• by José L. Rodríguez, M.A. • IDRA Newsletter • March 2005
Centers of excellence in schools are dynamic places. They are vibrant, active, engaging, interactive spaces where children are being elevated to excellence. At their core, they support students acquiring basic skills and competencies in all aspects of literacy, numeracy, science and technology. Teachers are pivotal to children’s success at managing and benefiting from their learning.
Through its project, Project Reading Early for Academic Development (READ), the Intercultural Development Research Association is working with Parent/Child, Inc., to establish a scientific foundation for policy and practice by creating centers of excellence that address diverse children’s needs.
This article gives an overview of the project and describes some strategies the teachers are using successfully.
Overview of the Project
Project READ is establishing “classrooms of excellence,” collectively forming a “center of excellence” that ensures reading, cognitive and emotional success for all preschool children through a print rich environment, with appropriate accommodations for children with disabilities. The new centers of excellence have 12 classrooms of excellence at the four participating Head Start centers.
The project is using a rigorous quantitative and qualitative plan to document approaches and strategies, assess their effectiveness, and inform replication opportunities. IDRA is using a multi-tiered comparison group design to make a number of comparisons between participating and non-participating centers’ students and teachers.
A classroom of excellence fosters a dynamic teacher, preschool, learner and parent relationship that nurtures appropriate cognitive, early language and early reading ability among other important learning outcomes (National Research Council, 2000). The learner is also nurtured to be emotionally and socially disciplined, psychologically grounded, and physically prepared to be actively, dynamically and joyfully engaged in learning in a way that moves him or her forward to literacy, academic competency, and upper grade level success.
The classrooms of excellence are dynamic and have, at their center, students who are acquiring basic skills and competencies in oral language development, phonological awareness, alphabet knowledge, and print awareness (Schickedanz, 1999).
The environment is rich with a spirit of acceptance and values diversity and cultural difference. It also resonates with the richness of language and print. Teachers encourage communication and language exploration through discussions in both Spanish and English as a basis for learning English. Provocative questions on materials, books, pictures, computer-based resources, and other forms of print are used as a basis for learning.
Children are encouraged through activities they undertake to talk to each other, speculate about the outcomes and inquiry, predict what might happen, and check their speculations against the actual outcomes of their reading.
In the library, they explore predictable and non-predictable books to increase their capacity to extract word meaning from the way words are displayed in relation to pictures in books. They examine book characteristics to determine meaning, they practice pronouncing and sounding out letters to create words, and when they do, they stretch their understanding because they learn that words mean something in the real world (Schickedanz, 1999).
These centers were already experiencing success in the education of students from diverse cultural backgrounds and are now transforming into centers of excellence that are used to train staff in the other 80 preschool centers in the San Antonio area.
Project READ did not go into the Head Start centers to remove anything, but rather to enhance and build on what was already in existence at the centers. The teachers seemed reluctant about the project in the beginning. After they were reassured that their existing curriculums would not be eliminated but rather enhanced, by adding more literacy tools and by the professional development training they would be receiving, they became more receptive to the project.
After a year, the teachers have demonstrated tremendous growth in the area of teaching vocabulary development, oral language development, and reading and writing. The training, along with the coaching and mentoring, has increased the teachers’ confidence and validated their own teaching. Project READ coaches have built on the teachers’ own knowledge of content and teaching methodology. Following are examples of the transformations we have seen.
Transforming Classroom Environments
Through the use of the Early Language and Literacy Classroom Observation toolkit, IDRA was able to assess the classroom environment and begin setting up the classrooms of excellence at each of the four PCI centers. The centers were well equipped with the materials that the children needed for learning to occur. But, for example, the ELLCO assessment revealed that each of the classrooms needed many more books of different varieties and the classroom libraries had to be reorganized so that the children would be attracted to them.
A special area in the room was designated as the library with soft toys, pillows and a new assorted collection of books. The classroom libraries had lacked books that reflect the students’ culture and language, so more multicultural books were added.
After a few days of setting up the classroom library, the children started to spend more time in the library center looking at books and reading to imaginary children or to dolls. Preschool children can learn to read in a way that is developmentally and culturally appropriate if they are presented with the necessary supports (Scott, 2003).
