Funded by a five-year, $2.5 million grant from the Mebane Foundation, DavieLEADS (Literacy Empowers All in Davie to Succeed) is an early learning and literacy initiative with two major goals. The first is to increase kindergarten readiness to 90% by reaching and fostering the development of children at an early age (birth to kindergarten) through consistent curriculum, instruction, and experiences in preschool programs. The second goal is to increase the percentage of students reading proficiently by the end of third grade to 80% by building capacity in staff, strengthening instructional strategies, and updating materials aligned with K-3 state standards.
Davie County Schools measures kindergarten readiness with the Developmental Indicators for the Assessment of Learning-Fourth Edition (DIAL-4), an individually administered, nationally-normed, developmentally appropriate screening tool designed to identify young children who are at-risk and need help with academic skills. The DIAL-4 tests a child’s motor skills (skipping, jumping, cutting, writing), conceptual skills (knowledge of colors, counting), and language skills (knowledge of letters and words, and ability to solve problems). The skills measured by the DIAL-4 are proven to help predict a child’s readiness and future success in the classroom.
DIAL screening is completed as part of the kindergarten registration process, which begins in the spring prior to enrollment. The table below shows a comparison of DIAL data from 2016-17, 2017-18, and 2018-19. While reaching and assessing more students each year (1% more in 2018-19, but 9% more since initial implementation), there has also been an increase in the percentage demonstrating readiness for kindergarten. There was a 6% increase in kindergarten readiness in the second year of DavieLEADS implementation, which represents an overall increase of 15% in readiness since the initiative began.
“Continuing to see growth as our efforts increase to support and provide resources from the public schools speak volumes to our collaboration with the private providers in early education and interventions,” said Peggy Nuckolls, director of preschool services for Davie County. “We would not see this type of climb without this grant from the Mebane Foundation, which allows the early childhood community to teach the same curriculum and use the same assessments that guide our practices daily.”
Nuckolls and Stephanie Nelson, preschool collaborative teacher for Davie County, shared the strategies they believe account for this growth.
First and foremost has been the sharing of a county-wide common language about what kindergarten readiness means.
“What we mean by common language about kindergarten readiness is that all of the people supporting preschool students have a common understanding of precisely what skills students need instruction on in preschool to help them have a successful introduction to kindergarten,” said Nelson. “Having a common kindergarten readiness language based on the NC Foundations for Early Learning and Development helps keep the focus on developmental facts rather than feeling like anyone’s personal knowledge of young children is being challenged.”
Another strategy through DavieLEADS has been to support more consistency in curriculum and instruction across all preschool programs — public school-based, private, and faith-based.
“Coordinating the curriculum between private and public preschools ensures the same high-quality instruction no matter the preschool setting,” said Nelson.
Letterland, a phonics-based program that teaches students how to read, write, and spell, has become one such program. Letterland is a well-established program for students from preschool to second grade with a carefully constructed curriculum for children at each grade level. The program has friendly “pictogram” characters based on different letters that live together in Letterland. Stories featuring the letter characters explain phonics to children in a way that’s more entertaining than your typical lesson and thus sticks in the minds of students.
From 2016-2018, the Mebane Foundation provided Letterland materials, software, and professional development for NC Pre-K to second-grade classrooms in Davie County. Faith-based programs received the materials, software, and training during the 2018-2019 school year.
Additionally, using Letterland across the board provides all of the preschool students with the same frame of reference and eases their transition into kindergarten because they are already familiar with the Letterland characters.
“Thanks to Mebane grant funds, we have also been able to provide Teaching Strategies GOLD as a unified tool to measure student progress in NC Pre-K preschool programs that did not have prior access,” said Nuckolls.
Teaching Strategies GOLD provides a continuum for student learning and is aligned with North Carolina’s early learning standards. GOLD is an ongoing observational system that allows preschool staff to assess students’ growth. This system also helps teachers increase the effectiveness of their lessons as they identify children’s developmental levels and describe their knowledge, skills, and behaviors.
The table below shows the six areas that are assessed and percentages of students meeting/exceeding growth expectations in public versus private preschools in years one and two of implementation. This provides yet another data source that can be studied in subsequent years of the DavieLEADS initiative.
As an additional assessment tool, Nuckolls and Nelson chose to pilot Cognitive ToyBox, a game-based assessment platform to measure school readiness. Their goal was to increase the reliability of student assessments across the county.
Cognitive ToyBox enables a direct assessment of early language, literacy, math, and social-emotional skills. Using a touchscreen device, students play one assessment game per week for an average of five minutes, and teachers have access to North Carolina standards-aligned reports that support them in planning for instruction and for supporting individual student needs.
“Through Cognitive ToyBox, we have an unprecedented level of individualized data across language and literacy, math, and social-emotional development that we can use to improve instruction and individualization on an ongoing basis,” said Nuckolls.
