Crisp County Pre-K Rocks

Engaging our children in meaningful, high-quality interactions and helping them understand and use words to increase vocabulary in the first few years of life is how they develop critical skills and take their first steps on the path to literacy and reading comprehension.

Monica Warren, director of early learning in Crisp County, understands this. She works with other local leaders as part of a comprehensive effort to promote third-grade reading proficiency by equipping educators with evidence-informed skills, knowledge, and resources to support young students.

Leveraging public and private funding, including a 2013 Striving Readers Grant and ongoing support from The Arthur M. Blank Foundation and The Annie E. Casey Foundation, Crisp County leaders launched a local grade-level reading campaign and are applying the Get Georgia Reading Campaign’s common agenda as a framework for action.

“My goal was to create a positive working environment where children feel safe, are learning, and are excited about coming to school,” said Warren. “I also wanted to provide staff with an environment where we are all learning together and everyone is excited about the changes taking place.”

Warren knew that to reach her goal she needed to focus on developing and strengthening the skills, processes, and resources for pre-K educators. When the Striving Readers grant concluded in 2017, Crisp County hired Salley Edwards, a trainer from the Atlanta Speech School’s Rollins Center for Language and Literacy. Edwards has been working with Warren to deliver professional development to early learning educators for the past three years.

The Rollins Center offers professional development to teachers of children from birth through age 8 to help ensure all children have a strong foundation in language, comprehension, and vocabulary. These supports are available through in-person training and for free through the Speech School’s online training portal, Read Right from the Start. The Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning awards continuing education credits for each of the courses offered on the Cox Campus.

As part of the Striving Readers program, Edwards worked with pre-K educators in Crisp County to help apply the skills covered in six Cox Campus courses:

  1. The Power of Language,
  2. Meaningful Conversations,
  3. Transforming Story Time,
  4. Building World Knowledge,
  5. Foundations of Learning to Read, and
  6. Sharing Ideas through Writing.

In the Transforming Story Time course, pre-K teachers learn to build their weekly lesson plans around a particular book. The teacher helps students connect events through cause and effect; explore and understand the characters thoughts, feelings, and emotions; explore new vocabulary with child-friendly definitions; and recount the story to show how much information and vocabulary has been retained.

“Now almost everything in our week is planned around that week’s book,” said Edwards. “Small groups, center time, even math—they all build on the vocabulary the children are learning that week.”

Crisp County teachers also use the TALK Strategy to enhance children’s vocabulary and comprehension:

      Tune in by observing what the child is doing,
      Ask open-ended questions,
      Lift language, and
      Keep conversations going.

The child’s interests and ideas drive the meaningful conversations promoted in this course, and include back-and-forth exchanges between the teacher and child. The teacher models the use of sophisticated vocabulary and complex sentences to build language, strengthen comprehension, and develop critical thinking skills—all of which help kids succeed as they begin reading on their own.

In the Sharing Ideas through Writing course, Crisp County educators learned how to incorporate emergent writing activities into their classroom activities to help non-readers begin to use writing to communicate thoughts, meanings, and ideas.

The Striving Readers grant enabled Crisp County to establish four model classrooms where educators in and beyond the county can develop new skills by seeing highly skilled teachers employ these research-based interventions. The Crisp County pre-K staff has developed detailed lesson plans and units that help teachers incorporate the Rollins Center strategies into classroom activities. Edwards was hired as part of the permanent team to strengthen the application of language-focused approaches in pre-K and then expand them into kindergarten classrooms.

“One child in pre-K improved by 20 points, but his score still places him at risk of falling behind,” Edwards explained. “By expanding into kindergarten, we can give him—and others like him—an extra dose of this approach.”

Crisp County leaders realized that, as vital as prepared and effective teachers are, it takes all four pillars of the Campaign’s common agenda to ensure that all children are on the path to reading proficiency by the end of third grade. Thanks to a $6,000 investment from the Blank and Casey foundations, and the infrastructure provided by the Crisp County Community Council—the local Family Connection Collaborative—Crisp County is now addressing the other three pillars as well.

Crisp County is using the developmental evaluation approach to build a strong team of organizational partners, work with those partners in developing an early childhood health and education strategy, and implement that strategy through a three-year work plan.

“We can’t wait to reach children when they’re 4 years old, because 65 percent of our pre-K students are coming to us without the vocabulary they need to succeed,” said Edwards. “So, we’re moving in the direction where we can reach them between birth and age 3—in addition to expanding into kindergarten.”

Crisp County has initiated learning events with the local medical community to begin discussions about the intersection of early childhood education and health, and to introduce collaborative efforts to educate parents. Plans are underway to begin training hospital staff using Talk With Me Baby to prepare them to act as Language Nutrition coaches in their interactions with new and expectant parents.

Community leaders also expect to engage child care centers and in-home care providers to ensure they are delivering abundant Language Nutrition to the children in their care and encouraging parents to shower their children with loving words throughout the day.

“Change is not easy,” said Warren. “It is really, really difficult. But, positive workplaces and organizations are better at change and more innovative, enabling people to spread their positive vibes. We created a community of learners where we all feel safe, are honest with each other, celebrate even the smallest of wins, and where we feel comfortable sharing frustrations as well as creative ideas that help keep us at the top of our game. Thanks to the hard work and dedication of this team of intentional and motivated teachers, I can say, without a doubt, Crisp County pre-K truly rocks.”