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How to build a bridge from pre-kindergarten to third grade

SFUSD Superintendent Richard Carranza with students.

The month of June marked transitions for many of our students, but few more so than the very youngest. This month, thousands of 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds completed their first years of formal education in San Francisco Unified. Research suggests they will be significantly better prepared to succeed in school because of their high-quality preschool experience.

What these children don’t know – and it should be invisible to them – is that they are on the leading edge of our district’s strategy to align pre-K–3rd grade instruction. Our goal with this approach is to shrink a stubborn achievement gap by aligning primary school teaching to a formerly separate pre-K system. If we are going to bridge the gap, we have to start earlier, and that early work must be connected and coherent with the work in the grades that follow.

Initial signs suggest the impacts of our shift to pre-K–3 will be felt by these children next year and beyond in a number of important ways – from their sense of comfort and self-confidence in the classroom, to their familiarity with books and other printed matter, to their early understanding of the concepts of quantity and relative size, to their negotiating skills on the playground. This year, the percentage of district pre-K graduates who were ready for kindergarten was 43 percent, up from 18 percent in the 2012–13 school year.

Recently New America, a nonprofit policy organization based in Washington, D.C. published a case study (“The Power of a Good Idea: How the San Francisco School District is Building a PreK-3rd Grade Bridge “) that tells the story of the hard work that went into this transformative shift. The study details the steps – and the commitment and patience – required to achieve this change in district systems, practice and culture, including:

  • Coordinating often-confusing federal, state and local funding streams;
  • Bringing pre-K programs under the authority of elementary school principals;
  • Collaborating with teachers and their union representatives on necessary scheduling and other adjustments;
  • Aligning curriculum and targeting professional development for teachers across the four grade levels;
  • Elevating early childhood administrative leadership to the superintendent’s cabinet level; and
  • Building data systems and kindergarten readiness measures from scratch.

Together, these measurements gave teachers, principals and administrators snapshots of how classrooms were performing, where students were and were not developing, and where to focus instruction.

The New America study reminds us why we committed to this work in the first place. We now know, from decades of long-term research in

the fields of education, health and economics, that early education is one of the smartest and most effective public investments we can make. Done well, it reduces the need for special education placements and grade retention, increases high school graduation rates and earnings in adulthood, and reduces crime and incarceration. These are important benefits to students and the communities where they live. These benefits represent savings to taxpayers, too.

We also had good evidence from other school districts nationally that have seen significant reductions in achievement gaps after implementation of well-conceived pre-K–3 alignment.

San Francisco Unified did not embark on this pre-K–3 transformation alone. We had essential implementation, funding and thought partners in First 5 San Francisco, the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund, the Miriam and Peter Haas Fund, Stanford University and others. But the investment of the district’s own resources, beginning during the height of California’s recession, was both paramount and carefully considered.

The payoff is evident at Drew Elementary, located in Bayview, which is one of the poorest neighborhoods in San Francisco. Pre-K–3 teachers there are collaborating and communicating regularly, with an especially strong partnership between the pre-K and kindergarten teachers. They engage in joint professional development and work closely to align their teaching. Kindergarten teachers tell us that, more than ever before, the students in their classrooms who had pre-K the prior year are ready to learn to read.

In many ways, the hard work has just begun. To gain a clear view of student achievement in pre-K and kindergarten, our educators needed multiple sources of data. Stanford researchers developed kindergarten readiness measurements that give teachers, principals and administrators snapshots of students’ literacy, math, social-emotional and other skills based on teacher observations. These measurements help guide where to focus instruction. We also continue to tailor professional development and cross-grade teacher collaboration to fit the new structure. We are learning as we go.

We know there are no easy answers to challenges in large urban school systems. But with support from our school board, teachers and community partners, SFUSD’s pre-K–3 strategy has charted a path to real and lasting change, and that is worth celebrating.


Richard Carranza is Superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District.

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