Overhauling an Early Education Program; How One District Reversed the Fortunes of Its Elementary Students by Creating a Full-Day Preschool and Kindergarten Program. (Early Education)(Cover Story)

Article excerpt

When Michael J. Frechette started his job as superintendent of the economically disadvantaged Norwich (Conn.) Public Schools more than four years ago, he yearned to revamp the elementary curriculum.

His vision wasn't about bringing in more tests or technology, it was about reaching young children before they ended up needing remediation and possibly falling through the cracks.

"I firmly believe that if we're going to have ... systemic change or school reform, the evidence is pretty clear where we should begin," Frechette says. "Hundreds of thousands of dollars are being spent on programs for kids ... and we find that they didn't make use of the programs" because by then it's too late.

Besides Frechette's initiative, there were two main pieces that allowed Norwich to revamp its early education program: a poor showing on a newly important state test and officials' ability to cobble together about $1.9 million from state and federal funds to pay for the new programs.

"We're a very poor city," says Frechette. One out of every six people in the district live below the poverty rate; in single-mother families with children under age 5, two out of every three people live below the poverty line.

To prevent reading difficulties, Frechette knew he had to bolster programs for the district's youngest children. The district transformed its half-day preschool and kindergarten programs to full days and added a comprehensive, structured early literacy program for preschoolers through grade 3.

"I drive around all the time ... and I see 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds hanging out with prostitutes and cocaine dealers. I think that it's safe to say that if these kids were in our quality preschool program versus sitting down on Franklin Street with drug dealers, I think it's a better environment. And of every dollar we spend we save $12 [on later programs]. This stuff really isn't rocket science."

New law helps push change

In 1998, a new Connecticut law required that every third grader should be reading at grade level, says Anita Rutlin, the district's curriculum director. Part of the reason for Norwich's poor results in this area was that--compared to other towns--so few of its children went to preschool.

So Frechette gathered research on the benefits of the program. According to the Carnegie Corp. study, preschools were successful in preventing or reversing the pattern of underachievement in children. And according to a 1993 Schweinhart & Weikart High scope study, these children had a significantly higher graduation rate. In the Perry-High Scope Project, 42 percent of participants in a long-term preschool program reported better paying jobs and fewer were on welfare and had criminal arrests.

Frechette turned to data analysis to help set up the new programs. He encouraged communication among the district's teachers and educators to change instruction for student improvement based On school data.

"We have data on every student in the district," he says. "There is no reason why any student should fail."

The sooner potential problems or learning disabilities are addressed, the better children are in the long run, says Gary Gelmini, principal at William Buckingham Elementary School.

"We know that in Connecticut, and increasingly throughout the country, what we're asking from first-graders and second-graders now is much different from what we were asking them 10 years ago," Gelmini says. "This is a game of degrees. You lessen the number of problems and lessen the degree and severity of the problem."

Overcoming opposition

At a one-day workshop in May 1999, administrators who reviewed benefits of quality early intervention programs were hooked. "Shift Happens" became the theme for the next step, Frechette says, describing the change that took place.

Administrators and Frechette proposed to parents and the community early intervention by switching half-day preschool and kindergarten programs to full-day. …