“China’s doing it. Everybody’s doing it. It’s time that we become an early learning nation too.”
Interview with Betty Hyde
Director of the Department of Early Learning (DEL), Washington State
by Senior Policy Advisor Steven Hicks
Dr. Bette Hyde was appointed Director of the Department of Early Learning (DEL) by Gov. Chris Gregoire on Feb. 10, 2009. Bette’s focus is on creating one statewide early learning system that prepares all Washington children for school and life. She strongly believes that school-readiness means ready schools, ready children, ready families and ready communities. Washington is a Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge grantee.
Steven: How did you begin your career in early learning?
Bette: I spent the first 32 years of my life in the K-12 system and early on I was in what we called an Intermediate School District and a Supervised Head Start. But really I started when I was Superintendent for Emergent Schools and we would have kindergarten round-up. And we would know with great certainty which kids were going to make it on the first day of kindergarten and which not. And we just thought that is really awful. And so we thought what can we do about that? And so we did the research at that time, when early learning was just coming to be. So we decided to partner with the child care programs in our community. We spent the first year just sitting around, having coffee, looking at brain research, getting to know them, eating cookies, you know, that kind of thing.
Then we asked them to help us. And they decided that they wanted to help with literacy and we thought “Great!” The Bremerton School District is a school district with about 7,000 children, a K-12 district: now it’s a P-12 district. But it was in great poverty, a military town, so there was a lot of need. And to make a long story short, we spent another year with them looking at various curricula. They chose the curricula, and then we used our Title I money on the condition that they participate in professional development, that they used it with fidelity and so forth. And I was at Brandy’s Superintendent in Bremerton and at one of my first Board meetings I remember saying to the School Board, “well based on the sub-test that we’re using, about 4-6% of our kids are ready.” A board member asked “did you say 46?” And I said “No! I said 4-6.” And everybody went my gosh, we have to do something. And so, that first year, that 4-6 percentage on the DIBELS, or whatever we were using at the time, jumped up to 55%. I mean this is phenomenal. And then we decided the next year, well let’s get the kids most at-risk and put them in for full-day kindergarten. And although that’s so common now it wasn’t so common then. And so, we then used Title I money, and we started the year having the afternoon kindergarten classes smaller. Most parents want their kids in the morning anyway, so that was easy to do. And at the end of October, not sooner, the kindergarten teachers really identified the kids that were behind. Then we invited their parents to have them stay a full day. We would buy their lunch and transport them. And they just simply got a double dose. You know, morning and afternoon with the same teacher. And that bumped our scores up, you know, to something like 80%. And we thought well gosh, if all day kindergarten works for them, it probably works for everybody. We offered free all-day kindergarten and were the first in our little peninsula of the state. And honestly Steven, you know, it was like a lingerie sale. People lined up around the block, you know. People from other districts came and enrolled. And a huge majority of people stayed with us through elementary school and probably beyond. So that was a long answer to a short question. But being in the K-12 system and just looking at these children who come in the first day of school, you know which ones are likely to make it and which ones aren’t. They have the whole rest of their life ahead of them. And so we decided, we gotta do something about that. And so that’s what we did.
Steven: What do you see is the role of public schools and districts in improving the quality of early learning?
Betty: I think it is the responsibility of all of us educators, to be cognizant of what the research says about what helps children learn. And you have to be almost illiterate to not know that early learning is a critical part of that if done with quality. I think the role of the public school is to be aware of that and each district, in their own way, embrace early learning. I have had conversations with, for example, the superintendent of Bellingham, which is a relatively big district north of Seattle. He was asking, “Do you start with all day kindergarten? Do you start with preschool?” And I said, “You can start with what works best for your community.” You know, there’s no formula. But you want to have a complete continuum. And you want to make sure, like all the research says, that it’s quality from the beginning, quality all the way through- that you have good transitions from the early learning to the K-12 system. In Bremerton we used to have what we called ‘the hand-off’ and the early learning teachers would sit down with the kindergarten teachers and talk about each child in some detail. First grade teachers would talk to second grade teachers and so forth. And so I think, it behooves the school districts to see this is a big part of how we can make our children ready for common core, or for the increasingly complex world that they’re entering out there.
