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The Community Action Project (CAP) of Tulsa County provides early childhood education services to more than 2,000 children ages birth to 5 across nine large and three small sites. For several years, the large agency monitored its programs with the Teaching Strategies GOLD child assessment tool and the CLASS assessment of classroom quality. The instruments were aligned with CAP's curriculum and informed teacher planning.

But the program sought additional assessment to compare with children nationwide, to measure school readiness, to support program evaluation, and to complement its teacher planning tool. It chose the Bracken School Readiness Assessment and added it to the mix for Head Start children in 2010-11.  Soon after its implementation, Senior Research Associate Cindy Decker was startled at a new finding: Why did one site show such huge growth in both child assessments and classroom quality over the year?

"It was our site where roughly half of the teachers are from Teach for America," says Decker.  (At CAP, Teach for America staff lead rooms of 4 year-olds.) "As that year was our first at having Teach for America teachers, we were cautious in how they would perform since they hadn't been trained in early childhood. But these teachers grew tremendously over the year and made a huge impact on the children.

"By May, their CLASS scores were high and their growth in the child assessments was the highest of any site. We feel the Teach for America professional development coupled with CAP's own professional development made the difference." A CAP Master Teacher at that site helped experienced teachers partner with Teach for America teachers. "I think everybody pulled everybody up," Decker says.

During Decker's seven years at CAP, she has mined data not just to assess children's developmental progress and classroom quality but to determine professional development needs of staff and identify what variables—curriculum, attendance, teacher attributes, etc.—make the biggest difference in preparing children for school. She acknowledges, "We still want to make a larger impact on our children." CAP is piloting a new curriculum called Tools of the Mind that promotes intentional and self-regulated learning. "We'll see if that makes the change we want. Also, since math is our lowest scoring domain, we're implementing an enhanced math curriculum called Building Blocks at a few sites to see if this improves the readiness of those children." CAP already is providing professional development targeted at helping teachers lead math instruction.

In 2011-12, nearly 1,000 preschoolers were assessed on Bracken in Fall and Spring. One of the findings was that on average, the children increased their standard score by 7 points in seven months, close to one-half of a standard deviation. But, Decker concludes, not all children are growing at this rate, and therefore not all are ready for school at the time they leave the program. CAP serves children whose families face numerous challenges of poverty and its related stressors. When children enroll at CAP, they are often already performing at levels below those of higher-income peers.

CAP has employed creative methods to gauge the quality of learning and progress of all its children, 0-5 years. It started using Toddler CLASS in Fall 2011, and Decker says this tool "has definitely helped us understand the quality of the younger-age rooms." The program also has been tracking attendance and performance data of children who have moved on to public schools in the Tulsa area. "We asked our major public school systems, ‘If we tell you who our alumni are, can you just merge on to that file?'" Decker says the results have shown some worrisome trends. "We see they're not where they should be at all in third grade, and we're trying to back that up and see where they were in second grade, and first grade, and kindergarten."

To determine where they are in kindergarten, Kindergarten teachers in three Tulsa school districts completed the Early Development Instrument, a tool measuring five key factors known to affect school readiness used by the Transforming Early Childhood Community Systems (TECCS) national initiative. During Winter 2011, roughly a third of the kindergarten teachers completed the questionnaire on 1,600 kindergartners. Another third of the teachers participated during Winter 2012, and the remaining third will participate in Winter 2013. Preliminary results by neighborhood of residence show that a high percentage of Tulsa-area children are vulnerable in many domains, particularly physical health and well-being and emotional maturity. CAP is conducting meetings with school partners to discuss results and determine how schools can support these children in their critical elementary school years.

CAP is learning more about its long-term impact through its Alumni Impact Project, a multiyear, dual-generation survey project combining family surveys with school data to develop a deeper understanding of the strengths, needs, and interests of children, families, and communities over a five-year period. The project began in 2009-10 with 240 3 year-olds. The surveys cover finances, work, banking, housing, credit scores, health insurance, internet use, and transportation, among other topics.

With the support of federal Promise and Choice neighborhood planning grants, CAP is examining data to identify ways the community can improve the trajectory for future kindergartners. Through this work, CAP will soon be able to review student data broken down by school, socioeconomic indicators, and attendance in either public pre-kindergarten or CAP programs. "We will be able to differentiate how CAP alumni in kindergarten are doing compared to all other kindergartners," says Decker. "Data from Winter 2011, the first year, suggest children who did not attend pre-kindergarten are more likely to be vulnerable than children who did. But we're very excited to see the results of all three years of data."

(This profile is based on interviews conducted in January 2012.)

Last Reviewed: June 2014

Last Updated: August 28, 2014