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Policies in focus: Building better early childhood systems and the importance of school leadership

On April 28-30, 2019, philanthropists, policymakers, educators, and community leaders joined together in Greensboro at the Proximity Hotel to learn about and discuss the work being done and the work to be done to orient North Carolina’s students, educators, and leaders towards readiness and attainment. For the next two weeks, EducationNC will be sharing content from Bridge.

During Bridge, participants heard from experts on early childhood and school leadership during policy breakout sessions. Mandy Ableidinger, policy and practice leader for the North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation, joined Rebecca Planchard, early childhood policy advisor at North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services, to discuss how collaboration is key to building better early childhood systems. Brenda Berg, president and CEO of BEST NC, spoke to the critical role school leaders play in student achievement. 

Cross-sector collaboration

“Our early childhood work across North Carolina is very cross-sector,” said Rebecca Planchard, the Department of Health and Human Services’ senior early childhood policy advisor, in opening the policy breakout session focused on early childhood education and development. Planchard said DHHS’s recent statewide Early Childhood Action Plan, for example, built upon the last three years of work from the North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation (NCECF).

“It was almost like we started toward the finish line of a long race and didn’t have to start a plan from scratch,” Planchard said. Mandy Ableidinger, NCECF’s policy and practice leader, explained that the Pathways to Grade-Level Reading, or those three years of work Planchard mentioned, brought together hundreds of partners from state agencies to local communities, from health to business, from urban to rural areas, from both sides of the aisle. This collective decided on shared measures that matter in increasing third-grade reading proficiency. 

“Those first eight years are the most rapid period of development in human life. We know that’s when all those brain synapses are forming, and it really lays the foundation for everything that comes after,” Ableidinger said. “… Those kids who aren’t reading at grade-level by third grade are four times more likely to drop out of school than their counterparts who are reading on grade level by third grade.”

The measures that group came up with fall into three main categories, Ableidinger said: “It’s focusing on health and development of children from birth or prenatal on, supporting families and communities so they can then be supportive of their children, and ensuring high-quality birth to eight early learning environments.”

“Collaboration is really the heart of Pathways,” Ableidinger said. After identifying shared measures, the Pathways group chose where to focus first and what to do. Its action framework was released earlier this year.

Ableidinger said racial equity has been a focus of the group from the beginning and has become even more embedded into their framework. 

“If you look at the data and you look at the research, we’re wasting our time if we’re not ensuring that all of our children and families have the supports that they need, and our current systems don’t do that,” she said.

Planchard shared the outline of the state’s early childhood plan, which similarly focuses on three areas: heatlhy, safe and nurtured, and learning and ready to succeed. The plan was at first just departmental and then expanded into a statewide framework in response to an executive order by Gov. Roy Cooper. Its main vision is this: “All NC Children will get a healthy start and develop to their full potential in safe and nurturing families, schools and communities.”

“It has a structure that’s easy to follow, it’s data-informed, and it’s full of great ideas on ways to start taking action for kids across our state,” Planchard said. The plan has ten goals, each with commitments and data measures to track progress on the goal. Read more about the action plan here

DHHS and NCECF are partnering to lead work on data collection, analysis, and reporting in the early childhood space. They are forming a Data Advisory Council which will have two subgroups, one working on how to measure social-emotional health on a population level and the other developing metrics to look at children’s developmental levels at kindergarten entry. 

“We need to improve the data we’re collecting across the state, how we’re using it, how we’re analyzing it,” Ableidinger said. 

School leadership matters

Brenda Berg speaks with attendees ahead of her presentation. Yasmin Bendaas/EducationNC

Brenda Berg, president and CEO of BEST NC (which stands for Business for Educational Success and Transformation), focused on the importance of school leadership, especially the role of principal leadership. She said that the greatest factor of why teachers leave the profession is actually because of their school’s leader.

“We have to be thinking about how we can scale up that leadership if we’re going to scale up innovation,” she said. And while there are several efforts that include creating better outcomes in schools, including Pathways, myFutureNC, and Read to Achieve, Berg noted that Read to Achieve fell flat in 2019 evaluations.

When it comes to providing better outcomes and achievement for students, Berg said, “We can’t do any of these things if we’re not thinking about the people in the buildings.” One of her slides read, “The best schools invest in good people.”

Berg also said it was important to run education like a great organization runs, not only through hiring great employees, but also through supporting those employees.

“Most leaders get trained,” she said, referring to recruitment and support models for mentorship and leadership growth in business practices. She used the following video to expand on this point:

This is where advanced teaching roles come in. Currently in 12 districts, the initiative:

“Enables outstanding teachers across North Carolina to extend their reach to more students without leaving the classroom,

Recognizes teacher leaders with higher compensation,

Provides developing teachers with embedded, personalized professional development,

Allows principals to expand their leadership capabilities, and – most importantly –

Supports improved student outcomes.”

Through the advanced teaching roles model, Berg said there is increased recruitment and retention. Learn more in the video below:

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.

Yasmin Bendaas

Yasmin Bendaas is a Science writer.  A North Carolina native, she received her master’s degree in Science & Medical Journalism at UNC Chapel Hill, where she was a Park Fellow. She received her Bachelor of Arts in anthropology in 2013 from Wake Forest University, where she double-minored in journalism and Middle East and South Asia studies. As an undergraduate student, Bendaas gained insight into public health when she interned at the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, a statewide grantmaker focused on rural health, including access to primary care, diabetes, community-centered prevention, and mental health and substance abuse. 

As a journalist, Bendaas has been funded twice by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for fieldwork in Algeria — first to cover a disappearing indigenous tattoo tradition, and again to look at how climate change affects rural sheepherding practices.