In March 2012, Fresno County Office of Education and First 5 Fresno County convened a group of educators, funders, and advocates to discuss the possibility of working together on behalf of children in Fresno County. The reading by third grade planning group initially included: the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, Early Edge California, Fresno Regional Foundation, Fresno County Office of Education, a local elementary school principal, and First 5 Fresno County (the “Sponsoring Partners”).
Sponsoring Partner planning benefited significantly from confluence of two strategic planning efforts: First 5 Fresno County and The David and Lucile Packard Foundation. First 5 Fresno County (F5FC) was moving away from funding short-term direct service projects and instead investing in system change approaches with sustained impact. During this process, F5FC strategically “moved the goalpost” from measuring outcomes by age 5 to outcomes by 3rd grade to better engage schools and school districts. Concurrently, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation was engaged in strategic planning with focus on the birth through age eight continuum. Together, these two funders represent a significant source of early childhood funding and systems supports in Fresno County.
The Sponsoring Partners established the Birth-to-3rd Grade Challenge (the “Challenge”) with the goal of improving third grade reading proficiency rates. This planning built upon the momentum of the Grade Level Reading Campaign and localized the effort to include an approach and strategies paired to the needs and opportunities of Fresno County.
Because of the complexity of the effort, the Sponsoring Partners called upon VIVA Strategy and Communications (VIVA), to provide process design, facilitation, and strategic consultation, which moved their interests from concept to disciplined and focused action. VIVA was simultaneously facilitating the F5FC strategic planning process and proving strategic consultation to the Early Learning Challenge Race to the Top efforts lead by the Fresno County Office of Education. These two efforts were weaved into the Challenge design.
During numerous work sessions from March to December 2012, the Sponsoring Partners brought greater focus and detail to the effort and identified its long term goal: to significantly increase the percentage of students proficient in reading by the third grade.
Recognizing the significance and challenging nature of this goal, the Sponsoring Partners viewed the effort’s purpose was:
To demonstrate the efficacy of this new model for establishing a continuum of teaching and learning from birth through the third grade and integrated systems of support for families
To document the key factors, innovations, and other lessons learned in the planning process that inform improvement and refinement of the model, and its expansion within Fresno County and replication in other communities.
In May 2013, the Sponsoring Partners released a Request for Applications to competitively select five school districts that demonstrated a strong understanding of the relationship of early childhood development and learning to the third grade, compelling interest to participate, and capacity. Each District will be awarded a $10,000 grant to support their participation during the 2013-14 school year and selected up to two schools as district pilot sites.
The Birth-to-3rd Grade Design
The Sponsoring Partners have designed the Birth-to-3rd Grade approach with three main components: 1) a Professional Learning Community; 2) individualized coaching and technical assistance, and 3) a Policy Cabinet.
1. Professional Learning Community
The core component of the model is the involvement of five school districts in a Professional Learning Community where they would: a) be given access to high level content, best practices, and subject-matter experts, and b) engage in professionally facilitated learning dialogues with their peers.
The Professional Learning Community has been designed as a seven-session series of workshops and complementary planning and learning activities starting in September 2013 and culminating in a “Capstone” event in April 2014. The objectives for these sessions include, but are not limited to:
Gain an enhanced understanding of the Birth-to-3rd Grade continuum
Understand and become skilled at best practices for using data to inform their planning and the identification of priorities and community partnerships
Become familiar with best practices in teaching, learning, and student supports, particularly targeted towards English Language Learners, and other populations with low reading proficiency rates
Become familiar with best practices and strategies for establishing a system of teaching/learning from Birth-through 3rd grade
Understand options for utilizing and blending funding streams and other resources
Each Challenge District will send teams consisting of the principals of their Challenge Schools and other district- and school-site staff responsible for early learning, curriculum and instruction, and community partnerships.
The Sponsoring Partners have attracted prominent content experts and thought leaders (in areas such as, early childhood, teaching and learning, school and community data, English Language Learners, and innovative funding strategies, et al.) to speak and provide rich and stimulating content that will inspire and inform the dialogue and planning of the participants.
At the end of the “design phase,” funding will be made available to the Challenge Districts on a cash match basis to support the implementation of the plans they develop commencing during the 2014-15 school year.
2. Individualized Coaching and Technical Assistance
Each district has been assigned a professional coach who will work closely with the District and Challenge Schools to reflect on the content of the Professional Learning Community and develop implementation plans for a birth-to-3rd grade continuum of learning and development tailored to their school community’s circumstances. The coaches are highly respected experts and practitioners in the early learning, education, and community initiative arenas and will provide individualized technical assistance to their assigned districts and schools. The coaches have been organized into a coordinated team that will meet regularly to debrief, plan, and share common resources appropriately among the Challenge Districts and Schools.
3. Policy Cabinet
The sponsoring partners have successfully recruited the participation of key countywide agencies and initiatives on a Policy Cabinet for the effort that will be charged with identifying and effecting policy- and systems-level strategies and solutions to support the Challenge District/Schools plans for establishing a coherent and seamless birth-to-third grade continuum of child development and learning.
Membership on the Policy Cabinet includes the Directors of the Fresno County Departments of Social Services, Public Health, and Public Housing; the Fresno County Community Action Agency; the Fresno Compact (STRIVE); and the five Challenge District Superintendents.
Evaluating the Effort
The Challenge will be documented with a multimedia approach. This includes video interviews with key participants, rigorous documentation of meetings, photography, and a diarist. The coaches will also be administering a newly developed “Reflection Tool” with the Challenge Schools that will establish a “baseline” on where they stand on school/community research-based factors and conditions related to third grade reading. Finally, the Sponsoring Partners are also identifying what key indicators to track that will mark intermediate outcomes (and progress) towards the third grade reading result.
Summary: Early Highlights
The Sponsoring Partners realize that having a significant impact on third grade reading proficiency rates is a long term enterprise that will take a concerted and focused effort over time. At this early stage, they can point to several highlights that offer promise for the future success of the effort. These include:
Engagement of the Sponsoring Partners: For over a year, the sponsoring partners have met regularly and lent their expertise, strategic thinking, time and resources towards creating a new model for “collectively impacting” third grade reading proficiency rates. Their meetings have been characterized by honest give-and-take dialogue where each partner’s idea has been improved by the reflection and input of the whole group.
Interest and Participation of the Districts and Schools: Although still in the initial stages of engaging the “Challenge Districts/Schools,” (the first Professional Learning Community is scheduled for September) it was apparent from the content of their responses to the Challenge RFA that they come to this effort with an understanding of the importance of early childhood development and learning to the third grade reading benchmark and a track record of policy and funding decisions in support of this agenda.
Engagement of Key Leaders on the Project’s “Policy Cabinet:” The sponsoring partners have successfully recruited the participation of key countywide agencies and initiatives on the Policy Cabinet for the effort that will be charged with identifying and effecting policy- and systems-level strategies and solutions to support the Challenge District/Schools plans for establishing a coherent and seamless birth-to-third grade continuum of child development and learning.
Ability to Attract High Level Coaches, Speakers and Content Experts: As the Sponsoring Partners began to recruit the high quality coaches, speakers and content experts who are crucial in providing the level of knowledge and expertise needed to support the Challenge Districts, they were greeted with great interest and enthusiasm for participating and recognizing that the project was innovative and held great promise for addressing a persistent challenge.
External Strategic Consultation And Facilitation: The strategic consultation and facilitation support provided by VIVA Strategy and Communications has been paramount in moving the interests of the sponsoring partners from concept to disciplined and focused action.
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