At 7 o’clock on the dot every Monday morning, Sherietta Anderson and her fellow master teachers start making their rounds through classrooms at Educare New Orleans, meticulously checking that everything is in order for the upcoming week.
Anderson confirms that all materials are ready for the lesson plans she approved the Friday afternoon before. She eyes supply levels and door locks, and even makes sure that water bottles have been rinsed out. As the preschoolers arrive for breakfast and early lessons with their classroom teachers, Anderson is watching and listening to ensure that teachers are using thoughtful question prompts to probe the young learners’ thinking.
Connected to a national network of 24 preschools, Educare New Orleans is part of a nascent movement to professionalize early childhood education, driven by research showing that without access to high-quality learning experiences, low-income children start kindergarten behind—and stay behind for the rest of their schooling.
Serving 168 students up to age 5—100 percent of whom are low-income and students of color—the school emphasizes continuous professional development for staff, data-informed decision-making, and ambitious but developmentally appropriate goals for students.
“I think people assume that because we are a Head Start early childhood center we’re not teaching, that this is just day care,” said Angie Shorty-Belisle, the school’s director. “No, we’re teaching every day. There’s intentionality in everything that we do between 7:45 a.m. and 5:45 p.m.”
Like other Educare sites, the school also syncs practices with local needs. Taking a two-generation approach, Educare NOLA provides wraparound services for families and their children with the larger goal of alleviating poverty in the local community. In classrooms, teachers weave trauma-informed practices into the curriculum to give students the social and emotional boost they need to succeed academically.
Educare teacher Carolyn Coffey still tears up remembering the school year when two of her students lost their fathers to violence.
“Our children are faced with things that they may not always be ready to be faced with,” said Coffey, who once worked as an administrative assistant before realizing that she belonged in the classroom.
“The misconception that many people have about low-income families and children is that they’re always going to be at the bottom, and that’s not true,” Coffey said. “It is a challenge to be resilient, but if they have enough support, a child can rise above the adversities. The world can’t hold them down.”
Schools That Work
Because many of the students have experienced poverty, Educare New Orleans recognizes that academics need to be supported with integrated, trauma-informed practices.
Both educators and parents receive training on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), and classrooms have safe spaces where children can decompress from frustrations so they are ready to learn. The school’s academic curriculum also includes Conscious Discipline, an evidence-based approach provided through Frog Street Press that teaches students the language and behaviors to address conflict among themselves.
In teacher Antonia Celius’s preschool class, Celius helps students identify how they feel and how to translate those feelings into appropriate actions, such as telling a peer not to encroach on personal space or take a toy without asking.
“Instead of having fights, we’re now having discussions,” said Celius, who has worked in early childhood education for 17 years. “It helps them take a breath, step away for a moment, and take ownership over their feelings and how they behave.”
Patterns and Insights in the Numbers
Like Educare students, staff are provided holistic support so they can develop as professionals, said Celius, who joked that she feels pressure because she doesn’t yet have her master’s degree.
All classrooms at Educare New Orleans are served by three teachers—a lead or senior teacher, an assistant, and an aide—who are required to have at least a bachelor’s degree, associate’s degree, and Child Development Associate (CDA) credential, respectively.
Embedded, regular professional development encourages teachers at each level to stay at the top of their game. A process known as reflective supervision includes monthly meetings between supervisors and classroom teachers in which they discuss areas where teachers can improve (“Grows”) and areas where they are succeeding (“Glows”).
“We have really high expectations for our staff,” said Anderson, who emphasized that the reflective supervision is not meant as a gotcha but as a way to improve a teacher’s craft. “This is not a day care; that is not what we do here. This is not just tummy time and singing songs and playing with paint. We have real lesson plans and group activities so children meet their milestones.”
Unlike in many preschools, data is used to inform teaching practices. A partnership with nearby Tulane University sends researchers into the center daily, and teachers regularly record notes on students’ development, such as how often they interact with their peers or the vocabulary they use during lessons and playtime.
In Data Dialogue meetings, school administrators and educators look for patterns and insights in the numbers. Sudden absences from a student who is usually on time coupled with outbursts or withdrawal in class may indicate a problem at home, for example. Together, staff work on developing team-oriented responses that could include both classroom and family interventions.
“We tell our staff, ‘We’re not trying to fix the situation; we’re trying to understand the situation,’” Anderson said.
A Two-Generation Approach
Whenever interventions are done, staff are advised to remember the bigger picture: Families are an invaluable part of the child’s success, said Thomas Whitfield, the center’s family support manager.
It can take time for families to feel comfortable asking for help, added Whitfield, who oversees a team that provides families a listening ear when questions and problems arise, or guides them to any additional resources they may need at home. These supports can be a major undertaking, like finding a family stable housing, or involve smaller fixes, like getting a father a suit to wear to a job interview.
“The idea is that we’re helping them now, and in the future—after the child leaves Educare,” said Whitfield. “We’re hoping the parent will be in a better position to know how to advocate for their child and themselves so they won’t keep falling back into an unfortunate cycle of poverty.”
The welcoming environment at Educare is not the norm at many schools, according to Miesha Bartholomew, a parent of Ariel, who already knows her letters and numbers. “When I first walked through the halls of the school, I knew I didn’t want any other school for my child. It had a different feel,” she said.
Through the support of Educare, parents have built relationships with each other, helping raise kids together, said Bartholomew. On Fridays, parents meet for Coffee Connect, a time to talk about any challenges or just chat. These connections are impacting not just the dynamics of the center, she said, but the community itself.
“I was born and raised here. Everybody knew everybody, but there was a lot of violence,” Bartholomew said. “It’s a beautiful thing to now see parents feeling safe to walk their kids to school.”