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Vista Unified's P-3 Continuum: Closing the Achievement Gap Before It Opens

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By Dr. Matt Doyle, Interim Superintendent, Vista Unified School District, Laura Kohn, Director, Center for Local Income Mobility (CLIMB) at San Diego Workforce Partnership and Gerri Burton, New Learning Ventures

In recent blog posts, we introduced the three brushstrokes that guide the transformation of the Vista Unified School District: Early Education, Personal Learning and Relevant to the World of Work. Our focus in this blog post is brushstroke #1: our work expanding early education supports through the design of a prenatal-to-grade-three pathway. We call this the P-3 Continuum.

The world of education is changing rapidly. Students, parents, and teachers have a much broader array of materials, tools, and activities to access as they work together to execute a meaningful personal learning (PL) pathway. As a result of creating more personalized learning pathways, student growth and achievement is no longer tethered to one-size-fits-all, teach-to-the-middle pedagogy.  

There remain a few key gatekeepers, however, that all students must pass in order to take full advantage of the expanded possibilities for their learning pathway. These gatekeepers are language, literacy, and numeracy. When students struggle with these fundamentals, their personal learning journey is slow and constrained. Across the U.S., low-income students of color are disproportionately trapped behind these gates.

For years, the K-12 world has fought to close this achievement gap. Much of the work related to the achievement gap concentrates in the upper grades when the gap is very pronounced ... and very, very stubborn. This backfill approach--remediation--almost always produces limited results and reminds us of the old adage "too little, too late." Remediation also tends to be extremely costly both in dollars and impact on student time during the instructional day. In Vista Unified, we have discovered over the years that late elementary, middle, and high school remediation ends up costing millions of dollars annually, with limited return on investment.  

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James Heckman, a Nobel Laureate economist, confirms our conclusion that late intervention simply does not produce much return on investment. Called the Heckman Equation, his research indicates that the best financial investment in children comes at the earliest ages possible. The local analysis shows that Vista's late investments are part of a larger system that misses the mark: public funding is lowest in the baby/toddler years.

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Armed with this insight, 18 months ago Vista Unified teamed up with community partners to plan a shift to front-loaded enrichment, prevention, and early intervention with two goals in mind: so that children can thrive in our new personal learning framework and so we can reduce our energy and spending on remediation. Through our Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP) process, parents, teachers, and community members are building the P-3 Continuum--a system to provide articulated family supports and early foundational language, literacy, and numeracy supports to children starting before they are born and continuing into the early elementary grades.  

Our P-3 work has followed a simple three-step approach: 1) Build community support, 2) Make a plan, 3) Implement the plan. Here are some details about our work to date:

  • Step 1: Build Community Support: Through participation in a regional P-3 community of practice, P3SD, district leaders (including school board members) and principals built their understanding of P-3 work around the nation. Articles, national-caliber speakers (such as Professor Heckman himself), and local partner learning sessions all influenced our thinking and sparked our passion. Two "Learning Journeys" to San Francisco and the Seattle area let us see P-3 work in progress. We are never done learning and continue to seek inspiration from around the nation.  

  • Step 2: Make a Plan: A district leadership group, including principals and teachers, devised our P-3 Framework. We used a tool developed by national experts Kristie Kauerz and Julia Coffman as a starting place, then heavily adapted it for the Vista context. The Framework sets clear aspirations for the district in eight areas: leadership, cross-sector engagement, instructional pedagogy, instructional tools, learning environments, data-driven improvement, engaged families, and access & pathways.

  • Step 3: Implement the Plan: Beginning last year with early efforts to build a smooth transition into Kindergarten, we shifted to action mode. This included plans to ramp up the smooth transition efforts, reach back into early years through a community partnership convened by the United Way, and launch an early elementary teacher PD cycle beginning with preschool, transitional kindergarten, and kindergarten teachers and expanding to subsequent grades over time. Our PD approach is modeled after similar work in Highline School District south of Seattle.  

Other action strands this year cover research and data efforts. The P-3 Continuum places equal emphasis on the development of social/emotional skills and academic skills. We have found that many of the students coming into kindergarten with an achievement gap lacked the socialization skills necessary to apply themselves academically. Additionally, a central focus of the continuum is to coordinate strategically with a variety of health and human community services that many students simply do not access until they start kindergarten. We call these wrap-around services because, if provided in a timely manner, they wrap around the student as their brain and body are forming. Sadly, almost all of these wrap-around services are available to students, but the parents either do not know about them or they do not take advantage of the services. While it seems simple, connecting parents and students to community services can be the missing link that can lead to closing the achievement gap before it opens.  

The P-3 Framework will serve as Vista Unified's north star, pointing all of us toward practices that we are confident will result in better academic and life outcomes for Vista's children. It is a map that leads to a destination, not the destination itself. Our destination is reached when all students graduate high school demonstrating the competencies identified in the Vista Unified Graduate Profile: Self-Efficacy, Collaboration, and Problem Solving. We are committed to changing outcomes for Vista's children through early education and care--in our schools, in our families, and in our community.  

 

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