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Elementary School Principals Called on to 'Straddle' Early Education, K-12

As public elementary schools across the country add prekindergarten to their offerings, a need exists to help principals better bridge the world of early-childhood education and traditional elementary school education, contends the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP). 

In that spirit, the association has released a guide to help principals "essentially straddle two entirely separate universes—birth to five, and K-12—each of which has had its own history and infrastructure," writes Executive Director Gail Connelly in the guide's Foreward.

The guide is potentially putting the cart before the horse. While states from Indiana to California have expanded their public preschool programs in the past few years, 10 states still have no public preschool programs at all. And many that have long offered some preschool services, like California, are still severely underfunded and don't serve all income-eligible children, let alone offer universal preschool programs. Until more states enact policies requiring school-based public preschool, it will be K-5 business as usual for most elementary school principals.

But NAESP leaders see no reason to wait. In fact, they're hoping their guide will help practitioners influence policy, rather than the other way around. If principals of public programs that include early-childhood education can prove it works, NAESP is betting, maybe policymakers will be inclined to write policy—and find funding—to support more such programs.

"We have a real opportunity to have practice inform policy," Connelly said. "This body of work is steeped in the latest works on addressing the academic, social, emotional well-being of every child."

Much of the advice to principals in the new guide emphasizes the importance of seeing the preschool-to-3-grade years as a continuum. Where there has traditionally been a big break between preschool and kindergarten, the guide encourages principals to consider "the essential need to sustain gains achieved in high-quality pre-K programs by connecting them with complementary and coordinated education in kindergarten and first, second and third grades."

The guide recommends engaging all teachers in joint professional development opportunities, engaging families of the youngest children early on, and using multiple measures (not just academic performance) to assess student learning, among other practices aimed at creating a smooth pathway from birth to 3rd grade. By taking on the work of bridging the two traditionally separate systems with research-based and practice-tested methods, principals can be leaders in the expansion of early-learning opportunities, according to NAESP leaders.

"Great principals know how to leverage the talent of the teaching staff and their influence within the larger community," Connelly said.

Denisa R. Superville contributed to this report.

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