Pottstown School District Superintendent Jeff Sparagana, Ed.D., advises at-risk communities eager for transformation to partner with their school district to support early education. “If you want to change a community, one way to do it is to make sure you’re engaging families and children prior to kindergarten,” he said. At the 2015 PASA-PSBA conference, Sparagana and other Pottstown officials highlighted an initiative that is successfully preparing preschool children for kindergarten in their urban, at-risk community.
“Early childhood education is the foundation,” said Mary Rieck, Pottstown School District’s PEAK program. “If we can get kids off to a good start, if we can teach parents how to work with their children, we’ll improve our community.”
The district serves the borough of Pottstown, Pa., which is located about 40 miles northwest of Philadelphia. It is a mid-sized urban district serving 3,200 students in a diverse area with a high rate of unemployment and low average income. “We’ve got a beautiful, wonderful, growing community,” said Ron Williams, a Pottstown board member. “All we’ve got to do is convince people in the community that we’re beautiful and growing.”
So leaders launched PEAK, or “Pottstown Early Action for Kindergarten,” by creating wide-ranging partnerships connecting the district, the community, local agencies, and private businesses. PEAK focuses on five key areas to help prepare students for kindergarten.
- Community Outreach. PEAK leaders had to start at the very beginning by first explaining why early education is so important to its community. They created a branded logo and hit the streets, attending community events and planning their own family-friendly activities to begin building community connections.
- Family Engagement. District leaders recognized that while they’re very experienced working directly with students, they lacked the skills to help entire families. They partnered with a local family center’s specialists who helped identify opportunities for providing services for families, increase their stability and quality of life, and create a variety of parent-child activities, all of which positively impact children.
- Quality Improvement. Before PEAK began its efforts, many of the teachers in the area’s childcare programs were high school graduates with little or no training in early childhood education, and the turnover rate among them was high. The partnership was able to hire a full-time pre-kindergarten coach to work directly with teachers to write lesson plans, improve classroom set-up, work on curriculum, and offer many opportunities for professional development and training.
- Health and Wellness. PEAK was able to secure a partnership that provides free hearing, vision and dental screenings for all 3- and 4-year-olds in the community, as well as nutrition classes for families. In addition, aggressive and severely disruptive behaviors in preschool classes were addressed head-on by working directly with mental health providers in the area. These efforts helped address many of the children’s core issues before kindergarten.
- Kindergarten Transition. PEAK partners work together to ease the transition into kindergarten by offering a variety of transition activities, including a summer introductory kindergarten program.
PEAK, which is funded through grants and the Pennsylvania Pre-K Counts program, is working. Since its inception, students who participate in the services not only show up for kindergarten more prepared, but they continue to perform at higher-than-average levels in subsequent grades.
The future may be even brighter. A new grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation is allowing PEAK leaders to reach out more effectively to the area’s Spanish-speaking community with the help of a full-time Spanish-speaking parent specialist.
Going forward, school officials also hope to connect more with the local African-American community to offer support and address needs. They want to dive more deeply into how they might mitigate the effects of trauma and other adverse childhood experiences. And they see a need to educate new parents on the importance of exposing infants and young children to as many vocabulary words as possible through frequent talking and singing.