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September 05, 2017

Early Childhood Education: An Equalizer in Our Society

I spent the morning of the first day of school at one of our schools in Washington, DC.  All types of families came in that day, including a young mother from a far away country, carrying her sleeping son and leading her young daughters to their classrooms.  Having just dropped off my own two young children at school, I could sympathize with her nervous tears and tight embraces as she said good-bye.  This family, of limited means, enrolled their children in a high-quality preschool because they believe in investing in their future. Just like their middle class counterparts, these girls will play in thematic centers, read stories, and participate in differentiated small groups to support their learning levels, all under the guidance of exceptional teachers.  And, what we know from the data and from our own stories, is that this preschool experience will be a key difference-maker in their lives, and will prepare them for success in Kindergarten, and beyond--potentially for generations to come.

Quite simply: High-quality early childhood education, where trained teachers implement a research-based instructional program, has the incredible power to be an equalizer in society.  If we are truly going to build a generation equipped with the tools to be successful in society and compete globally, we must start early and we must start with quality. We owe it to the American dream.

It’s not hard to imagine, but it is hard to do if we don’t prioritize quality from the beginning. The sounds and the sights of the first week of preschool were common across all ten AppleTree campuses.  There were ironed khaki pants and new shoes, tightly braided hair and clean faces, excited students and nervous parents, as well as excited parents and nervous students.  There were warm welcomes from teachers, high fives and hugs for returning students, and sniffles and tears mixed in with the pure joy that rings through with the giggles of three- and four-year-olds.

Beneath the familiar sights and sounds though is deep research and brain science. We now know so much more about how to educate children, especially children who are learning English for the first time or children who have been exposed to trauma.  At AppleTree we prioritize the necessary training for teachers in these areas through professional development, coaching, and professional learning communities, so that they are best equipped to educate all students.  Every part of the day is thoughtful and intentional - and it is that intentionality that is a defining attribute of program quality.  

I attended Kindergarten in a suburb of Hartford, and was largely prepared for success based on my time at a private preschool and the exposure to learning fostered by my family.  My parents read books with me, took me to the library, and taught me about social norms and expectations for getting along with others.  My experiences are advantages that not all children have, but represent preparation that every student deserves.  I choose to lead this challenging work of implementing quality early childhood programming in Washington, DC because it has the potential to change the lives of thousands of students each year.

At AppleTree, we believe that the best in education comes to fruition when an evidence-based instructional program is paired with experienced teachers who are supported by content experts and instructional leaders, and when families are engaged and empowered to be advocates for their children’s learning.  More than just believing, at AppleTree we know that high quality education for three- and four-year-olds is effective, because we have seen the results firsthand. 

In June, while reviewing the assessment results from the previous school year with our school leaders and teachers, I shared a graph illustrating how we had in fact begun to close the achievement gap for our students.  Suddenly, it wasn’t just a line on a graph - it was the lives of our students on the line; Kaden, Aleya, Malik, and others whose growth we had directly impacted.  Those trajectories represented a path for the young students, one that has the potential to take them someplace that their parents, just like mine, dreamed of for them when they had the chance to give their children a strong start.

I have seen firsthand the power of high-quality early childhood education and what it can do to transform students’ relationships with school and prepare them for success in Kindergarten and beyond -- and these powers are magnified when this quality of education is delivered to our most under-resourced students.  These powerful practices are implemented in pockets of our country where funding is robust, but imagine if such funding were more widespread, so that access to such quality wasn’t limited only to those with different means.   How might the trajectory of learning for all students be transformed for the better?

Anne Zummo Malone is the Chief of Schools for AppleTree Early Learning Public Charter School. As Chief of Schools, Anne supervises and provides leadership for the instructional and operational leaders both at campuses and at the central office. Anne’s focus on alignment in implementation across AppleTree’s campuses and programs ensures fidelity to the school’s mission of erasing the achievement gap.

Before coming to AppleTree, Anne was an elementary school teacher in Southington, Connecticut where she taught second and fourth grade for four years.  Anne has held various positions at AppleTree including Literacy Coach, founding Principal, and Manager of Academic Programs. Anne moved into her current position in 2013 to better support all school leaders and the overall operations of sites. She holds a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Penn State University and a master’s degree in policy, organization, and leadership in education from Stanford University.

AppleTree is an entrepreneurial nonprofit in Washington, DC whose mission is to erase the achievement gap for children before they enter Kindergarten.   Founded in 2005 as DC’s only charter with a sole focus on early childhood, AppleTree has grown from serving 36 students at one campus in 2005 to serving 1,125 students across ten campuses in 2016 while continuously improving child outcomes and having a positive impact on early childhood policy and practice.     AppleTree won a federal Investing in Innovation (i3) grant in 2010 for the comprehensive preschool instructional model, Every Child Ready, that we implement at AppleTree preschools. 

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