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Children’s Learning Institute Programs Bridge Early Childhood Literacy Gaps from Texas to Harlem

Written by University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston on 18 June 2010.

Laredo’s community leadersIt was a wake-up call. In 2002, a national newspaper listing of “All-American Cities” ranked Laredo, Texas, dead last in literacy.Not only was this revelation stunning, but to Laredo’s community leaders, the low literacy rate was unacceptable.

Laredo's State Sen. Judith Zaffirini met with community leaders to seek solutions, and as a result authored Senate Bill (S.B.) 76, which passed in 2003. The bill required early childhood programs in local communities to implement evidence-driven approaches toward achieving lasting school readiness outcomes for children. It created the Texas Early Education Model (TEEM), now known as the Texas School Ready! (TSR!) Project.

"Higher education begins with early childhood," Zaffirini said, "and I believe the TEEM model will ultimately decrease the number of high school drop-outs because children now begin school on a level playing field."

John Gasko, Ph.D., director of statewide initiatives for the Children’s Learning Institute at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth), said S.B. 76 has been a win-win for Texas. “It encouraged partnerships among private childcare programs, government Head Start programs and school district-based programs. Now, 7 years later, Laredo remains a major partner in these efforts along with more than 30 other communities across the state.”

Susan H. Landry, Ph.D., founder and director of CLI, applauded the ongoing success of the Texas School Ready! Project in Laredo. “The unique strength in the border areas is the community spirit,” she said, “and when we visit Laredo, it seems the entire community is aware of the program’s value. Many people - the mayor, the superintendent, the president of the bank – will stop and say, ‘We love the program. It’s changed our children’s ability to succeed.’”

Currently, Laredo boasts more than 360 TSR!-certified classrooms – among the highest in the state. As word of Laredo’s success with pre-schoolers spread, other Texas border towns began adopting the TSR! approach.

Early adopters saw it as important in preparing pre-schoolers for kindergarten and for success throughout their K-12 experience, said Mary Capello, chief executive officer of Teaching and Mentoring Communities, the original lead agent for Laredo's program. “By having the same tools, approaches and the same level of professional development and mentoring for the teachers, every child in the community has access to a high-quality education.

“The overall strengths lie in the integration model, where partners share resources and work together," Capello continued. "This assures not only quality educational experiences but also potentially enhanced access to quality programs. If a school district doesn’t have the facilities to serve the need and a private daycare or Head Start has room but lacks crucial resources, the integration model eliminates barriers and extends the community’s capacity to serve children in high-quality ways. This saves dollars for all stakeholders and gives every child the opportunity to succeed.”

Patti Flores-Cantu, a technical assistance specialist for the Children’s Learning Institute who oversees TSR! projects from Brownsville to El Paso, said before TSR!, little professional development was available for pre-K teachers, and there were limited tools to monitor a child’s progress. “We knew there was a crisis but we had no data to determine whether children were ready for school. The children were entering kindergarten programs but no one knew if they were prepared. We did know that high-quality pre-K was a necessary foundation, so when TEEM came along, Brownsville became a pilot site.”

“From a parent’s standpoint, it’s about educating the family and raising expectations,” she continued, "so we educated parents about what a successful pre-K classroom looks like, what questions they should ask and what activities they should see.”

Brownsville's tracking of its TSR! Project graduates found more students going into Gifted and Talented programs, and there is also an increase in literacy scores in both Spanish and English.

“Before TEEM and TSR!, when these kids reached kindergarten, some couldn’t write or even read their names,” said Sandra Morales, assistant director of Migrant and Seasonal Head Start for Teaching and Mentoring Communities. “Kindergarten teachers called them ‘raw beginners.’

Capello said, "Now our children don’t want to go home, and they're so motivated to come to school in the morning. Their parents tell us, the minute they go into public kindergarten or first grade, teachers say, 'My goodness, your child is so advanced!'"

One TSR! Project teacher in Brownsville, Cindy Santos, said she now teaches her pre-K students what she once taught kindergartners. “The TSR! Project makes them extremely school ready,” she said.

“My first group of children is now finishing elementary school,” Santos continued. “They’re passing their TAKS, they’re A&B honor roll students and they have a big advantage. I let my parents know – your child is not here to play and take naps. We don’t have time for that. From Day 1, they get going – and I’m in awe.”

Gasko said, "What started in Laredo and 10 other communities in 2005 is now reaching more than 60,000 children in Texas, and it's also earning significant national attention."

More than 1,700 miles away from Laredo, for example, in New York City’s Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) – Children’s Learning Institute programs are making a difference.

"After hearing a group from Harvard present some of the latest research on brain development, we wanted to find ways to improve the lives of the children we serve and needed a partner to help us," said Shana Broadnax, senior manager for HCZ's early childhood programs.

"We canvassed institutes and universities across the country and we were repeatedly referred to Dr. Landry and CLI, so we called her and began the conversation," Broadnax said. "As a result, CLI provided Play and Learning Strategies (PALS) training to coaches who work with parents who graduate from Baby College. They trained HCZ teachers on facilitating observation using the Teacher Behavior Rating Scale, which was developed at CLI to measure the quality of teaching in pre-school, kindergarten and first grade. They also offered early literacy training for teachers and will provide training on an ongoing basis."

Broadnax said HCZ believes it is never too late to make a difference in the life of a child. "This training and information allows us to lift up our teachers and the quality of our services to families," she said.

The Harlem Children’s Zone strives for its students to have successes similar to those witnessed in TSR! Project classrooms along the Texas border. Maria Guardiola, Laredo ISD's Early Childhood dean, said kindergarten teachers are seeing a big difference in children who graduate from TSR! Project classrooms. "Some are already reading and they are all ready to succeed in school.”.

As for positive impact? "During Laredo's recent Day of the Child celebration, one company provided books in bags for each child," Guardiola recalled. "Unfortunately, they ran out of books for the last three classes and substituted pencils and other supplies in the bags.

"One child from a TSR! classroom came back and said, 'I didn't get a book.' The person distributing the bags pointed out, 'But we've given you pencils.'

"'I know,' the 4-year-old insisted, 'but I would rather have a book because I can learn from a book.'

Guardiola said the child made an impression. "A few weeks later, the book company went to that 4-year-old's school and presented every pre-K and kindergarten student with books. I think that incident says it all about the success of TEEM/TSR! Project in Laredo."

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