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Report Calls on Principals to Put Greater Focus on Pre-K-3 Years

Nashville, Tenn.

Recognizing the importance of learning in the early-childhood years, the National Association of Elementary School Principals gave its members a sneak peek at a forthcoming report that calls for more training and professional development for elementary school principals to address their students' needs before they even enter kindergarten.

The report calls on elementary principals themselves to start to adjust their focus and mission to include prekindergarten even if those classes and services may not be located in the buildings they run.

The executive summary of the report, "Leading Pre-K-3 Learning Communities: Competencies for Effective Principal Practice," was unveiled at the group's annual conference here, where pre-K-3 and early-childhood education are among this year's hot topics.

The report is based on research, policy briefs, analyses, toolkits. and other resources looking at early-childhood education, and is an update to the NAESP's 2005 "Leading Early-Childhood Learning Communities: What Principals Should Know and Be Able to Do."

It is expected to be a guide to assist principals by demonstrating the specific areas that require focus, highlighting the competencies elementary school principals should demonstrate, and providing examples of school districts where principals are already putting those ideas into practice by taking steps to align pre-K and elementary school instruction.

The guide will serve as a "new vision" for school leadership and practice around the education of young children, a reflection of the latest research on children's development and the importance of early-childhood education, said Mark J. White, the NAESP president and the co-chairman of the committee that worked on the standards.

 "The vision calls for renewed focus on effective practices for instructional leaders related to early learning and the academic, social, emotional, and physical development of young children from age 3 to grade 3," he told a group of educators in unveiling part of the report.

The new approach focusing on early-childhood learning, he said, "begins with an understanding of developing appropriate practices and how to align curriculum, plan activities, and support school and classroom functions with a child-centered focus. Pre-K-through-3 begins with high-quality preschool that's connected to full-day kindergarten."

Research shows that children who receive high-quality, early-childhood education are less likely to end up in the juvenile justice system and are more likely to graduate from high school, according to the report. And the group wants to make sure that whatever gains are made in prekindergarten are sustained through students' school lives.

Many elementary school principals, the group said in the executive summary, did not have the required professional development and practical training to deal with this learning period.

More than 60 percent of principals said they enrolled 3- and 4-year-olds, according to the report; but more than half also said they would like additional professional help.

While there has been a renewed focus on reforming secondary education, attention has lagged on the pre-K-3 front, according to the executive report, which also calls for more federal and state attention.

The report is intended to guide elementary school principals in bridging the gap between the two worlds, which operate separately from each other and often rely on different funding streams. It is also meant to smooth the transition for children, particularly now that many states are expanding  pre-K and kindergarten programs for children.

Though the report is aimed at principals, it is also meant to get policymakers thinking about pre-K-3 and to include elementary school principals in the discussion. The September rollout of the full report is expected to include briefings on Capitol Hill, said Kelly Pollitt, the associate executive director of policy and public affairs at the NAESP. 

Nancy Flatt Meador, a past president of the NAESP, who was a member of the committee that worked on the update, said that elementary school principals need to do a better job of reaching out to learning communities outside of their buildings that provide pre-K instruction— whether it is community, Head Start or religious groups— and work with them before children enter elementary school and principals needed to be vocal locally about the need for pre-K in their communities.

Elementary school principals also need to set the expectation in their schools, and review their school missions to ensure that age 3 to grade 3 is fundamental to the missions. 

 She also urged her colleagues to expand learning communities to include external and internal stakeholders.

 "Sometimes that may mean working with community and faith-based organizations that provide day care and early [childhood programs]," she said. "You need to get out of your building and network with them because ultimately we receive those kids in kindergarten. Ultimately, no matter what pre-K  or preschool experience they've had we will receive them... we've got to do a better job... of articulating the long-term value of early learning"  and the benefit of inclusive learning to all the stakeholders.​

The report proposed eight areas that needed policy attention to address the Pre-K-3 issue:

1. Provide universal access to high-quality, pre-K programs and full-day kindergarten;

2. Recognize the authority of principals serving children from the pre-K through the elementary years;

3. Adopt standards of practice for principals working in pre-K learning systems;

4. Invest in principal preparation programs that help principals enter the profession understanding how to create a seamless continuum of learning from pre-K on;

5. Allocate resources to provide opportunities to principals for job-embedded professional learning and growth

6. Provide job-embedded professional learning to teachers along the K-3 continuum;

7. Develop state technology plans that address the unique needs of students in pre-K-3 continuum; and

8. Provide support for principals and teachers to build parent understanding and capacity to participate in their children's learning from age 3 to grade 3.

And for principals, they suggest that they: 

1. Embrace the pre-K-3 early-learning continuum;

2. Ensure developmentally appropriate teaching;

3. Provide personalized learning environments;

4. Use multiple measures of assessment to guide student learning growth;

5. Build professional capacity across the learning community; and

6. Make the schools a hub of pre-K-3 learning for families and communities.

 For each of the competencies, the report includes evidence of practice and case studies of school districts that are making progress with implementation.  For example, for competency six (making schools a hub of pre-K-3 learning for families and communities), the report says that schools should create a culture of shared responsibility and a welcoming environment; provide meaningful transitions between preschool and elementary school; and develop out-of-school and summer learning opportunities for children from age 3 to grade 3. 

 The report offers Earl Boyles Elementary School in Portland, Ore., as an example of a school that is putting policy into practice.  The school's principal worked with a local university to find the gaps in services, identify parents' priorities, and develop short- and long-term plans to implement those policies. 

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