Omaha, Neb. — A recent report about the nation’s largest, most comprehensive birth – Grade 3 initiative demonstrates progress for children, families, and schools in metro Omaha. Findings from the study are presented in Superintendents’ Early Childhood Plan Evaluation: 2016-17, issued by the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska.
The report focuses on the second year implementation of the Superintendents’ Early Childhood Plan, an innovative, groundbreaking approach to reducing income- and race-based achievement gaps by focusing on the “School as Hub” for birth through Grade 3. The plan affects more than 3,500 children and over 500 educators and other early childhood professionals in the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties.
“Omaha-area educators are taking action together, across 11 school districts, to apply research-based ideas in ways that increase opportunities for all young children,” said Samuel J. Meisels, founding executive director of the Buffett Institute. “Their belief, commitment, and persistence has made an initiative of this scope and scale possible. Though the project has only finished its second year, it is very exciting to see early evidence of progress.”
At the heart of the Superintendents’ Plan is the idea that schools can serve as hubs that connect vulnerable young children and families to education and services throughout the first eight years of life. Twelve elementary schools representing six of the Learning Community districts are implementing this approach, which includes voluntary home visiting for children birth to age 3, high-quality preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds, and aligned Kindergarten – Grade 3 curriculum, instruction, and assessment for 5- through 8-year-olds. Family engagement is emphasized throughout.
Schools implementing the birth – Grade 3 approach 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).
Highlights from the evaluation report include:
- Children made progress. Gains in vocabulary and general academic skills were observed across preschool and K – Grade 1 children enrolled in the study. These gains also showed up when data from students were categorized according to race/ethnicity, home language, and free or reduced lunch status. Over time, 13 percent more preschool children scored within the average percentile range or higher on a measure of academic achievement. Likewise, 16 percent more Kindergarten and first grade students scored average or better over time, and 14 percent fewer students were in the lowest 20th percentile. In general, the largest gains were made by minority children and those whose home language was other than English.
- Quality of teacher-child instructional interactions increased. Teachers showed improvement across three categories measured by an assessment of the quality of teacher-child interactions supportive of children’s learning and development. PreK teachers made the greatest gains in providing emotional support; Kindergarten through Grade 3 teachers made a 20 percent gain in the area of instructional support.
- Families experienced high levels of support. Families reported positive experiences and collaborative relationships with teachers and schools. For example, 62 percent of parents participating in birth – age 3 home visiting reported receiving high levels of social supports (informal support that helps provide for emotional needs), and 53 percent said they receive high levels of practical supports (goods and services to help families cope with stress).
- Schools focused more on family partnerships. Implementation of home visiting, parent-child interaction groups, and other programming for families with very young children shifted how most schools approach family partnerships. Through site visits, retrospective interviews, and focus groups, administrators and staff report a heightened awareness of the importance of early childhood beginning at birth and extending through Grade 3. Administrators noted that staff and families increasingly view the school as a place for the “whole family.”
“The school-as-hub approach is so unique because it starts at birth,” said Jim Sutfin, superintendent of the Millard Public Schools. “As we build relationships with families from day one, we are reinforcing the child’s support system at a critical time for learning and development. It is about making the world open up for children.”
The work in Omaha is drawing interest from education leaders and philanthropists across the nation. “Transforming the Early Education Workforce: A Multimedia Guidebook,” released nationally by New America in December 2017, includes a 6-minute video highlighting the Superintendents’ Plan. The Superintendents’ Plan is also included in a February article in Phi Delta Kappan, and Institute staff and local education leaders have been invited to present at several national conferences.
The evaluation study was conducted jointly by the Buffett Institute, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Center for Research on Children, Youth, Families, and Schools, and the Interdisciplinary Center for Program Evaluation of the Munroe-Meyer Institute at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Research in the report was supported by the Learning Community Coordinating Council, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, The Lozier Foundation, and the Weitz Family Foundation.