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Seattle Leaders Hope 'Magic Sauce' Will Guarantee 'Quality' In Proposed Pre-K Plan

Kyle Stokes
Genesee Early Learning Center teacher Chanel Priel, center, helps two students as they draw "blueprints" for the pretend construction company their class has been running. It's part of the school's 'play-based' approach to preschool.

Seattle's elected leaders can hardly describe the proposed preschool pilot program at the heart of Proposition 1B without using the phrase "high-quality."

City education officials frequently invoke these words when speaking about their desire to pass a four-year, $58 million property tax hike to not only cover preschool tuition for as many as 2,000 low-income kids, but to ensure these children receive the greatest possible benefit from the program.

But amid a broader debate over whether voters ought to choose the city's plan over a competing childcare initiative, Proposition1A, a smaller debate has roiled among early educators: What exactly constitutes "high-quality" preschool?

Among the pieces of Prop. 1B designed to ensure quality, city education officials see one in particular as the "magic sauce" behind the plan: the city will pick the curriculum (or pick a list of curriculum options) preschool providers must use to take part in the program — to enroll children and receive property tax funding. As part of that, the teachers would receive intensive coaching in that curriculum.

But opponents of the preschool plan say the curriculum mandate represents micro-management of the program on the city's part, and even one supporter says he hopes the city will reconsider it if Prop. 1B passes.

What 'Quality' Looks Like To The City

Genesee Early Learning Center in Seattle's Columbia City neighborhood already displays several of the hallmarks of quality as the city defines it. Most of the school's teachers have baccalaureate degrees or better, and children meet in small classes for a full, six-hour day.

Credit Kyle Stokes / KPLU
Genesee Early Learning Center's 4- and 5-year-old students have been wearing pretend hard hats for the "construction company" they've been running as a class project for the past several weeks.

But how Genesee teaches its students — its curriculum — is important to the city, too. The center uses a "play-based" curriculum in which students learn skills through gently-guided play. While teachers have definite academic and social-emotional objectives in mind, the "play-based" approach also lets students pick what activities they'd like to do.

For instance, Genesee's 4- and 5-year-olds have spent the past several weeks working for a pretend "construction company," donning plastic hard hats, drawing blueprints on giant reams of butcher paper, and building houses out of popsicle sticks — all after several students showed a preoccupation with building blocks.

"We know a really good, evidence-based curriculum follows the child's lead," said Rachel Schulkin from Seattle's Office for Education. "If the child is interested in something, it's so much easier to teach them other content knowledge if you're embedding it in a topic of interest."

Where The 'Magic Sauce' Comes In

Genesee Early Learning Center would be well-positioned to take part if voters approve the city's preschool proposal, and not only because elected officials launched the Prop. 1B campaign with a news conference in the center's yard.

Credit Kyle Stokes / KPLU
A preschooler stretches out her toes as she sits in a circle at Genesee Early Learning Center, a preschool that's mostly federally-funded in Seattle's Columbia City neighborhood.

Though the city has not yet picked which curriculum it would require providers to use, Genesee's approach to teaching students matches well with the city's preference for play-based curricula.

But why limit the program's curriculum options, at least at first? First, Schulkin says, city officials want to pick curricula which research shows to be most effective. Second, the city wants to find coaches trained in specific curricula that can conduct one-on-one training with teachers to help improve their practices.

"If we're thinking about all the elements of quality, this coaching method where someone is coming into the classroom and watching [teachers] and taking time to sit down with you one-on-one and review your practice, it is a really powerful tool," Schulkin said.

"Coupling [curriculum] with this coaching," she added, "is really the magic sauce that leads to really high, high, high quality preschool."

Curriculum Pick Could Rule Out Certain Providers

Prop. 1B would not directly open a new preschool in Seattle if it passed. Rather, the money the property tax increase generates would fund student slots in existing preschool programs across the city — enough for 280 students in the 2015-2016 school year and increasing gradually to 2,000 slots by 2018-19.

But the city's curriculum mandate alone could prevent many preschool providers from taking part in the program. According to one estimate from the Child Care Directors Association of Greater Seattle, roughly half of the city's childcare centers use curricula that are likely to be left out of the program.

"Many programs will choose to not participate in the Seattle Preschool program because they have made considerable financial investments in their curriculum and their families have come to rely on their educational philosophies," the association's board wrote last summer.

'I Know What Works'

Credit Kyle Stokes / KPLU
As part of the pretend construction company preschoolers at Genesee Early Learning Center have been running for the past few weeks, teachers display the number of 'accident-free' work days students have passed. They get to have a tea party after 20 safe days.

To some early educators, the city choosing a small number of curricula for the program sounds like playing favorites with companies that write and sell those curricula — and often certify coaches to train teachers in that curricula. 

"I have 25 years’ experience. I know what works. But they want it to be these things that have been proven by a company so they can sell their product," said Laura Chandler, the curriculum coordinator at Seattle's Small Faces Child Development Center. Chandler is a vocal supporter of the opposing Prop. 1A and was even named as a plaintiff in the initiative's legal battle with the city.

Chandler's boss at Small Faces, executive director Johnny Otto, shares her concerns about the curriculum mandate.

"I don't really understand why it's important to the quality of education for children for the city to be choosing certain companies to get preferential treatment," Otto said.

'A Real Chance For Success'

But for Otto, the curriculum mandate isn't a deal-breaker. He represents the Child Care Directors Association, or CDAGS, on the Seattle Human Services Commission. Otto says CDAGS ultimately decided to endorse the city's pre-K proposal over Prop. 1A. Though Otto says he'd like to see both proposals enacted "in a perfect world," CDAGS members decided to back Prop. 1B because it hikes property taxes, offering a ready funding source.

Prop. 1A doesn't explicitly spell out how to fund the programs it proposes: a training institute for Seattle childcare workers and an immediate increase in their minimum wage to $15 an hour. 

"The Seattle preschool program with the levy funding behind it and the support that the [Seattle City] Council has behind it has a real chance of success," Otto said. "But we did want to point out that we see items in the recommendations that we feel are not representative of best practices and, we feel, would put up roadblocks to success."

Credit Kyle Stokes / KPLU
Genesee Early Learning Center teacher Marquella Wright reads a book to a class of younger preschoolers.

Otto says he hopes city leaders drop the curriculum mandate in the preschool program if Prop. 1B passes. Currently, the city's action plan says officials will consider "a curriculum waiver process... for high-quality providers" after 2018.

Genesee Early Learning Center's site supervisor Dominique Alex says she hopes the city remains open to feedback about the program, but overall, says she's thrilled with the direction city officials have taken with their proposal.

"There needs to be more resources and support for [preschool providers]. That's the direction this 'Preschool for All' initiative is driving itself towards," said Alex.

"I think we're off to a good start," Alex added. "I'm excited right now. This is probably one of the more exciting times Seattle has had."

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools for KPLU.