In addition, an independent writing center was much needed. In this writing center, children are encouraged to write letters to their parents and to other students. The activities that occur in the writing center are purposeful and allow the children to experiment with the writing process. Each of the areas in the classrooms has literacy materials available to the children, such as books, writing pads, pencils and markers.
Teacher Professional Development
While in the learning areas, the children are encouraged to write or draw about their activities. The teachers are receiving professional development training on how to interact with the children, how to promote meaningful conversations and how to encourage writing in the different learning areas.
The following is an example of this process. While in the housekeeping area at one school, the children usually played with the different props available. One day as the children were playing, the IDRA consultant asked the children for something to eat, modeling a strategy from the professional development the classroom teachers were getting. The children looked at the consultant in surprise and then looked at each other and laughed.
The consultant again asked for something to eat or drink. One child brought a cup of pretend coffee and offered it the consultant. The consultant pretended to drink it, commenting on how hot it was. The child explained that if you blow on it, the coffee will cool off and make it better for drinking.
The role-playing began a meaningful conversation that enabled the children to acquire language and also build vocabulary. The consultant then asked the children to take the note pad and the pencil and make a grocery list of items that they would need from the store. The consultant explained to the children that while they made the list, he would go over to the blocks area and see what the children there were constructing.
After a few minutes in the block area, another conversation was begun. The children went from playing with blocks to constructing a bridge for their toy trucks to cross. They drew pictures of their bridges before constructing them, and all the children were involved in the construction.
While this bridge-building activity was happening, the consultant went back to check on the children who were writing a grocery list. The children were excited about their list that included bananas, milk, cereal, and other products that they would use for dinner.
All of the role-playing is meaningful to the children. They can relate to the activities because many of the children have observed their parents constructing grocery lists or paying bills. Children develop literacy skills by using symbolic representation involved in the role-playing.
The teachers participating in Project READ have made changes in their classroom environments as well as in their teaching techniques. These changes have been measured by the ELLCO and student assessment data.
The teachers stated that they had never before used the assessment data to inform their teaching. When they were presented with the data, they were able to see the diverse cognitive levels their students brought to the classroom. By seeing the data and learning how to implement a scientifically-based research curriculum, teachers are better able to serve all of their children.
Coaching and Mentoring
Coaching and mentoring plays a very important role for the Project READ teachers. A coach/mentor assists the teachers with setting up classrooms of excellence and the delivery of the instruction. The coach visits with the teachers on a weekly basis and provides immediate feedback that will assist the teacher.
One teacher stated that, thanks to the coaching, she was able to arrange her classroom and enhance the environment for her children. The coach is assisting the teachers on how to manage whole group and small group instruction.
Before the project, the teacher was only conducting whole group instruction. Now, with the help of the coach, she has learned how to manage her classroom more efficiently. The teacher stated that her children are more settled and can stay engaged in a task for longer periods of time. The teachers are now able to work with smaller groups of children and can differentiate the instruction to meet the needs of their children.
Project READ is also working with the parents of the children who are enrolled in the Head Start centers. Parents are receiving training on how to read to their children at home and how to engage their children in more meaningful conversations. The families also are encouraged to build and maintain the family’s home language. Family participation is twice as predictive of academic learning as the family’s socio-economic status.
Parents who feel welcome in schools are a powerful resource that can better their children’s education. When schools and families work together, students succeed and communities are stronger (Montemayor, 2004).
When entering a center of excellence, one sees an interactive learning space where children are being supported to achieve reading competency with a teacher who guides and facilitates the process (Scott, 2004).
These classrooms of excellence are in progress. At the end of three years, the teachers will be certified educators who will continue to teach students as well as other Head Start teachers in Texas. The project will continue to coach the teachers as well as monitor student success.
Montemayor, A. “Excellent Bilingual Early Childhood Programs – A Parents Guide,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, May 2004).
National Reading Panel. Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and its Implications for Reading Instruction (Washington, D.C.: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, NIH, 2000).
Rodríguez, J. “Literature in Early Childhood,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, February 2003).
Schickedanz, J.A. Much More than the ABC’s – The Early Stages of Reading and Writing (Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1999).
Scott, B. “The Joy of Preschool Reading,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, March 2004).
José L. Rodríguez is an education associate in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be directed to him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[©2005, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the March 2005 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]