Close to home, a model for early childhood education

A kindergarten class at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Dorchester— which serves as a model for community-based pre-K and K-1 learning in the city. Photo courtesy BGCD

Next week, as Mayor Martin Walsh steps to the mic to deliver his first-ever State of the City address, he’ll have a laundry list of policy initiatives to roll out. Watch for one of them to be a renewed push to get all four-year old Bostonians enrolled in a pre-kindergarten classroom — either in a Boston Public School or a “community-based organization.”

In 2013, while he was on the campaign trail, Walsh pledged that he would “work to double the number of seats available in these pre-school programs in four years.” Last May, in appointing a 27-member advisory committee to create an action plan to accomplish that mission, the mayor said: “Pre-kindergarten programs ensure that all students start kindergarten ready to learn. Rather than spend time on remediation in education, we are investing in our youngest students to lay the groundwork for their long-term success and the long-term prosperity of Boston.”

Today, about one-quarter of the city’s roughly 6,000 four-year-olds do not attend pre-kindergarten. The mayor has previously said that he wants universal pre-K for four year olds delivered by 2018. In his first budget, he proposed adding about 100 seats for K-1 classes in public schools. But that’s just one way to move the needle.

City schools have limited capacity — and to reach the mayor’s stated goal— he will have to lean on a “mixed-delivery system,” according to Rahn Dorsey, the mayor’s cabinet chief for education. “We have the national standard right now in our BPS K-1 program,” he added. “Our plan calls for that to be replicated in community based programs.”

One of the city’s most promising models for community-based early childhood learning is located just a few blocks from Walsh’s Savin Hill home. The Boys and Girls Clubs (BGCD) of Dorchester operate two kindergarten programs at their facilities on Dorchester Avenue. Since 2006, the club has partnered with the Boston Public Schools to synchronize their curricula and professional development for teachers. While the BGCD classes are not assigned through the BPS assignment lottery (which began its registration cycle this week), the program is highlighted as a viable option for parents on the BPS website.

In some ways, the BGCD kindergarten program is actually a better option than those in many BPS schools, especially for working parents who need a longer school day for their child. It offers 10 hours of care per day, rather than the six hours offered by most BPS programs. And, since the classes are held within the BGCD facility, the program is open 261 days a year, as opposed to the 180 days offered through the BPS system.

“That alleviates the need for care during the school vacations and summer and provides a seamless system of continuity of care for children,” explained Mary Kinsella, the vice president of early childhood education and care and school age programs for the Boys and Girls Club of Dorchester. Kinsella, who serves on the mayor’s universal pre-K advisory committee, has been working at BGCD for 26 years and is regarded as a pioneer in the early education field in the city.

"I have a group of amazing and dedicated educators who are committed to providing children with the highest quality program,” said Kinsella. “They have devoted themselves to providing children with a developmentally appropriate environment where they can learn, grow, and explore.”

Jane Tewksbury, executive director of the Thrive in 5 Boston program, has watched the progress of the BGCD kindergarten program closely. It is part of a three-year project called Boston K1DS — supported by Thrive in 5 Boston – that works closely with community-based pre-school programs and monitors their achievement and teacher development.

“One of the goals of Boston K1DS project is to be able to offer equivalently high quality curriculum to children as they would be getting in Boston Public School classrooms,” said Tewksbury. “The [BGCD] program is really an exemplar of that quality program.”

That is partly because Kinsella and BGCD began their collaborative work with the BPS system eight years ago. It is also because the facilities attached to the pre-school offer a full range of after-school and recreational opportunities, beginning with an infant day-care program that accepts babies as young as four months old.

“My goal is to establish better relationships with BPS. I feel like we can offer our support by sharing best practices and they can, too. What we have with the family engagement, we want them to carry that into the school they go to. There are real benefits to having relationships with so many of the kids we’ve had here since infancy.

“We don’t offer transportation and that’s deliberate because we believe in the importance of that daily face to face interaction. It’s important that we offer support beyond just the regular academic support,” said Kinsella.

Jason Sachs, who serves as director of the BPS Early Childhood department, said that the BGCD kindergarten program is a “model program” for what the Walsh administration would like to replicate elsewhere in the city. “It’s outstanding,” he said. “It’s really something for all of the other programs to aspire to be. It has resources and great consistent leadership. It is what a community based program ought to be.”

Sachs added that the BGCD program is also attractive because it enrolls a mix of income levels. “What we have found is that when you have mixed-income programs, kids learn a lot from one another. That leads to increased cultural competence as well.”

Kinsella said that there are “limited spots open for the spring” in the BGCD pre-K and K-1 programs. “One of the advantages,” she said, “is that it’s rolling enrollment, but people should call right away to get more information.”

Call the Boys and Girls Clubs of Dorchester at 617-288-7120 for more information. Or visit their website, bgcdorchester.org.

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