The Benefits of Collaboration: University Faculty and Preschool-based Professionals Working Together

As a young professor, I remember attending a conference session in which a speaker talked about conducting research and working with staff and children in a local preschool program, and I immediately thought two things. My first thought was “Wow, I want to do that,” and my second thought was “How do you get to do that? How do you make that happen?” I asked the presenter how he made it happen and he said “Visit programs, meet program staff, and just ask.” Happily, I did that and I have had many opportunities to work with children and staff in early intervention and preschool programs. My most recent collaboration has been with Prairie Children Preschool (PCP) in the Indian Prairie School District # 204 in Aurora, Illinois.

In the past few months, you have read some very insightful blog entries from staff at PCP. These narratives have chronicled their journey to develop a Response to Intervention (RtI) program that addresses early literacy, math, and social-emotional skills and positive behavior. I was privileged to be part of this journey. My entry is about the advantages of being part of the systems change process that occurred within PCP.

I started to work with the PCP staff in 2005 after receiving copies of the Individual Growth and Development Indicators (IGDIs) from the University of Minnesota. Our first collaboration was to develop local norms for the IGDIs and to begin to use IGDI data to identify children who might benefit from additional instruction and support in early literacy. At the same time, administrative and teaching staff members were in the process of revising the program’s vision, mission statement, and associated practices as part of the school improvement plan. I was able to participate in program assessment, conversations with staff, and planning meetings, which led to new program goals to a) adopt a shared understanding of developmentally appropriate practices developed by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and recommended practices developed by the Division for Early Childhood (DEC) of the Council for Exceptional Children, b) establish a reasonable number of program-wide outcomes for children at the 3- and 4-year-old levels, (c) include outcomes for preacademic skills in order to better prepare children for kindergarten, and (d) use data to make decisions about instruction for individual children and groups of children.

One of the unique contributions that I was able to bring to the table as an early childhood general and special educator was current information from both NAEYC and DEC and the perspective that the philosophies and approaches of these two organizations could be blended to meet the needs of all children regardless of cultural, linguistic, and ability diversity. I was able to participate in a series of professional development workshops, collaborative team meetings, and readings of current and recommended practices that led to a revised vision and mission statement and the adoption of intentional planning and teaching, the use of adaptations and individualized supports to meet the needs of individual children, shared expectations for student outcomes, and the use of data to identify children and drive instruction.

This led to the development of Project ELI (Early Literacy Initiative). Several teachers and other staff expressed interest in developing more intentional strategies to assure that they were addressing early language and literacy skills for all children. When we developed Project ELI, RtI was not a common term or practice for preschool, although tiered instruction was something that we frequently discussed. So, we asked for volunteers to help develop and then pilot an early language and literacy assessment and intervention program. Nine teachers of 4-year-olds and one teacher of 3-year-olds volunteered, as did several speech-language pathologists.

