Time well spent: Principals as early learning community leaders

Topic: Early Childhood

Former principal Sue Maguire from Molly Stark Elementary School in Bennington, Vermont, told her teachers she expected only two things of them–excellent teaching and a welcoming school environment. With these expectations and the recognition that kindergarten was too late for some children, this leader reached beyond the school walls to embrace early childhood.

Yet a recent CEELO report showed that she may have been an exception, with many principals underprepared to tackle the complexities inherent in the P–3rd grade realm, where transitions for children from home, to pre-K, to elementary school, may feel more like chasms than bridges. Few administrator preparation programs or certification requirements include early education coursework or field experience, and administrators quickly realize that 4-year-olds approach learning quite differently from 4th graders. Preschool classrooms look dramatically different from a typical elementary arrangement (as well they should), and effective pre-K teaching strategies may be unrecognizable in the primary grades. For elementary principals to be key instructional leaders in their buildings and communities, which increasingly include pre-K, their responsibilities of supervision, coaching, and evaluation must incorporate a broader understanding of how young children learn, teachers of young children teach, and collaborative relationships across settings develop.

Addressed in a recent webinar “Supporting Principal Leadership for P–3rd Grade Learning Communities” sponsored by CEELO, the National Association of Elementary School Principals, and the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education, the critical role of principal continues to be redefined. More than 600 principals, administrators, and early education leaders from almost every state and the District of Columbia registered, signaling the pivotal role played by principals to ensure greater continuity across what have been traditionally separate birth-five and K-12 systems. In what has become a “don’t wait until it’s too late” stance toward education, the importance of the early years has become everyone’s business.

While the role of principal remains demanding in every sense, a sigh of relief can be heard as principals realize there is a broad base of support available for them. High quality early education may already be happening throughout their communities in Head Start, child care, and children’s homes; it’s a matter of developing partnerships with these programs rather than starting from scratch. In addition to NAESP’s Leading Pre-K – 3 Learning Communities: Competencies for Effective Principal Practice and Kauerz & Coffman’s Framework for Planning, Implementing, and Evaluating PreK-3rd Grade Approaches, resources are plentiful, from the PreK–3rd Grade National Work Group, Foundation for Child Development, National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, and others. States such as Connecticut, Indiana, Maine, and Pennsylvania are providing leadership to support principals as P-3 leaders through conferences and institutes, influenced by programs such as the University of Washington Certificate in P–3 Executive Leadership and the National Institute for School Leadership.

As challenging as the role of principal is, they have a front row seat when it comes to witnessing the fruits of their labor by embracing a P-3rd grade approach. Principals have the opportunity to look beyond school report cards to watch the joy of learning each day. And when the time comes to send the children off to the next level of education and life, they can rest assured that their time has been very well spent.

–Jim Squires, Senior Research Fellow, National Institute for Early Education Research and Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes

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