A Preschool Where Kids Get a Leg Up

Successful Curiosity Corner preschool curriculum drives results and confidence — so much that ESL kids use “deciduous” in a sentence.

Robert Slavin co-founder and chairman of Success For All, sings a song with a student at Langley Park - McCormick Elementary school. Langley Park uses Success For All's highly rated educational program Curiosity Corner in its Head Start and preschool classes. 
National Journal
Stephanie Czekalinsk
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Stephanie Czekalinsk
Dec. 6, 2013, midnight

HY­ATT­S­VILLE, Md. — Two little boys sit col­or­ing at a cluster of desks in the cen­ter of the classroom, ob­li­vi­ous to the tu­mult around them. In one corner of the room, a clutch of 3- and 4-year-olds is pre­tend­ing to host a fall fest­iv­al. An­oth­er group plays house. No one in this class of 20 preschool­ers is in an as­signed seat. The chil­dren are en­grossed in their own con­ver­sa­tions.

And those con­ver­sa­tions are the point. Par­ents, teach­ers, school ad­min­is­trat­ors, and edu­ca­tion­al-policy ex­perts are count­ing on the chat­ter to help stu­dents at Langley Park-Mc­Cormick Ele­ment­ary School in this work­ing-class sub­urb of Wash­ing­ton de­vel­op the lan­guage, cog­nit­ive, and so­cial skills they’ll need to suc­ceed in school.

This cheer­ful classroom is on the front lines of the battle to close the achieve­ment gap between poor stu­dents and their more-af­flu­ent peers. More than four-fifths of Langley Park’s stu­dents are His­pan­ic — many are im­mig­rants or chil­dren of im­mig­rants — and more than 95 per­cent qual­i­fy for fed­er­al fund­ing that tar­gets chil­dren of low-in­come fam­il­ies.

For the past two years, in its preschool and Head Start classes, the school has used a cur­riculum called Curi­os­ity Corner that stresses skills with or­al lan­guage and gives chil­dren time to prac­tice them through songs, stor­ies, and struc­tured play. De­veloped by the Bal­timore-based Suc­cess for All Found­a­tion, which has pro­duced edu­ca­tion­al pro­grams for 30 years, this preschool cur­riculum is used in more than 300 schools na­tion­wide.

The teach­er, vet­er­an Mon­ica Wright, be­lieves the pro­gram works. She has heard stu­dents use words such as “unique” and “de­cidu­ous” — learned in their les­sons — in con­ver­sa­tion.

“The biggest dif­fer­ence we’ve seen is com­mu­nic­a­tion,” said Gerri Toure, a read­ing spe­cial­ist at Langley Park. Be­fore, “kids didn’t par­ti­cip­ate [in classroom dis­cus­sions] be­cause of ap­pre­hen­sion — aca­dem­ic or oth­er­wise.” Now, they do.

She points to the “think, pair, share” tech­nique. When promp­ted by a teach­er’s ques­tion, the stu­dents are en­cour­aged to think about their re­sponse and then find a part­ner to share their an­swer be­fore telling the class. “It gives all the kids a chance to talk — not just the one who an­swers,” Toure said. “It gives them a chance to for­mu­late ques­tions and ad­just the sen­tence be­fore they have to say it in front of every­one.”

This an­ec­dot­al ex­per­i­ence is backed by em­pir­ic­al evid­ence. Chil­dren who at­ten­ded Curi­os­ity Corner preschools tested sig­ni­fic­antly high­er on lit­er­acy by the end of kinder­garten than chil­dren who re­ceived nor­mal in­struc­tion, ac­cord­ing to a 2010 re­view of re­search fun­ded by the Cf­BT Edu­ca­tion Trust, a Brit­ish non­profit that stud­ies edu­ca­tion­al pro­grams world­wide.

These find­ings, the re­view noted, should be taken cau­tiously. When re­search­ers tracked stu­dents who par­ti­cip­ated in preschool in the 1960s and 1970s, they found that the ef­fects wore off after a few years. Still, that doesn’t ne­ces­sar­ily neg­ate the pos­it­ive res­ults, said Nancy A. Mad­den, Suc­cess for All’s pres­id­ent. These pro­grams give chil­dren the chance to per­form at grade level in later years in­stead of start­ing be­hind in kinder­garten and lag­ging fur­ther over the course of their school­ing.

If you want to close the achieve­ment gap, you need to start in preschool, Mad­den said. “Kids who have preschool — they just have a leg up.”

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