Omaha, Neb. — The Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska and the superintendents of the 11 school districts of the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties today announced details of the Superintendents’ Early Childhood Plan. The goal of the plan, which was mandated by the Nebraska Legislature in 2013 (LB 585), is to reduce income-based social, cognitive and achievement gaps among young children in the metro Omaha area.
The Superintendents’ Early Childhood Plan is the first of its kind in Nebraska and among only a handful of comparable initiatives across the nation.
“The evidence is clear – the early years matter,” said Dr. Sam Meisels, Founding Executive Director of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute. “If we want to do something about the disadvantage caused by living in poverty or high-stress environments, we need to invest in children when they are young. What happens to children during these critically important years impacts the future of our communities and our state.”
The plan calls for the Buffett Institute, districts, schools and community-based organizations across metro Omaha to work collaboratively to provide high quality, continuous services for children, birth through Grade 3, who are most in need. Nearly 45 percent of K-12 students in Douglas and Sarpy Counties were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches during the 2013 – 14 school year.
Research and economic analyses confirm that a child’s experiences during the first eight years of life are critical for building a strong foundation for success in school and life. High quality, coordinated early learning services have been linked to progress in school, increased earnings, reduction in anti-social behavior, lowered welfare participation and even trouble with the law. Numerous studies show a return of at least $7 for every dollar invested in young children—especially children at risk and children with special needs.
“As poverty across Douglas and Sarpy counties grows, so does the number of children in need,” said Gretna Public Schools Superintendent Kevin Riley, who also serves as the superintendents’ liaison to the Learning Community. “Schools, community organizations, and families must work together to provide opportunities for all children to reach their potential.”
Mandated by the Nebraska Legislature in 2013 (LB 585) and funded by the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties, the Superintendents’ Early Childhood Plan was developed by the Buffett Institute at the request of the metro area district superintendents. The Buffett Institute worked with representatives from each of the 11 districts in Douglas and Sarpy Counties to create a highly collaborative plan, informed by the best evidence concerning early childhood development and education.
The plan was unanimously approved by the superintendents in June 2014, and by the Learning Community Coordinating Council in August 2014. The Buffett Institute then worked with school districts to determine participation in one or more of the plan’s three options: 1) full implementation of the birth through Grade 3 approach at elementary school sites; 2) district-wide professional development and support for teachers who work with young children; and 3) technical assistance or intensive planning and consultation with district leaders around early childhood education and services.
Six districts will participate in full implementation, with 10 sites serving a total of 12 elementary schools. Omaha Public Schools will have four elementary sites; Millard Public Schools will have two sites; and Bellevue, Douglas County West, and Westside school districts will have one site. Ralston will serve three elementary schools at one “cluster” site.
The elementary school sites will serve as “hubs” that connect young children and their families with high-quality, comprehensive, and continuous early childhood education and services. Three components will be implemented at each school: home visiting for children birth to age 3, 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.
District-wide professional development will be offered to all districts, and three districts (Papillion-La Vista, Ralston, and Westside) will receive customized professional development. Five districts (Bellevue, Bennington, Elkhorn, Gretna and Papillion-La Vista) will receive technical assistance, consultation and planning.
The plan provides for a complement of 29 professionals who will work with schools, districts, communities, and families to advance children’s learning experiences and strengthen families’ connections to the schools. Twenty-five of these positions will work on-site at the 12 schools that are implementing the birth through third grade approach. These school-based staff will 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.
While the plan’s primary focus is supporting the development and early education of children at risk, the initiative will elevate the capacity of the metro Omaha school districts to serve all young children well, said Christine Maxwell, Director of Program Development at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute.
“Research tells us that the type of early education practices that are essential for the healthy development and learning of vulnerable children can promote new levels of excellence in the learning experiences of all young children,” Maxwell said.
Intensive site-specific planning, staff orientation, and initial professional development will take place during spring 2015. Full implementation of all district activities will begin during summer 2015. The Buffett Early Childhood Institute will work with district and school staff to continuously evaluate the program’s implementation and effectiveness.