Midway Head Start Credit: photo by John Booz

Four-year-olds at Midway Head Start are sitting in a circle singing a song about five green, speckled frogs that are disappearing one by one. Following the teacher’s lead, the children use hand motions and their fingers to count down until no speckled frogs are left.

Flashcards and worksheets are nowhere in sight. “That’s not developmentally appropriate,” says Ruth Prescott, who oversees Head Start programs for Metropolitan Family Services.

Integrating math and literacy skills into children’s play activities is one reason why Midway Head Start earned accreditation from the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), which administers a voluntary accreditation system and works to set professional standards in early child education. Also taken into consideration for programs seeking to earn the credential, which must be renewed every five years, are facilities, health and safety and teacher interactions with children.

But beginning next year, NAEYC is launching more rigorous standards that will make it tougher for Head Start and other preschool programs to get accredited.

“The new standards are much higher and more specific,” says Jamilah R. Jor’dan, president and founder of Partnership for Quality Child Care, a Chicago nonprofit that helps programs get accredited.

“They needed to be changed to address areas of ambiguity. Some programs weren’t clear about what was acceptable. This [new process] will take longer, but it really helps programs take a close look at what they’re doing.”

The new accreditation process will evaluate how programs measure up to 400 standards within 10 areas: assessment, curriculum, teaching, relationships, health, teachers, families, community relationships, physical environment and leadership. Some standards apply across the board; others are detailed by age group.

The new accreditation standards reflect the growing need for “a reliable and accountable” system of early childhood education that stakeholders can trust as a mark of quality, says NAEYC spokesman Alan Simpson.

Take reading, for instance. The old standards suggest that preschool teachers write down children’s dictated stories, label objects in the room and encourage children’s emerging interest in writing, including scribbling, drawing, copying and using invented spelling. There is no mention of phonics for preschoolers.

The new standards direct teachers to help children “identify letters and the sounds they represent” and help children “to recognize and produce words that have the same beginning or ending sounds.”

Jor’dan notes that the new standards are more focused on accountability, but are still compatible with best practices in early childhood education, as long as instruction is appropriate. Having children sit for long periods of time or giving lessons on a chalkboard are inappropriate; teaching math and reading concepts through play, songs and activities are fine, she says.

More than just ABCs

Midway Head Start has had to pay more attention to its academic content since the late 1990s, when the federal government reorganized the program and set skill benchmarks. Pre-kindergarteners in Head Start, for example, are supposed to know at least nine letters of the alphabet.

Such directives, however, only begin to scratch the surface when evaluating early childhood centers, says Jor’dan, who looks for books and other evidence of a “print-rich” environment. “I’m not going to take a couple children into a room and see if they know the nine letters.”

Besides, research shows that social-emotional development—not learning letters of the alphabet—is what leads to kindergarten success, Prescott explains. “If [a child] can develop relationships with the kids and adults in the classroom, if they can attend to tasks, if they can listen, if they have self-help skills,” then they will do well in kindergarten, she adds.

Midway Head Start’s accreditation is up for renewal in 2007, but Prescott expects the program won’t have to do much to meet the new standards. The program already balances the needs of young children with the increasing demand for more accountability, says Jor’dan.

Accreditation can take up to a year to complete. It begins with a self-study, with information gathered through observations and surveys. Programs identify strengths and weaknesses, and then develop an improvement plan. Then, a “validator” visits the program to verify the accuracy of the program description.

Roughly 8 percent of all early childhood programs—close to 11,000 sites nationwide—are accredited. About 80 percent of those that go through the process earn the credential, says Simpson.

Jody Temkin is a Catalyst contributing editor. E-mail her at editor@catalyst-chicago.org.

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