Carla Bryant is Chief of Early Education at the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD). She recently discussed the status of the district’s work to support the success of its youngest students.
What is PreK-3? The evidence shows that high-quality preschool prepares young children to succeed in school. Our PreK-3 Initiative incorporates preschool as a key part of our work and integrates it into early elementary learning experiences.
Why do we need it? By the time we do our first assessments of students in third grade, there are already major disparities. Overall, African-American and Latino students lag well behind white and Asian students. PreK-3 means we can get in front of this issue starting in preschool. You cannot wait until the third grade when the state gives that assessment to identify kids that are already two and three years behind. You’ve missed the opportunity.
What has the PreK-3 Initiative achieved so far in the schools? We’ve gotten a lot done in our first few years. First, we’ve created a clear picture of how PreK fits into the district’s structure and work. We also successfully implemented a new grade, called Transitional Kindergarten, or TK. TK offers an extra year of school to those students who turn 5 too late in the year to enter regular kindergarten.
Second, we’ve worked with Stanford University to create a PreK assessment so we know what is happening with our children. This was hard work. Some people were worried that we would be labeling kids, that it’s not okay to test children, that it's culturally not appropriate. These were very interesting conversations. But even with that, there were two groups that absolutely knew what we were doing was the right thing: the parents and the teachers.
We’ve also established kindergarten readiness standards. Stanford helped us with this, too. Before, we had children coming to kindergarten, but no one was clear if they were ready to succeed because we didn’t have common standards or expectations. So we met with our teams to talk about, what it means to have children who are kindergarten-ready? We came up with some very rigorous expectations.
What’s changed for teachers and principals? We’ve focused a lot on professional development. Our professional development has become very intentional. In classrooms, we’re videotaping teachers teaching, and we use that to help them understand their instruction practice. If it is great, why is it great? If it could be better, what could you do differently? We also use these videos to do some self-reflection on our part. Are we seeing what we’re supposed to see as a result of the training we are providing? If not, we make adjustments in the training.
We also are providing professional development for the principals, showing them why it is so important for them to understand what happens with PreK, TK, kindergarten, and first grade. Another major accomplishment is we expanded elementary school principals’ oversight to include PreK. There used to be different administrators. This is helping tremendously with PreK-3 coherence.
What’s next for the PreK-3 Initiative? The next step is to expand our PreK-3 work to all 72 elementary schools in the district. We want to unify the expectations and the type of instruction across all these schools. If I am a parent and I need to move my child from one school to another school, I should have the same expectations of quality. There are some common things that we should see no matter what school we’re in.
We’re also working with First 5, San Francisco to provide comprehensive education opportunities for the city’s youngest residents, mostly three and four year olds, and at a few sites starting with infants and toddlers. This early work, supporting very young children and their families, is a critical part of the work we have to do to get to Vision 2025 ten years from now.
Finally, we’re making a unified plan for implementing an assessment process that goes from preschool all the way through grade 12. This will ensure that we stay on track with our vision, which is that all children will graduate with certain knowledge, skills and abilities.
What are the biggest challenges? This is about changing our system and the way we think, and that’s not an easy thing to do. To change a culture is huge, and it’s not going to happen overnight. It starts with aligning our work and working together toward a common goal. This is where Vision 2025 is so important.