The Rapides Foundation’s Education Initiative recognizes the importance of preparing children for kindergarten. Children who enter kindergarten “ready to learn” are more likely to go through their school careers without repeating a grade, and they have higher graduation rates and increased employment opportunities when they become adults.
The initiative’s School Readiness component offers several strategies to ensure children are prepared for kindergarten, including institutes designed to improve the quality of early childhood education centers in Central Louisiana and workshops that show parents how to teach their young children at home.
The School Readiness component is the newest component of the longstanding Education Initiative, which seeks to increase the level of educational attainment and achievement as the primary path to improved economic, social and health status. This focus on the birth to 5 age group complements work already being done in the initiative’s Effective Schools component, which focuses on enhancing the instructional core in the nine public school districts by supporting instructional leadership and professional development.
“Our focus to improve early learning is working with teachers and staff at Pre-K, Head Start and Childcare Centers to better prepare them to work with the children and to improve their quality rating. In our community-based programs, we work with parents with children ages 0 to 5 in the areas of reading and math,” said Joe Rosier, President and CEO of The Rapides Foundation.
The School Readiness component was launched several years ago in response to Louisiana legislation that transferred early childhood programs to the Louisiana Department of Education. The statewide move gave parents a central location to find services, and it implemented a quality rating program for early childhood providers – similar to the way K-12 schools are rated. The goal is to ensure that Louisiana children receive quality educational experiences in childcare settings.
The Orchard Foundation, the education arm of The Rapides Foundation, administers programs under the School Readiness component.
Professional Development for Teachers and Leaders
The earliest work under this focus area consists of professional development institutes designed to help early childhood educators meet the new set of performance and academic standards set forth by the state. These institutes cover Teaching Strategies Gold, the state’s Birth to Kindergarten assessment tool; and Teachstone CLASS (Classroom Assessment Scoring System) Observation Reliability training, which prepares an observer to assess the quality of teaching in the classroom.
In 2022, The Orchard Foundation began offering two early childhood center director coaching programs: the Instructional Leadership Institute and the Business Leadership Institute. Both are designed to improve the quality at childcare and head start centers throughout the region, and they are offered remotely to help accommodate the long, busy schedules of childcare center directors and staff.
Michelle Smyth (left), Director and
Owner of TOTally Kids Childcare Center
and Assistant Director Gracie McQueen
participate in the Business Leadership
Institute for Early Learning Leaders.
“We want to ensure that when children are in childcare, they are receiving a quality educational experience, which will lead to them being kindergarten ready when they enroll in school,” said Marjorie Taylor, Executive Director of The Orchard Foundation.
Participants in the Instructional Leadership Institute learn how to bring high-quality instruction into their center. The Business Leadership Institute is designed to help directors with the business side of operating a childcare center.
“Running a childcare center is running a small business too. The Business Leadership Institute is about laws, about how to put things into place, how to make your center more professional and what to expect from employees,” said Rebekah Simpson, Program Manager for Early Childhood at The Orchard Foundation.
Participants of both programs meet twice a month, once as a group and once in a personal coaching session. Both institutes give childcare center directors a unique opportunity to share ideas and successes with other directors throughout the region and not see one another as competition.
“The Instructional Leadership Institute really parallels directly what we have been doing with the Effective Schools component for years, and it all ties back to our mission to improve the educational attainment level of the students in Central Louisiana. We know that in order to do that, it starts in the classroom, and it’s not just K-12 anymore. It’s lower than that,” Taylor said. “The curriculum of course is going to be different for early childhood, but you still have instructional quality, professional development, and child interaction in the classroom environment. All of those key things are the same.”
Early Childhood Literacy
The early literacy programs under this component recognize that a child’s first teacher is his parent or guardian. Read to Soar and its companion program, Math to Build On, consist of workshops for children ages 5 and under and their parents or caregivers. These family sessions help develop and strengthen a culture of reading at home by educating parents, building a child’s home library and increasing awareness about community resources to help ensure the child has the tools for school success.
Children earn a certificate of participation and up to 40 books for their home libraries. Read to Soar focuses on literacy while Math to Build On helps children develop math skills through reading and activities. Both programs show parents and caregivers how to continue and reinforce the learning at home. The Orchard Foundation has distributed more than 18,000 books to children who attended these workshops, which take place in various locations throughout Central Louisiana.
Rebekah Simpson, Program Manager
for Early Childhood at The Orchard
Foundation, leads a training session for
Literacy Specialists who present Read to
Soar and Math to Build On programs.
“We get a lot of feedback where the kids hold the parents accountable. The kids hear the stories in class and go home and ask their parents to read the story they heard in class. When their kids are asking them to do it, parents are going to be more likely to follow through and develop that in the nighttime schedule,” Simpson said. “Remember, as a parent or a caregiver, you are your child’s first teacher and you are your child’s teacher for life.”
These programs also help ensure that children will master their reading skills by the time they enter third grade, a crucial year for literacy development.
“We’ve come to know that if a child is not on reading level by the third grade, they are already way behind and are going to have challenges going forward,” Rosier said. “So these early literacy programs are in the community that involve the parent and the child at a very early age to start them on that road to literacy.”
Kagan Structures for Little Ones
For many years, The Orchard Foundation has offered Kagan Institutes for educators in Central Louisiana. Kagan workshops are focused on increasing student engagement through the teacher-child interaction.
Instructional Leadership and Business
Leadership institutes are offered virtually so
that childcare center staff can join the training
from their centers at convenient times.
Because these institutes have been so successful, The Orchard Foundation decided to expand and offer Kagan in the early childhood setting. It worked with Kagan to develop a Kagan Structures for Little Ones training institute that can be used for teachers of 3- and 4-year-old children and for students in kindergarten through second grade.
“This is another parallel to our K-12 work. We’ve trained thousands of people in the school districts in Kagan Learning and we’ve seen benefits,” Taylor said. “We took the success of that and found the author of Kagan Little Ones. It’s customized for our region.”