New England Mayors Help Each Other Address Early Education Goals

December 19, 2011

by Michael Karpman

Hartford, Conn., Mayor Pedro E. Segarra and Providence, R.I., Mayor Angel Taveras brought teams of senior municipal and school district staff to Boston last week for a regional convening of the Mayors' Institute on Children and Families, the fourth session of a permanent series sponsored by NLC's Institute for Youth, Education and Families. The mayors presented in-depth descriptions of a common challenge they are addressing in their communities: how to improve educational outcomes for children by ensuring they are reading at grade level by the end of third grade.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino welcomed his peers to Boston and discussed why he believes early literacy should be a top priority for all levels of government. "We're aiming our resources at the wrong place," said Menino at a December 13 opening session. "We need to focus on young families, intervening early when children are born. When kids get off to a good start, the later issues take care of themselves."

Mayors Segarra and Taveras presented detailed case statements of the specific problems related to early education that they are trying to solve, the local context shaping their efforts, and questions for Mayors' Institute session participants on how to achieve their goals. After each mayor presented his case statement, leading practitioners, city staff and academic experts from as nearby as Springfield, Mass., and as far away as Jacksonville, Fla., responded with practical suggestions during a set of interactive, problem-solving discussions.

Focus on Young Children

With new research showing that third-grade reading proficiency is a critical educational milestone and predictor of high school graduation rates, city and philanthropic leaders are supporting a national Campaign for Grade-Level Reading. NLC is a major campaign partner and will provide assistance to cities that apply for the National Civic League's 2012 All-America City Grade-Level Reading Award. More than 150 communities have expressed intent to apply.

However, raising reading proficiency levels and strengthening this critical segment of the educational pipeline will require a high-level, citywide commitment. In Hartford, Mayor Segarra has made that commitment by supporting a Blueprint for Young Children and a Kindergarten Readiness Initiative to align early education across pre-K and elementary school systems. Currently, there are weak connections between preschool providers and public school kindergarten teachers and administrators, and little alignment of standards and curricula.

Moreover, approximately one-quarter of young children in Hartford receive care in informal settings from family, friends and neighbors (FFN). While the city has worked with Social Solutions to develop the cutting-edge, cross-agency Efforts to Outcomes (ETO) data system, it is not yet connected to prekindergarten education providers, and no data exists on the kindergarten readiness of children in FFN care. Yet Hartford leaders are aware that the city's troubling achievement gap between disadvantaged students and their peers begins early in life.

In response, Mayor Segarra - who has the authority to appoint a majority of Hartford Public Schools Board of Education members - is supporting policies to facilitate smoother transitions to school, including a simpler kindergarten registration process; more active parent engagement; aligned curricula, assessments and professional development; and better information sharing between preschool and public school teachers. The city will also launch a pilot project to incorporate data from early childhood providers into its ETO data system.

Session participants shared input on how Hartford could strengthen partnerships and reach parents with high-need children. For instance, Boston representatives, including a senior advisor to Mayor Menino and Boston Public Schools Superintendent Carol Johnson, highlighted the city's Parent University, in which parent ambassadors assist families with kindergarten registration.

Engaging the Business Community

Like Hartford, Providence struggles with high child poverty rates. Eighty-four percent of the city's students are eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches. Mayor Taveras, who appoints the school board with approval from the city council, has made education a centerpiece of his agenda. He plans to leverage greater support from the business community for Providence's Community Solutions Action Plan, which will be submitted with the city's application for the All-America City Grade-Level Reading Award.

With the city in the midst of a "category five fiscal hurricane" that has led to closures of five schools and other major budget cuts, businesses could provide volunteers, donations, leadership training and technical assistance that would significantly boost schools' pursuit of student learning goals. The Mayor's Education Opportunity Working Group, a committee of the Mayor's Children and Youth Cabinet, seeks to establish a mechanism for more systematic business engagement in early education. For instance, the city hopes to pair every third-grade classroom with at least one external community partner focused on reading proficiency.

Mayors' Institute participants shared business engagement ideas from their communities. Linda Lanier, CEO of the Jacksonville Children's Commission, described the strong business community involvement in providing customer service training for school office staff and in the Jax Kids Mayor's Book Club. Boston leaders highlighted the ReadBoston literacy initiative, which works with corporations to provide trained volunteer tutors and funding for book drives. Rob Krupicka of Pew Charitable Trusts discussed his organization's resources on how to make the business case for early childhood investments.

Going forward, the ideas presented at the Mayors' Institute will help Providence and Hartford leaders refine their strategies for ensuring that more young children read at grade level. "As poverty and unemployment continue to climb, it is time to think outside the box and partner differently," said Mayor Segarra.

Details: To learn more about the Mayors' Institute on Children and Families, visit www.nlc.org/iyef or contact Julie Bosland at (202) 626-3144 or bosland@nlc.org. To learn more about the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, visit www.gradelevelreading.net or contact Tonja Rucker at (202) 626-3004 or rucker@nlc.org.