The 3,500 children who attend Head Start programs in Alaska are scattered across a vast landscape, and many reside in communities that are separated by hundreds of miles without roads. About 50% of program sites are in settings so remote that they must be accessed by small plane, boat, four-wheeler, or snow mobile. The children, many of whom learn tribal languages before they learn English, represent one of the most linguistically diverse early childhood communities in the United States. More than two-thirds of the programs they attend are tribally run and serve enrollments with several tribal affiliations.
For the past several years, early childhood program managers throughout Alaska have worked with the state's Department of Education and Early Development and other advocates to draw this sprawling and diverse community closer by building a data system with two broad goals:
- To measure the immediate impact of Head Start programs by using a shared assessment tool and common indicators
- To understand the long-term impact of Head Start programs by assigning all children a unique identifier that will follow them through school.
"This represents layers of work on the part of organizational entities, Head Start staff, and children and families," says Paul Sugar, Alaska's Head Start Collaboration Director. "We can start the discussion—here's what we're seeing. Here's where we're making gains. And we've recognized the importance of using common tools to collect information."
Long- and short-term outcomes
The unique identifier, Sugar explains, "is the first step. It tells us where these kids started." The program sites provide basic information (name, age, parents' names, etc.) to generate the Alaska student identification number (called the AKSID) that will follow each child through K-12. Currently, all children in state-supported preschools, including special education programs, participate.
At the same time, Sugar and members of the Alaska Head Start Association sought a common assessment approach that would generate information to be used partly as an advocacy tool to inform external stakeholders about the impact of Alaska's Head Start programs.
Explains Dirk Shumaker, executive director of Kids Corps Inc. (KCI) Head Start & Early Head Start in Anchorage, "We knew the PIR was pretty input-oriented. The state of Alaska is spending $7 million a year on Head Start [in addition to the federal investment]. We wanted to know what was happening in school readiness."
The re-formed School Readiness Outcomes Group chose Teaching Strategies GOLD for its assessment tool, selecting indicators from across the five essential domains of the HSCDELF that addressed kindergarten readiness, could be easily and consistently measured across programs, and were consistent with the "perceived interests of external audiences." It then aligned the GOLD indicators with Alaska's Early Learning Guidelines and with a "reference document," the Alaska Developmental Profile. (See http://www.bbnahs.com/documents/ProposedOutcomeAlignment.pdf [PDF, xxxKB] for a display of the alignment.) THIS LINK IS BROKEN
The following indicators are being used by all Alaska Head Start programs to report statewide outcomes:
|Social and Emotional Development||
|Approaches to Learning||
|Physical Development and Health||
|Logic and Reasoning||
|Literacy Knowledge and Skills||
|Mathematics Knowledge and Skills||
The state piloted the tool with half of its 4 year-olds (about 1,000 children) at entry and exit during the 2010-11 school year. The pilot revealed significant progress on all 14 indicators from fall through spring. In the 2011-12 school year, all Head Start children were assessed with the tool three times.
Sugar says initial analysis of the second year of data shows that children are making gains "at the local level." Using the AKSID, advocates were able to compare scores for Head Start children in the aggregate to the aggregate of all children entering kindergarten. Children attending Anchorage's KCI program, one of 17 statewide grantees, are scoring in most areas at levels comparable to all children entering the city's public schools. The most significant (and expected) gap is in expressive language, reflecting the programs' high share of English language learners.
Overcoming geographic challenges
"Local" in Alaska has special meaning. Alaska Head Start programs operate in about 100 communities, and some of the sites are more than 200 miles from any population hub. In addition to the physical isolation are barriers to online access.
Sugar, who spent 15 years working in remote communities such as the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in Southwestern Alaska, has experienced firsthand the challenges of operating in such environments. "It's not uncommon when you are out in these remote areas to lose connection," he says. "You don't have the bandwidth, and the longer you have an open connection the greater chance it's going to disconnect. Many of our programs are still on dial-up." And even those with hardwire connections "still have to link to a satellite, and high winds can shake the dish." Most of the remote programs don't have video access.
These circumstances make Alaska's progress in building its data system all the more impressive. Programs have learned to be creative, particularly in providing professional development in areas targeted by the assessments. "We have some great regional collaborations going on and distance classes," reports Bristol Bay Native Association Director Anne Shade.
"We try to find ways to provide training to as many folks as possible," Shade says. "Most staff are enrolled in distance classes through the University of Alaska system. We also collaborate on face-to-face trainings as best we can." The Rural Alaska Community Action Program (RurAL CAP) "runs programs all over the state. They work with other grantees in the same region to provide joint trainings. If one grantee has a training with some slots available they will let others know, and usually others will join."
The AHSA has worked hard to advocate against cuts in spending on Head Start programs. Association Treasurer Mark Lackey, executive director of CCS Early Learning, says the data work is an important part of this advocacy. "Early childhood is a critical time," says Lackey. "We want to really drill the public investment down in the early years." The data contribute to "a much stronger conversation. One of the real benefits is we're all speaking the same language now. Before, we could talk about child outcomes and that's about as far as we could go.
"Now we can say, ‘Here's what Head Start in Alaska does,' and ‘Here is what we have done to increase our scores.' We want to show that our efforts pay dividends."
(This profile is based on interviews conducted in April-May 2012.)
Last Reviewed: June 2014
Last Updated: August 28, 2014
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