This article appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of the Erikson on Children newsletter, under the headline “Educators invited to rethink the 'elementary.'” More from this issue

On March 31, nearly 100 educators from across the state gathered at Erikson for “Exploring PreK–3rd Grade: A dialogue on educational reform,” a meeting that sponsors hope will be the first shot in a revolution in early education in Illinois.

“Our system of education is built on a separation between ‘school’—something that starts in kindergarten or first grade and goes through high school—and ‘preschool’,” says Chris Maxwell, director of the New Schools Project and conference organizer. “They are two different worlds. Preschool and elementary teachers don’t even speak the same language.

Girl and math manipulatives

“The PreK–3rd movement is a call to rethink both systems, to remove the barriers between them and to realize that we should be trying to establish a continuum of education in the early years.”

What is “PreK–3rd”?

What educators call “PreK–3rd” is not a particular system or model of early education per se but a unique approach to early education with four critical components. First among them is that continuum. “Essentially, the research shows that children can benefit in important ways from a planned, continuous sequence of full-day educational opportunities that begins at age 3,” says Jana Fleming, director of the Herr Research Center for Children and Social Policy, which cosponsored the conference.

The second component of PreK–3rd is quality, defined as practices and teaching that are informed by research-based knowledge about young children’s unique developmental needs and ways of learning. High-quality education requires that goals, standards, assessments, and teaching strategies be aligned within and across the PreK–3rd grade levels, a move that will entail significant cooperation and reform on both sides of the current preschool/school divide. Moreover, curricula and instructional practices must promote the development and learning of the “whole child,” a recognition that children’s emotional and social development are inseparable from their academic learning.

The third component of PreK–3rd is connection among families, schools, and communities as children transition across programs and grade levels. Families must have the opportunity to become more actively engaged with their children’s learning.

Finally PreK–3rd demands collaborative professional development and planning among educators within and across grade levels, backed by knowledgeable administrative leadership.

“At its core, this approach seeks to reduce educational inequities,” says Erikson president Samuel J. Meisels, who offered the conference’s welcoming remarks. “An aligned system of high-quality, developmentally oriented PreK–3rd education will yield benefits for all children and families, especially children whose backgrounds place them at increased risk of poor school outcomes, including children from low-income households, minorities, and English language learners.”

Exploring PreK–3rd from the national and local perspective

Speaking to an audience that included both teachers and administrators, Lisa Guernsey, director of the early education initiative of the New America Foundation, gave a “bird’s eye view” of PreK–3rd at the national and federal level in the morning. The afternoon session featured Arthur Reynolds, professor of child development at the University of Minnesota and director of the Chicago Longitudinal Study, who presented findings from his decades-long investigation into Chicago’s Child-Parent Centers. The centers were among the most successful early intervention programs in the nation and are widely considered a model of PreK–3rd education.

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The morning session was followed by a response from Heidi Goldberg, program director for early childhood and family economic success at the National League of Cities’ Institute for Youth, Education, and Families, and Elizabeth Najera, principal of the Chicago Public Schools’ Velma F. Thomas Early Childhood Center. Participants in the conference broke for Q&A and discussion following both sessions.

“Our purpose today was to begin a conversation,” said Maxwell at the conference closing, urging participants to take the days’ ideas back to their constituents. A second forum, in which participants will examine and discuss implementation of those ideas, is planned.