Ari Kiener was MinnCAN’s public affairs manager from 2013-2016.

“So, what is PreK-3rd grade alignment?”

When my MinnCAN colleagues and I first started working on the newly launched ‘Starting Strong: Pre-K through 3rd Grade Success Stories from Across Minnesota’ report, I got this question—a lot—from educators, friends and relatives alike.

And I got good at giving the neat answer: PreK-3rd grade alignment is the intentional planning and collaboration of educators working to use resources and coordinate curriculum across the pre-K to third grade continuum.

If people probed further, I’d add that PreK-3rd grade alignment is an increasingly popular focus area for educators and policymakers because research continues to prove that quality, aligned PreK-3rd grade instruction helps kids succeed in the later years. “Improving early learning programs for children birth through third grade is critical work,” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said. “It is simply one of the most cost-effective investments America can make in its future.”

But even as I explained the idea, I couldn’t help but feel that my answer was a little hollow. What did alignment really mean, for schools and teachers on the ground, and what did it look like in its very best form? I knew I had a lot to learn, and was grateful for the opportunity—made possible by The McKnight Foundation, funder of the ‘Starting Strong’ report and longtime advocate for PreK-3rd grade alignment—to visit pioneering alignment initiatives in Deer River, St. Paul, Winona, Brooklyn Center, Pelican Rapids and Proctor last spring.

So, did I walk away from our conversations with educators in these communities with one clear answer? Not in the way I thought I would. Because in every school, in every town, successful PreK-3rd grade alignment looks very different.

At King Elementary School in Deer River, alignment looks like teachers bringing successful intervention strategies from K-5th down to the school’s district pre-K. It looks like school leaders working with partners—like Indian Education, Community Education and the Minnesota Reading Corps—to host family nights, get more adults in the classroom and more, and teachers driving to Pine City to observe other schools’ data meetings.

At Community of Peace Academy in St. Paul, alignment looks like the adoption of a common literacy assessment tool for educators across the PreK-3rd grade continuum, and robust training for all teachers in how to use data to improve instruction. It looks like increased peer observations, shared language and strategies around literacy and, as one school administrator told us, teachers working smarter, not harder.

In Winona, alignment looks like outreach to home-based childcare providers, while at Viking Elementary School in Pelican Rapids, it looks like a renewed focus on parent engagement and cultural competency. In Proctor, it looks like new summer programs for the community’s youngest learners. And at Earle Brown Elementary School in Brooklyn Center, it looks like hiring licensed pre-K teachers, paying them similarly to their elementary colleagues and including them in professional development opportunities.

If there’s one thing I learned from the educators we met it’s that there’s no magic formula to launch successful PreK-3rd grade alignment. However, there is one magic ingredient: some combination of teachers, childcare providers, administrators, school board members and community partners must get together and draw a line in the sand, deciding that PreK-3rd grade alignment is so important, they must make it a priority for their students and families.

With the ‘Starting Strong’ report, we share stories and recommendations from six Minnesota communities that drew that line in the sand. We highlight these examples of PreK-3rd grade alignment not to offer a silver bullet, but instead, to spark conversations—in teacher lounges across the state and education committee hearings at the Capitol.

I hope you’ll read and share the report, celebrate the PreK-3rd grade educators leading this work in Minnesota and join us for a further discussion of ‘Starting Strong’ during a Twitter Town Hall on November 5 from 4-5 p.m. Follow @MinnCAN and @McKnightFdn to join the conversation about #StartingStrongMN.

This post originally appeared on the Young Education Professionals-Twin Cities blog.


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