares and the district kindergarten teachers to collaboratively plan transition activities.
Lesson #5: Creating Feasible Action Plans Matters – Feasible action planswere cited as a lesson learned by half of the sites as well as the coaches and project evaluator. The sites learned to 1) align their goals, indicators, and activities to better monitor progress; 2) narrow their selection of goals and indicators; 3) tweak proven past activities to address Ready School indicators; 4) be efficient with their time in planning, implementing, and evaluating activities; 5) combine activities to make one “powerful” activity that accomplished several goals or indicators; 6) plan all facets of activities in detail as much as possible – communication, agendas, responsibilities, evaluation; and 7) make certain that all stakeholders are knowledgeable of, in favor of, and supporting the Action Plan.
Lesson #6: Shared Leadership Matters – Teacher leadershipwas necessary to accomplish the Ready School goals. The principal cannot coordinate and support the project alone. In more than a third of the sites, a teacher was selected to act as a Ready School Coordinator who monitored the planning and implementation of activities in the Action Plan. In addition, some sites created teacher-chaired committees around each of their identified activities. The teacher chairpersons were responsible for recruiting appropriate stakeholder groups as needed to implement a successful activity.
Lesson#7: Evaluation, Assessment & Data Matter – Evaluation/ assessment lessons were identified by more than a third of the sites. The sites indicated that 1) a significant amount of time was necessary to adequately administer and tally the Ready School self-assessments; 2) the use of surveys to provide feedback, although never previously considered, provided worthwhile information for planning and making decisions; and 3) Ready School activities might improve student achievement and, ultimately, impact the school’s state achievement scores.
Lesson #8: Linkage to Early Childhood Community Matters– To build a seamless systemthat links the early childhood community to the public K-12 world, four practices were identified as helpful. They were 1) conducting ongoing district-wide meetings with the feeder preschools/daycare, led by district administrators, and aimed at consistent and systemic transition; 2) identifying appropriate individuals in an organization to call to handle specific questions or situations; 3) completion of a consistent district-wide (or county) transfer form by feeder preschools/daycare for incoming kindergartners; and 4) gaining permission from the families of incoming kindergartners to view data collected by pre-schools.
Lesson #9:Structured Resources Matter – Structured resourcesare neededin addition to the Ready School Resource Guide to provide a framework for sites as they begin the planning and implementation process. Such resources would provide discussion starters for the Ready School Teams, foster development of a common language within and across sites, provide guidance in aligning the components of the Action Plan, and offer examples of activities that address specific needs.
Lesson #10:A Shared Vision Matters– Development of a shared vision of a Ready School emerged as a requirement for achieving the selected goals, sustaining the program, and continuing productive relationships with stakeholder groups. The development of this shared understanding among all stakeholders of “what a Ready School is” was not fully accomplished by the pilot sites. While a shared vision seems to lie at the heart of creating and sustaining a fully actualized Ready School, in reality, the sites are only at the initial stages of realizing the “need” for a shared vision. One pathway to developing this necessary component emerged in the form of the collaborative planning and building of a mutually beneficial product. One school held a Building Bridges Evening Event that required the Early Childhood Community and the public school personnel to work in heterogeneous groups to identify a list of power indicators for incoming kindergarten students. The product and the process moved both communities toward a shared vision. The process honored the knowledge of both communities and allowed the participants to review the indicators and guidelines at both levels. The resulting product was jointly accepted as a useful tool.
It is significant to note that a school staff cannot develop the vision in isolation. In order to be a workable and “shared” vision, it must be collaboratively developed and revised with all the significant stakeholders. The recognition of the need for a shared vision and sufficient time to collaboratively build the vision were identified as necessary, but challenging for sites.
Lesson #11:Systemic District Support Matters – Systemic district support is needed to ensure the ongoing success and sustainability of the Ohio Ready Schools Program in a site. From the Superintendent’s Office through the Board of Education and the Curriculum and Instruction Division to the Early Childhood Department and the Special Education Division, all district structures need to be not only informed, but also strategically involved in the planning, implementation, and development from the outset of the program. Some promising strategies for gaining district support include:
• Providing on-going updates on the program’s progress to the key district personnel;
• Placing strategic district personnel on the school’s Ready School Team;
• Presenting the program and perhaps the Action Plan at a Board meeting;
• Inviting Board members and district administrators to Ready School events;
• Inviting other district elementary schools to participate in appropriate Ready School events that would be mutually beneficial; and
• Making apparent links to district and state requirements as well as existing programs and initiatives.
LiNK schools in Kansas, just like those in Ohio, are searching for the best ways to support students and families. This list of lessons learned can be used as a guide for consideration as LiNK stakeholders meet with family engagement partners including community members, educators, daycare providers, parents and so on. Schools that start early to work with families of birth to 5-year-olds and the organizations that support them and continue that work through the primary years of schooling accomplish significant goals. Such outreach activities smooth the transition to school and build the all-important positive bonds between families and the schools. Late spring and summer is an opportune time to consider how well outreach programs are performing and to determine areas of need and change for the coming school year. Part 2 of this Family and Community Engagement blog series will offer specific sample activities from the Ohio Ready School initiative that can be replicated in Kansas to support literacy in the home.
About the Ohio Ready School Project
Ohio Ready School (ORS) Initiative was the result of a statewide partnership formed among the Ohio Department of Education’s (ODE) Office of Early Learning and School Readiness, the Sisters of Charity Foundation of Canton, and the Ohio Association of Elementary School Administrators (OAESA). For the entire 9-years of the initiative, OAESA, which is headed by Executive Director Julie Davis, provided administrative services, supported sites in their local work, and fostered the dissemination and sharing of lessons learned across sites, throughout the state, and at national meetings. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation provided funding for the 2 pilot years of the initiative with the subsequent 7 implementation years funded by the Martha Holden Jennings Foundation. The Project Manager was Zana Vincent.
Resource Guide for ORS:
Ohio Department of Education, Ohio Association of Elementary School Administrators. (2006). Strong Beginnings, Smooth Transitions, Continuous Learning: A Ready School Resource Guide for Elementary School Leadership. The guide is located on the Ohio Department of Education’s website here.
Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University, short video on building adult capabilities.
Fitch, Linda. (2019). “Research Roundup: Alignment Produces Achievement: A selection of recent reports on alignment and student transitions.” 98(3).
Grindal, T.; Bonnes Bowne, J.; Yoshikawa, H.; Schindler, H.; Duncan, G.; Magnuson, K.; Shonkoff, J. (2013) “The Added Impact of Parenting Education in Early Childhood Education Programs: A Meta-Analysis”. Presentation at the Forum on Early Childhood Policy and Programs.
Harrell, James H. (2019) “Parents & School: Parents as Partners” Principal. 98 (3).
Regional Educational Laboratory Midwest. (2017). “How to Equip Parents to Support Kindergarten Readiness.” REL Webinar on May 17, 2017.
Schulting, Amy; Malone, Patrick S.; Dodge, Kenneth A. (2005). The Effect of School-Based Kindergarten Transition Policies and Practices on Child Academic Outcomes. Dev Psychol. 41(6): 860-871.
Shore, Rima. (1998) “Ready Schools: A Report of the Goal 1 Ready Schools Resource Group.” The National Educational Goals Panel, URL: http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/negp/reports/readysch.pdf