So I think their role is to be not be passive, or not, certainly not resistant, but to say, “How can we as a school district do what works in our school district, to begin early learning, to embrace it?” Can we give space in our schools for preschool classrooms? In our state we have our law that says if you are transporting kids and preschool kids are at the same bus stop, and they’re going to your preschool program, you can transport them too and get reimbursed. Things like that that really help school districts say they’re really our communities. You know, I talkwith my principles in Bremerton and I say “What do you know about the incoming kindergarteners? They’re our children, go find out about them and start talking to the preschools and the child care programs in your area.” You know, they’re part of the community team that you have to utilize to really get kids ready. Since then, Steven, we’ve had all this great research, at Harvard and other places, about how incredible the brain develops and so, so early- much earlier than we thought. So we would all be fools not to work together as a community team to say these are all our children, these are all our families. How can we each do our part and make them most successful?
Steven: Why is the President’s proposal to provide high quality early learning and development programs important for our country and what do you see as some of the challenges and the opportunities with that?
Betty: I think it’s important for a number of reasons. I don’t know to say this politically correctly, but it keeps us up with our international neighbors. You know, other people have been doing this for a long time. Many years ago I visited the UK and Finland and they were doing this, and have been doing it. China’s doing it. Everybody’s doing it. It’s time that we become an early learning nation too. He [President Obama] is cognizant of that, his advisors are cognizant of that, you guys are probably cognizant of that. He’s moving our country up internationally like it should be. Secondly, I like his plan because it is really well grounded in the research – what works. Again he’s got good advice about what to do. Thirdly, it’s not just like here’s something let’s do that. But he has this whole comprehensive plan. When he had his early learning summit, it was very, very clear in his planning that it’s not just one program. But he’s talking about home visiting, he’s talking about Early Head Start – Child Care partnerships, he’s talking about preschool. Oh and by the way he preceded that with Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge to build the infrastructure in states. And now I think this ESEA reauthorization is just a godsend in terms of how it really pulls out the importance of quality, full day and so forth. And I can support that it’s the national bully pulpit, he is president. And the fact that he is really hunkering down and fighting for this speaks volumes. He has lots of other things on his mind.
But this is always really in the forefront. It’s not just, the flavor of the month. He’s coming up with a more comprehensive, inclusive, evidence-based, research-based plan. So I really applaud the administration. I just think they are spot-on in terms of what really works to get kids ready for school and kindergarten and beyond. Now what’s the challenges of it? I suppose the States’ readiness for this. I think different states are in different places. We are blessed in Washington because we have good rapport across the aisles and across the parties. But I’m not sure that’s true everywhere. Every state has a different readiness for this. And so that might be stopping some legislators and governors, but I think it’s getting better and better. I think secondly, different states – and its related – have different infrastructures and data readiness. I mean, even if all the elected officials said we want to do this, you have to have a plan, you have to have some buy in – perhaps from unions depending on the state. How are you going to measure your impact? And you don’t just do that in a month. That takes a while to do. But because he’s doing this and it’s so comprehensive and it keeps happening, there is kind of a national hype. Kind of what people used to call a zeitgeist for early learning. You know, we often in Washington talk to other states, either to help them or to ask how are you doing this, and there seems to be not a possessiveness. People are pretty darn eager to share in terms of breaking down silos. I think a great opportunity is something you folks modeled with the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge grants. I remember very clearly that at every meeting we were at ED was there and HHS was there, the whole time. People didn’t just float in and out. People were kind of modeling with their feet. I think this is a teachable moment for early learning. And I think people are pretty eager to jump on the wagon.