However, both Nuckolls and Nelson believe that intensive coaching and consistent support have produced the greatest impact on scores, and Nelson’s services have provided the secret sauce.
She was hired through grant funds to build relationships with the various child care programs in the county and to provide coaching services and support to the teachers as they learn to use the new curriculum and assessment tools provided by the grant.
“For teachers, knowing that someone is coming in on a consistent basis and caring about what you do makes a huge difference in how you plan and prepare,” said Nuckolls. “Without the support, the modeling, and the checking in to make sure the fidelity is there and continues, the resources mean nothing.”
“It’s hard for administrators to consistently provide coaching and support for new curriculum when they have so many business aspects to take care of in the running of a child care program. It is very important to have a collaborative teacher in the facility working weekly and monthly with those teachers answering questions and helping them fine-tune the use of resources throughout their classrooms in all aspects of their schedule,” said Nuckolls.
During year two, Nelson worked with 12 licensed and unlicensed pre-K childcare centers, including seven faith-based programs, one Head Start, and four private child care programs, and provided:
- 100 coaching visits with private NC pre-K programs that fostered consistent and aligned curriculum.
- 28 coaching visits for Letterland implementation and literacy awareness of state standards for 3- and 4-year-olds in faith-based programs to build common kindergarten readiness language across the community.
- 2 collaborative trainings with Smart Start (30 participants).
- 14 leadership trainings for licensed and non-licensed directors.
- 4 collaborative PLCs (professional learning communities) with public and private teachers to encourage professional dialogue and sharing of preschool information and to support teachers by creating a community of adult learners.
- 1 Cognitive Toy Box training and monthly support.
- 6 adult learning tours for preschool teachers and directors.
- 10 student and teacher field trips for all rising kindergarten children.
Nelson said her efforts have been well-received. “There has been great buy-in. Both the teachers and directors have been invested collaborators. They’ve wanted this support. When I work with teachers, I make sure my coaching is individualized to their needs and I use their strengths to support an area they want to improve upon,” she said.
Nelson has also provided teachers with training and support on how to nurture a student’s social-emotional education.
“We know that part of preparing children for kindergarten is helping them to improve their self-regulation, their attention to tasks, and their ability to participate in a group setting. All are key factors to their success in kindergarten,” she said.
“This year we are also focusing on supporting directors in becoming curriculum leaders so that they can maintain the momentum post-grant,” Nelson continued. “I’m meeting with them monthly and helping them learn how to access the new data, dig deeper into the data, and utilize that data to make a plan for supporting their teachers.”
“Our child care providers have always done a good job at meeting regulatory standards. We’ve focused on creating that common language of how we can meet child care regulations yet still add some structure and some meat to the curriculum so that students are ready for the structure that they’re going to be hit with in kindergarten.”
Adult learning tours for preschool teachers and directors to visit kindergarten classrooms and talk to kindergarten teachers have been eye-opening.
“Kindergarten expectations have changed so much in the past 5 to 10 years. I think one of the best things that have come out of the tours was for the preschool teachers to hear the kindergarten teachers say ‘you’re doing a great job. The children we get from your program are coming in and have a lot of the skills we need them to have,'” said Nelson.
“When you are teaching by yourself because your child care center only has one 4-year-old class you’re kind of working in a vacuum and hoping you’re making good choices, but you don’t have anybody to validate that or to make recommendations.”
To reinforce the teachers’ new-found confidence and to expand dialogue across the county, Nelson established a county-wide PLC group last May. This year, the group hit the ground running.
“We have invited any teacher anywhere in the community that teaches 3- or 4-year-olds to get involved because we want to encourage that professional conversation. So many of our classrooms in the county are blended, so including our three-year-old teachers facilitates talks about vertical alignment of curriculum,” she said.
“We’ve got faith-based and private child care and public school teachers involved and it’s been a great success so far with about 15 people attending each meeting. We’ve also created an online platform that any teacher can access where we’ve uploaded the PLC agenda, the PLC minutes, and any other information or helpful hints or ideas that teachers share with each other,” said Nelson.
“For example, one month we had a whole conversation about how to creatively engage students and group time activities to keep their bodies and brains moving. We had teachers share different songs and different activities that they like to do and so we uploaded samples of that to this platform. Even if you can’t attend, you can still go on to the platform and be connected,” said Nelson.
“Meetings are hosted by a different childcare center or teacher each month. That was an idea that the teachers came up with. This is teacher-led and they are in charge of it. They came up with the idea as a way to see what others are doing in their classrooms and why. It’s been exciting to see them take ownership of their professional development,” Nelson added.
Nuckolls and Nelson are pleased that the momentum is continuing to grow.
“I had two teachers from two totally different programs get together and do some planning and some ideas sharing on a teacher workday,” Nelson shared with a smile. “To me, that was a huge sign of success.”
Editor’s note: The Mebane Foundation supports the work of EducationNC.