Early Grade Success Highlights

Our Priority: That Arizona and Florida children enter kindergarten prepared to succeed and read at grade level by the end of third grade.

Research shows that the ages between birth and eight are critical in laying the foundation for success in school and beyond. The social and emotional development that occurs in the brain during these years helps establish the foundation for future academic success as well as healthy patterns for lifelong learning.

Providing students with access to high-quality, early-learning environments — regardless of their race, income or geography — delivers many proven individual and societal benefits. Children exposed to high-quality, early-learning opportunities are more likely to read at grade level by the end of third grade, graduate from high school on time, earn higher household incomes and become productive adults. High-quality, early-learning opportunities also break the cycle of inequality and prepare children to make the most of their educational opportunities when they enter school.

The Foundation’s work in Early Grade Success reflects a focus on building and strengthening sustainable early childhood systems that contribute to quality early-learning environments for children; improving access to and the quality of early-childhood professional development for teachers, administrators and practitioners working with children; and bridging early-childhood and K-3 education systems to increase the successful transition of young children.

Empowering Local Communities, Building Early Childhood Systems

To further the goal of ensuring that more children read at grade level by the end of third grade, Helios is partnering with five communities in Arizona and Florida to address school readiness, summer- learning loss, chronic school absenteeism and other literacy and language challenges over a ten-year period.

Local community systems are being built so more children and families have access to high- quality services that lead to language learning and literacy development.

While the partnerships share similar goals, specific activities are developed by local community stakeholders to reflect the needs and characteristics of each community. The partners coordinate and share best practices to strengthen each local community system with the successes identified by others.

The Foundation invested over $2.3 million in the following five early learning partnerships in Arizona and Florida:

Tampa, Florida – In Tampa Bay, United Way Suncoast works directly with family child care and home providers in four neighborhoods in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties to create a network of support and professional development for those in the field. Community liaisons are embedded in each neighborhood to identify needs and connect practitioners with support services and resources. This initiative values the cultural diversity of each neighborhood and embeds skilled volunteers to work with families to increase children’s early language and literacy preparedness.

Flagstaff, Arizona – United Way of Northern Arizona is focusing its work in three high- poverty neighborhoods: Sunnyside, Southside and Greenlaw. This project, through the use of Family Literacy Coaches shares home activities to improve the family’s literacy development and connects them to community resources. In addition, the work within these three neighborhoods includes connecting the home-based and informal child care practitioners to community organizations, elementary teachers, and other programs that play a vital role to ensure children have the opportunity to come to school with literacy and language development skills that will enable them to be successful in the early grades.

Phoenix, Arizona – In Phoenix, Valley of the Sun United Way is leading an initiative focused in the Balsz and Riverside school districts. The project partners have conducted a community scan of available resources to assess the availability of community resources designed to help parents incorporate early language and literacy activities at home. Specifically selected early language and literacy professional development is provided to teachers and early childhood practitioners. In addition, this initiative is developing a coordinated and aligned plan for Pre-K to Kindergarten transitions.

Tucson, Arizona – United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona is working with selected school-based public preschool programs to enhance classroom early language and literacy activities and instructional practices through the use of support coaching for early language and literacy development. This partnership is also creating opportunities for alignment and connection between the early education practitioners, other community literacy organizations and K-3 teachers.

Yuma, Arizona – United Way of Yuma County is focusing on the important role that families play in their child’s early learning experiences. Through family engagement programs such as Raising a Reader and Abriendo Puertas as well as summer reading interventions in under resourced neighborhoods, the project will work with parents to provide opportunities for the children to receive interventions and other strategies for them to be successful in the early grades. The program will serve children who may not have had access to activities that prepare them for school entry, those living in poverty, and those who have had limited exposure to books and other literacy resources.

Helios has intentionally created opportunities for the five sites to work independently to address their community needs as well as work collaboratively to share best practices and leverage resources. This approach has enabled the communities to learn from the work of each other and to provide programs that have positively impacted literacy and language development in other sites and to work together to create a system of alignment and coordination in providing educational programs and services for children birth to age eight.

Navigating the Labyrinth

To develop best practices and identify effective strategies for building early-learning systems, Helios commissioned an evaluation of some of its early-learning investments in select Florida communities. The question to be answered was, “Are these communities able to collaborate and develop effective, measurable strategies that are strengthening the local early childhood system?”

The following activities occurred as part of the evaluation:

  • Teacher and administrator surveys
  • Teacher pre- and post-assessments
  • Teacher and coach focus groups
  • Interim reports
  • Review of materials
  • Bi-weekly meetings, and
  • Site visits

Through this evaluation process, many on-the-ground challenges grantees face rose to the surface, including limited project management capacity, challenges implementing professional-development strategies, staff turnover and missed opportunities for local collaboration.

The evaluation also yielded encouraging results such as the quality of communication between partners, increased engagement of local stakeholders and the ability for grantees to participate as thought leaders in the initiatives.

The evaluation revealed one challenging issue and that was the labyrinth of unaligned early childhood education assessment tools being used in the field. These tools are often designed for specific purposes but the resulting data is not shared to improve or inform teaching practices.

The work also highlights the challenges posed by a labyrinth of unaligned early childhood education assessment tools being used in the field. These tools are often designed for specific purposes but the opportunity to use resulting data to improve or inform teaching practices is often missed.

In response, the Foundation, the University of South Florida and the Early Learning Coalition of Hillsborough County hosted an early childhood assessment convening in Tampa, Florida, bringing together locally- and nationally-recognized experts and practitioners who looked closely at the availability, appropriateness, limitations, alignment and future direction of early childhood assessments, particularly as they relate to use in program evaluations and statewide school-readiness policy and practice.

The convening created a broader opportunity for new research to inform the field by exploring the use of assessment instruments, identifying ways to redesign professional development to address the inherent challenges in the field and exploring capacity-building opportunities within the field.

The Foundation will continue to work collaboratively with its partners and local, state and national experts to incubate these concepts and identify ways to build better and inform effective early childhood education systems.

Improving Literacy and Language Skills

Literacy Connects is improving the literacy and language skills of infants, children, adults and families in neighborhoods around schools in the Sunnyside Unified School District in Tucson, Arizona. The organization is the largest, nonprofit literacy provider in Arizona, and it promotes literacy through educational opportunities from birth through adulthood.

Helios invested $487,000 into the initiative to increase families’ literacy levels and educational expectations.

The program is designed to improve reading skills and scores among students at targeted elementary schools, encouraging greater involvement of parents in their children’s and their own education, and developing closer links between the schools and community organizations that provide birth-through-adult educational programming.

The Literacy Connects Infusion Project model, which was piloted in August 2013 at Mission Manor Elementary School, provides research-based literacy programming for children birth through age eight in the surrounding community. The project addresses kindergarten readiness, reading at grade level by third grade, English language reading and writing, one-on-one literacy support and opportunities for learning through creative expression and arts integration, such as painting, drawing, dance and drama.

Literacy Connects and project partners, including United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona, Pima Community College Adult Education, Sunnyside Parents as Teachers, and Pima County Public Libraries, are working collectively to do the following:

  • Support area early childhood centers with professional development, including student advocacy, and help families successfully transition between early childhood programs and kindergarten
  • Offer tutoring and educational workshops to help adults build skills in basic literacy, English-language reading and writing and college-and career-readiness
  • Offer elementary school children reading coaches, opportunities for creative expression and whole-family learning events and
  • Support teachers with programs and professional development

Literacy Connects is creating a literacy movement in the communities it serves, allowing more children in Southern Arizona to develop the language and literacy skills they need to read at grade level by the end of third grade.