Together, we reviewed and selected early literacy curricula and resources, conducted classroom assessments of the early literacy environment (using the Early Language and Literacy Classroom Observation [ELLCO] assessment), made classroom changes based on ELLCO outcomes, and developed an IGDI assessment schedule and procedures for using IGDI data to identify children who were at risk. We also adopted a core early literacy curriculum and developed and implemented classroom-wide teaching strategies for all children (Tier 1) and additional teaching strategies and curricula for children who were identified as at risk (Tier 2). Each classroom team adopted the Creative Curriculum for Preschool (Dodge, Colker, & Heroman, 2002) approach for literacy as the Tier 1 curriculum and many adopted the Sound Start curriculum for Tier 2. However, each team also used additional Tier 1 and Tier 2 activities and strategies to meet the needs of children in their own classrooms. This individualization across classrooms greatly increased our collective knowledge as teams met monthly to discuss positive outcomes and present new resources and effective activities and teaching strategies. They also discussed individual children during these monthly meetings, as well as questions and concerns. This truly was the start of the problem-solving process that continues as a specific initiative and integral component of the PCP RtI program.
After the pilot of Project ELI, we began the process of integrating early literacy practices in each of the PCP classrooms; in education reform terms, this is the “scaling up” process. At the same time, new program-wide curricular and instructional initiatives were and continue to be developed and refined, including recent efforts that promote early math skill development and positive behavior intervention and supports. The PCP has developed a model for systems change that respects the views of all stakeholders and involves staff at all levels in designing, implementing, and evaluating new initiatives and practices. Indeed, the impetus for several new initiatives has come from staff and some of these new initiatives are being developed and championed by staff. So, why should higher education faculty be involved in the schools? What are the advantages? Of course many of the obvious reasons exist. My involvement with this program has informed my teaching, led to presentations and publications, and expanded my knowledge of systems and systems change and leadership strategies necessary to foster systems change. The teachers at PCP opened their classrooms to me. The good practices I saw during the day became part of my teaching that night or later in the semester. I was able to incorporate the perspectives and roles of different team members into my teaching and to introduce new curricular resources and materials to my students. I was able to have PCP staff (Megan Hafer, a PCP teacher; Robin Miller Young, student services coordinator; and Lisa Snow, school psychologist) talk to my classes about RtI and the various initiatives with which they were involved. There is nothing like having the people who are working in the schools talk to prospective teachers!

I gained new knowledge as I read and blended current literature for presentation to and discussion with PCP staff. I was able to collaborate with staff in real-life activities such as designing Tier 1 and Tier 2 instruction, analyzing data, engaging in problem-solving meetings, and identifying program-wide expectations for all children across developmental domains. I have had many opportunities to provide, with colleagues from PCP, presentations about Project ELI and RtI at professional conferences and to publish results of our work. I was privileged to spend time in each of the pilot classrooms and to document effective and innovative practices that each teaching team used. These were later summarized in the Young Exceptional Children journal (Chandler et al., 2008).

As a single-subject researcher, I often have a limited view of the system in which I conduct research. I am familiar with the staff and children in whose classrooms I work, but I may have limited knowledge about global issues and initiatives that may be having an impact on the entire program. Being part of the PCP systems change initiatives has allowed me to learn about the complexity of the systems change and practices that will facilitate the change process. Many of the lessons learned and effective practices were identified by LuAnn Shields and Robin Miller Young in their blog entries. I am using these lessons learned and practices within my own department as we embark on program revision and the systems change process.
Finally, involvement with PCP has confirmed my belief that change is not, and should not be, driven solely by issues that are identified and research that is conducted by university faculty. We all are aware of promising programs and interventions that have been developed by university researchers that are not acceptable to staff or are not feasible for staff to implement in classroom settings. When university faculty and school-based professionals collaborate, they are more likely to address issues that are most important to educators and families and to develop individualized and program-wide interventions and changes that are acceptable to those who must implement them and that can be implemented with fidelity.
In closing, I return to my question: Why should higher education faculty be involved in the schools; what are the advantages? For me, there clearly are many advantages. Our partnership makes me a better university faculty member. It informs my teaching and provides numerous opportunities for learning and research. I have learned as much, if not more, from the staff at PCP as they have learned from me. Rather than asking why higher education faculty should be involved, maybe the real question should be “How could they not be involved?”

Chandler, L., Miller-Young, R., Nylander, D., Shields, L., Ash, J., Bauman, B., … Summers, D. (2008). Promoting early literacy skills within daily activities and routines in preschool classrooms. Young Exceptional Children, 11, 2–16.
Dodge, D. T., Colker, L., & Heroman, C. (2002). The Creative Curriculum for Preschool. Washington, DC: Teaching Strategies.  
McCormick, C., Throneburg, R., & Smitley, J. (2002). A sound start: Phonemic awareness lessons for reading success. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Young, R. M., Chandler, L. K., Shields, L., Laubenstein, P., Butts, J., & Black, K. (2008, March). Project ELI: Improving early literacy outcomes. An early literacy and language initiative that works. Principal, 14–20. 
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