Visit Highlights Success of Washington, D.C., Preschools

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Case studies in "hope and possibility" is how AFT president Randi Weingarten summed up the experience when she and Washington Teachers' Union president George Parker joined school officials on Nov. 19 for a tour of preschool classes serving some of Washington, D.C.'s toughest neighborhoods.

The delegation, which included District of Columbia Public Schools Deputy Chancellor Kaya Henderson and Director of Early Childhood Education Miriam Calderon, visited William B. Patterson Elementary School and Leckie Elementary School. Together, union leaders and administrators paid tribute to the good work under way for young learners in the nation's capital. And, in a school system that often makes headlines for stormy relations, AFT and DCPS officials both welcomed the opportunity to showcase the teamwork that has made early childhood education in D.C.'s public schools a bastion of progress and a national beacon when it comes to quality, scope and reach.

According to DCPS, of the 123 schools in the system, 85 have early childhood education programs. These programs include prekindergarten for 4-year-olds, Head Start and preschool for 3-year-olds. The WTU's Early Childhood Educators Network leads the professional development program for early childhood educators, working in partnership with the nonprofit advocacy group PreK for All DC, and the Early Childhood Leadership Institute based at the University of the District of Columbia, to provide high-quality training. And in 2008, the union launched classes for early childhood educators to study and share best practices.

These efforts are clearly paying dividends at Patterson and Leckie. The 3- and 4-year-olds often seemed too engaged in well-structured lessons, games and projects at activity stations to pay much mind to the officials and cameras crowding into their rooms during the tour. The children were generous, however, when it came to including the adults in their circle discussion of a story about pilgrims and Native Americans—and they not only let the adults help put finishing touches on art projects tied to the seasons of the year, but also allowed them to join in a spontaneous, a cappella rendition of "Let it snow."

Reading lesson at Patterson Elem School. Photo by Michael Campbell"As good as anything you'll find at Sidwell Friends," was the deputy chancellor's assessment of what she saw, comparing preschool programs serving one of the District's most disadvantaged neighborhoods to those housed in one of the city's elite private schools.

"The collaboration here is real—you can see it, you can feel it, you can touch it," said Weingarten. The mission now, she stressed, is not just to celebrate what's happening in these programs but to build on it. "It's all about how to grow what works—and these two great schools are all about what works."

"There is so much quality here, in the teaching and learning going on in these classes, and it shows up later" as students move to upper grades, said Parker. The WTU president said it was exciting and fitting to showcase District preschool classrooms on a week when 20,000 educators gathered in Washington, D.C., for the annual conference of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. [Mike Rose/video by Matthew Jones.]

November 20, 2009