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Early Learning Leadership Matters in San Antonio

At the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year, districts across San Antonio welcomed more pre-kindergarten children into their elementary schools than ever before.

Districts expanded from half-day to full-day programming for 10,487 children, which is a 9% increase over the previous year. The expansion of district pre-k programs came as a result of the passage of House Bill 3 (HB3) on June 11, 2019.

The landmark legislation provides funding for full-day pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds who meet one of the longstanding eligibility requirements established by the state. Although HB 3 does not increase the number of children eligible for pre-k, it is an important step forward for early learning in Texas.

Although the growing number of pre-kindergarten classrooms is a win, the impressive outcomes that early education promises are only possible when programs are high-quality. School and program leaders are essential to establishing the conditions necessary to make this kind of quality possible. Research shows principals alone can account for 25% of a school’s impact on student learning and have the second largest in-school impact on student achievement after teachers.

In a report by New America, principals in a focus group said the most important part of their job is helping teachers provide high-quality instruction. However, many principals had no experience in early childhood education and they shed light on how little their preparation programs equip them to be instructional leaders for the early grades.

For the past two years, Pre-K 4 SA has partnered with the New Teacher Center (NTC) to launch the first Early Learning Leadership Program (ELLP) in San Antonio. Program participants are comprised of principals, district leaders and instructional coaches across seven districts (Edgewood ISD, Northside ISD, Northeast ISD, Harlandale ISD, Southwest ISD, East Central ISD, San Antonio ISD) and the Archdiocese of San Antonio. The program has reached 150 school and program leaders which have impacted more than 3,500 children within our city.

The program is offered through two options: a nine-hour overview course and a nine-month intensive course, with most leaders opting into the longer intensive program.

“The Early Learning Leadership Program provides a unique opportunity for principals to focus on early childhood through professional learning and collaboration with other principals,” said Julia Schneider, director of early childhood in Northeast Independent School District. “It is changing the way our principals evaluate environments and instruction in their early childhood classrooms.”

The program includes six three-hour seminars, which focus on brain development, executive function, growth milestones and teaching practices that encourage language development and emerging math skills. It also includes “walk and talks” led by the ELLP team with principals to tour the program’s pre-k and kindergarten classrooms and to put to practice the knowledge participants are receiving through the seminars. ELLP team members also assist in answering any questions and overcoming challenges.

In addition, two observational walks with small groups of principals also take place. During these observations, a focus on an early learning problem of practice is posed by the group to guide the conversations. The group might look at the language teachers are using with children or how classroom environments are arranged.

One key element of the interactive sessions is demystifying concepts like “developmentally appropriate practice” and “playing to learn” by engaging principals in play! Betsy Fox, senior director of early learning partnerships at NTC, who leads the ELLP initiative with Pre-K 4 SA said, “Principals don’t often see the connection of play to learning. It’s about shifting the beliefs about how young children learn best.”

Whether participants are building brain architecture from pipe cleaners, or towers with straws and play dough, they are learning about how young children develop foundational academic, social-emotional and executive function skills. It’s important to work together and share knowledge about high-quality early childhood education in order to help San Antonio’s youngest learners.

Written by: Larissa Wilkinson, director of Professional Learning and Innovation

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