Weaving a Seamless Continuum of Learning
by Gail Connelly, Executive Director
, Vol. 33, No. 11, July 2010

I’ve spent nearly three decades of my professional life working with principals on behalf of young children, but my personal life caught up to my career just two years ago when my first grandchild was born. He is thriving in part because he has a strong support system: two loving and devoted parents, attentive and nurturing grandparents, and a host of other doting family members and friends. He’s also enrolled in an excellent early childhood learning center—an essential component of his support system. As a result, he will be ready to thrive in the 21st century. But far too many of his peers won’t be so fortunate because they don’t have access to quality early childhood learning.

The research is irrefutable: Children who begin formal schooling behind their peers are likely to stay behind and are more at risk of dropping out of school. An unsettling reality of our education system is that traditional “learning transitions” are often separated by seams that can unravel, leaving unsupported children teetering between preschool and elementary grades, between elementary and middle school, between the middle grades and high school, and between high school and college or career.

These children are vulnerable to academic failure because the gaps are too wide for them to bridge by themselves. Unfortunately, we know what happens to far too many of them. Up to 50 percent of children in some high schools drop out entirely. If we, as a community of educators, are serious about reducing that shocking statistic, we must provide the steady support children need when they’re toddlers, not when they’re teenagers and in trouble.

Establishing Partnerships

To achieve this important goal, elementary principals and early childhood educators can work together to weave a seamless continuum of learning so all children can learn—not just those who are lucky enough to be born with strong support systems. Early learning and elementary school partnerships must be at the heart of all school improvement equations. But clearly, principals must have more support, given the enormous responsibilities they shoulder and the growing complexities of the job ahead.

We’re calling on the federal government to help. We’re working with members of Congress to provide much-needed funding in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) to improve the knowledge of elementary principals in all areas related to early childhood development and learning, from preschool through grade 3.

Our proposal supports principals with professional development opportunities and mentoring programs so that they can create high-quality early learning environments, collaborate with community-based early childhood education providers and families, and strengthen transitions from pre-K settings to elementary schools. But we know there’s more to do.

We recently established a task force of early childhood researchers, field experts, specialists, and practitioners and charged the group with a central imperative: Identify, update, and clarify best practices to help all educators meet the developmental and learning needs of our youngest children and to influence the development of early learning policies that clearly call for the alignment of resources and structures to accomplish our goals. Their work will build on NAESP’s landmark publication, Leading Early Childhood Learning Communities, which provides a framework for what principals must know and be able to do to design, implement, and sustain the learning continuum from early childhood education through grade 3. Please watch for periodic updates about this important task force in the coming months.

A Shining Example

Elementary principals, in particular, are profoundly committed to making a difference for very young children who, potentially, begin formal schooling with one—sometime two—strikes against them. Here’s just one story I’ve heard recently from a principal who has made these children a focal point of her leadership:

Theresa Mattison is the principal of a pre-K-5 school in Detroit; her school is ranked one of Michigan’s Top Five Title 1 schools. Mattison expects all students to achieve to their highest potential, but she also pays very close attention to the factors that influence learning readiness. She knows that boys and girls and their families struggle with daunting circumstances they can’t control. That balancing act probably sounds very familiar to you.

And also, like many of you, she’s an optimistic realist. She sees her school as “a beacon of light” for her students and their families. One way her school shines is through her work with a host of local partners, including some early childhood centers, to make sure her boys and girls get basic needs met—whether those needs are physical, emotional, or social—so their bodies and their minds are ready to learn.

Mattison believes—as all of you do—that every boy and girl in America can and must learn to his or her highest potential. NAESP believes that elementary and middle-level principals have the leadership, commitment, and heart to be the “weavers” of the learning continuum so necessary for all children, especially when their academic success often hangs in the balance—at the very start of their learning journey.

Copyright © 2010. National Association of Elementary School Principals. No part of the articles in NAESP magazines, newsletters, or Web site may be reproduced in any medium without the permission of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. For more information, view NAESP’s reprint policy