Allegheny County Early Literacy Team
Before kids can succeed in school, they have to show up. But at some of Allegheny County’s 43 school districts, as few as 13% of kindergarten students were enrolled on the first day of school. That makes the often difficult transition to kindergarten even more challenging for both students and schools. Students aren’t ready to ride the bus or spend the day with their teachers. Even worse, they lose valuable learning time and establish a pattern that can lead to poor attendance throughout their academic careers. Schools are often caught without the teachers, class space or the resources they need.
The problem was compounded because none of the districts coordinate their start dates, parents with students entering school for the first time were often unaware of what school district they live in, and Pennsylvania only requires children to be registered for school by age 8.
In response, a partnership was formed between United Way of Allegheny County, The Heinz Endowments, Allegheny Intermediate Unit (AIU), Office of Child Development at the University of Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children (PAEYC). Dubbed ‘Hi5!’, this kindergarten transition initiative focuses on two objectives:
Engage all 43 public school districts in Allegheny County and provide best practices and support so that each district develops and implements their own kindergarten transition programs.
Build awareness around the importance of preparation and early registration for kindergarten through a county wide media campaign that reinforces the theme that when your child reaches 5 years of age, it’s time to register them for kindergarten.
Engaging Schools to Develop Kindergarten Transition Plans
Engagement of the schools has been greatly enhanced by the partnership with the Allegheny Intermediate Unit. Superintendents are briefed on the importance of the kindergarten transition and invited to send teams to a spring Kindergarten Transition Conference. During the conference, teams from school districts spend the morning learning about current data on the importance of a successful transition to kindergarten and best practices related to implementing the plan. During the afternoon session, the teams work to develop or enhance plans for their own districts. Following the conference, staff from the AIU provide ongoing support as the districts begin to implement their plans.
Throughout the year, surveys are conducted with participating schools to monitor what schools are doing and what is working, demonstrating enhanced strategies and approaches that promote on-time kindergarten registration.
During the initial year, a cohort of 11 schools with low on-time registration rates were recruited to participate in the program. Since then, 21 additional schools have joined the effort.
Many parents identified that they were not aware that they needed to register their children for kindergarten or how to do it. In response, Hi 5! launched an awareness campaign timed to correlate with the Month of the Young Child (April) and corresponding events in the community. The campaign has included billboards, bus shelter placards, signs on public transportation, print advertisements, and press stories covering the county.
The awareness effort also partnered with the Allegheny County Department of Human Services to send Hi 5! postcards to the homes of 5 year-olds throughout the county. This past year’s mailing reached more than 25,000 homes.
In addition, hard copies of customizable posters, handouts and stickers are distributed to school districts and youth serving agencies though-out the county. Electronic versions of the materials and website buttons are also provided to schools so that they can provide a direct link from the school’s homepage to information about the school’s kindergarten registration and transition activities.
The Hi5! project has also been able to utilize United Way’s 2-1-1 system to provide a centralized call-in location that provides detailed kindergarten registration information (e.g. time, location and additional details) for districts across the County.
Collaboration Model & Partner Roles
The Hi 5! project has been a success because of the collaboration of key partners. Within the project, each partner plays a specific role:
Allegheny Intermediate Unit - AIU is the County’s key convener of school districts and coordinates school district engagement, the spring Kindergarten Transition Conference, and follow-up surveys and support. In addition, the AIU provides a bridge to the county’s Head Start programs.
Office of Child Development - The Office of Child Development provides expertise related to the design of the program and input on the design of the surveys, as well as support for schools’ development of transition plans.
Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children - PAEYC provides expertise related to early child development and access to preschool providers across Allegheny County. As the leading conveyor of professional development related to early child development across the region, PAEYC also reinforces the importance of kindergarten readiness.
United Way of Allegheny County - United Way of Allegheny County provides funding to support the work of the staff of the AIU related to the Hi 5! project. United Way also coordinates and funds the development of supporting materials, as well as the annual awareness campaign.
Bringing together key stakeholders for systemic change
To date, the Hi5! has engaged 32 of the county’s 43 school districts, with 28 school districts adopting full kindergarten transition plans focused on early enrollment, school readiness and family engagement. We are hopeful that by all districts within Allegheny County will be engaged by the end of the 2013-14 school year.
Increasing the number of students registered before the first day of school
School Districts’ efforts to implement kindergarten transition plans have been effective in increasing the number of student registered by the first day of school. In one case, a school reported an astounding 800% increase, moving from 3 first day registered students to 24 registered students after just one year with a focused transition plan. Similarly, another school reported a 386% increase, with 54 students registered on the first day as compared to only 13 the previous year. Overall, 58% of districts reported an increase in on-time registration after only one year of participation.
Changing attitudes within the schools
While some school officials were skeptical of the kindergarten transition project at first, they rapidly changed their minds as they saw the difference that it made in their schools. As one principal said, “This has changed everything for us. We used to think about kindergarten registration – the number of kids we have signed up. Now we think about kindergarten transition – engaging parents early and creating a welcoming environment where kids show up on the first day, ready for school.”
Working to develop a common kindergarten assessment
Participating districts have also identified the need for a common kindergarten readiness assessment. A sub-committee of participating district leaders has developed an assessment tool in accordance with state standards and with input from the kindergarten and preschool teachers. The tool is being beta tested across several school districts this fall. After evaluation, it will be made available to the other school districts participating in the project. Plans include making the assessment available as a downloadable app.
Sharing best practices and increasing cooperation
Districts find coming together to share ideas and best practices, as well as learning about additional resources available to support transition activities, to be extremely helpful. 100% of partner districts recognize the value of a positive transition, with districts implementing activities year-round to adequately prepare children and their families for this exciting next step in their educational journey.
Rallying the community
A child’s transition into kindergarten sets the tone for her educational experience for many years to come. Every kindergarten student should walk into the classroom feeling excited, ready to learn, and supported by the school, their parents, and their community. This past year, United Way volunteers cheered on kindergartners and families on their first day of school at eight Pittsburgh Public Schools.
The adoption of a common kindergarten registration month would streamline efforts significantly. Yet this goal has been nearly impossible to reach. Locally, schools use their own registration forms, schedules and procedures. While schools readily accept the materials and support, and value the awareness campaign, it appears that it is much easier for them to enact a new transition program than it is to change existing procedures. Despite this challenge, Hi 5! will continue to push for the adoption of a common kindergarten registration month throughout the schools of Allegheny County. Ultimately, however, it appears that a higher authority may need to exercise its influence to bring continuity to the kindergartner registration process.
Building on the Successful Model – ‘Be There’
Building on Hi5!’s successful model, United Way of Allegheny County has joining with numerous community partners to launch ‘Be There’, an new county-wide initiative celebrating the importance of school attendance. Be There includes a partnership with Allegheny County Department of Human Services which provides data sharing across a cohort of 14 districts, as well as partnerships with out-of-school time providers and community organizations to help reinforce the importance of attendance.