Omaha, Neb. — As the 2015 – 2016 school year progresses, the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska and Omaha-area school districts and elementary schools are working together on an innovative approach to serving vulnerable young children. Implementation of the new Superintendents' Early Childhood Plan is underway across the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties.
At the heart of the Superintendents’ Plan is a commitment to serving young children from birth through third grade. Schools are viewed as hubs and work with community-based organizations to connect vulnerable young children and families to comprehensive, continuous early childhood education and services throughout early childhood—defined as the first eight years of life.
Twelve elementary schools are implementing the birth-through-third-grade approach, which will impact more than 4,000 children. Approximately 500 educators are leading the effort with support from the Buffett Early Childhood Institute.
“The case for educating and intervening with young children raised under conditions of high risk—especially those living in poverty—has never been stronger,” said Samuel J. Meisels, founding executive director of the Buffett Institute and one of the nation’s leading experts on early childhood assessment and child development. “We believe that by working together to apply what research tells us about children’s development and learning during the first eight years of life, we can make a difference for the children and families we serve, our communities, and our state.”
The Superintendents' Plan was mandated by the Nebraska Legislature (LB 585), funded through the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties, developed by the superintendents and district representatives in conjunction with the Buffett Institute, and endorsed unanimously by all 11 superintendents.
Participating schools represent six school districts and include: Belleaire Elementary (Bellevue Public Schools); Douglas County West Elementary (DC West Community Schools); William Cody Elementary and Mari Sandoz Elementary (Millard Public Schools); Gomez Heritage Elementary, Liberty Elementary, Mount View Elementary, and Pinewood Elementary (Omaha Public Schools); Karen Western Elementary, Meadows Elementary, and Mockingbird Elementary (Ralston Public Schools); and Westbrook Elementary (Westside Community Schools).
The elementary schools are working to improve children’s learning experiences and strengthen families’ connections to schools by starting early, with home visiting for children birth to age 3. The home visiting program is designed to benefit both parents and children. During home visits, an early childhood professional supports the development of strong parent/child interactions, child development skills, parenting knowledge, and parental awareness of community resources. Home/school partnerships, critical to the success of children at risk, can be shaped from the beginning of a child’s life.
In addition to home visiting, the schools offer high-quality preschool for 3- to- 4-year-olds, and aligned Kindergarten through Grade 3 instruction, curriculum and assessment for 5- to- 8-year-olds, with special emphasis on transitions between each stage of learning and development.
The Superintendents’ Plan provides for 25 new positions working on-site at the 12 schools. These school-based staff include home visitors to work with families of children birth to age 3, family facilitators to extend strong family-school connections through third grade, and educational coaches to provide teachers with professional development and support.
“We are thrilled to have new opportunities to engage families and build partnerships very early in children’s lives, because those relationships are so critical to students’ long-term success,” said Heidi Penke, principal at Mari Sandoz Elementary School. “We’ve always recognized the importance of the early years, and now we have the resources, personnel, and support to drive this critical work.”
“The future of our families and children is important to all of us,” said John Campin, principal at Gomez Heritage Elementary School. “We need to prepare all youth to become involved in our communities, and we need to start early.”
The Superintendents’ Plan also offered school districts the option to participate in customized professional development for teachers who work with young children, or technical assistance for early childhood initiatives. The Buffett Institute is working with six school districts (Bellevue, Bennington, Elkhorn, Gretna, Papillion-La Vista, and Westside) in this capacity.
Also in 2015 – 2016, the Institute will offer three professional development conferences open to all administrators, teachers, and early childhood professionals who serve young children across the Learning Community. The first event, scheduled for Dec. 4, will focus on research-based strategies for developing and teaching social and emotional skills as the foundation for optimal learning.