Metro Schools’ model prekindergarten program begins district-wide expansion
Development and expansion of new pre-K program continues with help from Vanderbilt research team
Starting this month, the high-quality, play-based curriculum guiding instruction in Metro Schools’ three Early Learning Centers is being expanded district-wide to 174 prekindergarten classrooms located in over 60 schools.
The latest research from Vanderbilt University on statewide prekindergarten offerings reiterates the need to provide consistent, high-quality curriculum and build upon the benefits of pre-K in early elementary grades. Metro Schools has proactively taken on that challenge and is building a high-quality pre-K program in Nashville that is unique in Tennessee and can help improve early learning practices district-, state- and nationwide.
The three Early Learning Centers that opened in the district last year are designed to be models for a brand new pre-K program based on research and the specific needs of young children. The expansion of Creative Curriculum – which offers a style of teaching based on structured play instead of large group instruction – is the first major step in a series of initiatives being funded by a federal pre-K grant that will improve the quality and consistency of pre-K instruction citywide. The grant gives the district $8 million in year one, with the possibility of another $25 million over the next three years.
The three primary goals of the federal pre-K grant are:
- Expand pre-K seats so more families have access
- Improve pre-K programming so it makes a longer lasting impact on student achievement
- Unify early childhood learning citywide – among public and private providers – so every child in Nashville can have a consistent experience and be prepared for elementary school
“Winning the grant was a game changer for early childhood education in Nashville, and we already had a big head start,” said Dana Eckman, director of Early Learning Innovation. “Thanks to a local investment from the Metro Council and the Mayor’s Office, Metro Schools was perfectly positioned to carry out an ambitious plan to rebuild pre-K. And thanks to a partnership with the team at Vanderbilt University, we have access to the very latest research to help shape what we’re doing in real-time.”
“We should all be proud of the investment we’ve made in high-quality prekindergarten and hopeful for the future of early childhood education in Nashville,” said Nashville Mayor Megan Barry. “As I’ve toured our early learning centers and spoken with our pre-K teachers, I have been incredibly impressed with their dedication and professionalism. Metro Schools is blazing a new path in pre-K that is building a foundation in learning that we can and should be building on in elementary school and beyond.”
In order to judge the effectiveness of this program as it develops, the Vanderbilt team is conducting a separate research project just about Nashville’s pre-K development. They are in the Early Learning Centers, speaking with teachers, observing and assessing students so the program can continue to evolve with the very latest and best expert feedback.
“We have been working in a collaborative partnership with the Metro Schools Early Learning Centers since they opened in 2014,” said Dale Farran, co-investigator of the Vanderbilt pre-K study. “Our goal is to assist them as they develop a vision for what an effective and positive pre-K experience should be. We provide real time extensive feedback to the teachers and coaches about the interactions and instructional quality of the classrooms. Teachers and coaches use those data to create goals for better practices. Our work from last year identified eight areas of practice that we showed were linked to higher gains for the children. Those eight areas are the focus for coaching and professional development this year. We are pleased that MNPS is taking its pre-K program so seriously and seeking to create a genuine evidence-based set of practices that will support the development of many young children.”
The new research from Vanderbilt on Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K Program shows that once students leave statewide pre-K classrooms, many of them begin to slip academically in later grades. By the time they reach third grade, many have fallen behind their peers who did not attend pre-K. To combat this elementary school slide on the local level, the district is putting a strong emphasis on early grade alignment, meaning that kindergarten, first, second and third grade will be built to support the instruction and style of learning students experienced in pre-K. Going further, there will be greater collaboration between pre-K and elementary grade teams, with teacher professional development designed to build a continuum pre-K through fourth grade.
“If we’re giving four year olds developmentally appropriate instruction in pre-K, we need to make sure we continue that practice as children move through the other early grades,” said Eckman. “That means we’ll be doing more experiential learning, arts, music, movement, foreign languages and outdoor learning in elementary schools.”
Watch as the early learning experts at Vanderbilt talk about the importance of high-quality pre-K and how to take it to scale.
To help this effort, former elementary principal Robin Cayce has been tapped to join district leadership as the executive director of professional development for grades pre-K through four. She is building education programs for elementary teachers that will spread these best practices throughout the district.
Along with Cayce, the support team for pre-K has grown with the addition of federal funding. The pre-K office will soon have its own dedicated staff of a dozen family involvement specialists who can build community and social supports for children and families. They will also work to get families engaged in their children’s learning early on to build good habits that can carry through in later grades.
“As Chief Financial Officer, I was proud to advocate for expanded and improved pre-K. As Interim Director, I’m proud to continue to build this program,” said Chris Henson. “It is one of the smartest high-yield investments we can make in the future of this district. With a brand new, high-quality pre-K program, our students will be prepared for anything they face leading up to and after graduation.”