Plant a Seed, Watch It Grow

Head Start integrated curriculum improves the odds for disadvantaged preschoolers

By Ann de Forest

The weeds in the overgrown garden at Vare Middle School tower over the preschoolers' heads. Susan Whittaker's Head Start class has spilled outdoors on a sunny May morning eager to explore. They're "busy," to use one of the classroom's favorite expressions, peering under leaves, brushing their hands against the feathery stalks, crouching low to examine the grass.

Some 15 minutes later, with an unerring sense for when energy and attention spans start to wane, "Miss Susan" sits her young students down on a curved stone wall in the shade. "What are some things you found in the garden?" she asks.

Hands shoot up. One by one each child presents a discovery. A cluster of ladybugs on a thick green stalk. Wild strawberries dotting the grass. A fat green caterpillar camouflaged under a leaf. "Flying bugs," says Tyshaun. "Peaches," says Ahyir. "I saw a vine," reports Devon with a grin of pride, obviously pleased to be applying a word he learned in the classroom to an experience in the outside world.

More than a romp outdoors on a fine spring day, this garden exploration is part of a carefully structured and innovative preschool curriculum designed by Penn GSE faculty and tested at 40 randomly selected Head Start classrooms in the School District of Philadelphia, including Susan Whittaker's. Funded by a $5.7 million federal grant, EPIC, short for Evidence-Based Program for the Integration of Curricula, is based on the hypothesis that focusing on preschoolers' social, emotional, and behavioral development will make them more resourceful and resilient learners.

Avid explorers, Devon, Ahyir, Tyshaun, and their Head Start classmates, face staggering odds in the years ahead. Living in poverty in an underserved urban neighborhood, they are disproportionately at risk for developmental lags and poor school performance. Vare Middle School, home to their Head Start classroom, ranks among the 52 most dangerous schools in the nation. For more than a generation, Head Start, signed into law in 1965 as part of Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty, has aimed to improve the odds for disadvantaged children. But until now no curriculum has existed that addressed the emotional, behavioral, and social concerns that make academic hurdles loom that much higher.

"Things are happening in these kids' lives," says EPIC co-investigator and Penn GSE Professor Paul McDermott. "Their brother might have been killed, or their father. How do we get teachers to realize that part of their job is to provide emotional support?" Self-regulation, attention, persistence, initiative, cooperation, and other behaviors "are skills that can be taught," says Penn GSE Professor John Fantuzzo, EPIC's principal investigator. For children who must cope daily with poverty, violence, fractured families, or parents who speak little or no English, such skills are also crucial to survival.

Designed by Fantuzzo, McDermott, and co-investigator and Penn GSE professor Vivian Gadsden, EPIC counters the distinction traditionally made — in schools of education as well as in classrooms — between the content a teacher "teaches" and the behaviors and social interactions a teacher must "manage." Such a split fosters what Fantuzzo decries as a "zookeeper" mentality in teachers, with predictably disastrous results. "When they're smaller we manage them," says Fantuzzo. "When they're larger we ‘special education' them."

EPIC, in contrast, integrates the social, emotional, and cognitive into one comprehensive and stimulating classroom program designed to give preschoolers a foundation in how to learn. As a result, EPIC-trained kids enter kindergarten equipped with more than a working knowledge of shapes, numbers, and ABCs. They know the value of being "busy" — that is, active, engaged, focused, working and thinking hard. They know to ask for help when they're stumped. And they know just what to do when they're feeling frustrated. Just ask any EPIC preschooler, and she'll tell you with a shake of her barrette-adorned head: "Take a break and take a deep breath."

As EPIC teachers attest, the formula works. "You should have seen them at the beginning of the year," says the upbeat Whittaker, arranging trays of petunias as her kids break up into small group activities of their choice. "They were so angry...." she puffs out her cheeks and balls up her fists in imitation of an angry three-year-old, "they had no confidence. All I heard was ‘I can't, I can't, I can't.'"

Such negativity is hard to picture in May. The class has big plans. The tangled lot will soon be transformed into a beautiful, ordered garden of fruits and vegetables.

"What do we need to plant our garden?" Miss Susan asks when everyone has finished presenting their discoveries. Small hands wave without hesitation. Devon, Sean, Ahyir, and the others stand up and speak confidently. They're brimming with ideas, and their teacher honors each suggestion. Wheelbarrows, they tell her. Shovels. Hoes. And, of course, seeds.

Over the past five years, as EPIC has been tested and refined, some 1,500 Philadelphia preschoolers have taken the lessons of their integrated curriculum to heart. "The first year with the little guys, I figured this was over their heads," says Susan Winkelspecht, who runs an EPIC classroom next door to Whittaker's at Vare. "When they came back in September, they started spouting the words back to me. ‘I'm really busy....'" Another teacher, Janet Luckey, laughs recalling her struggles one day trying to open a package, while her preschoolers watched. "Don't get frustrated, Mrs. Luckey," they advised her. "Go get some scissors."

Academics Plus

In designing EPIC, GSE drew on four curricula already tested successfully in Head Start classrooms: The Johns Hopkins University Language and Literacy Program, a curriculum that structures the scope and sequence of the school year by themed units like Gardening; Kidscount, an early numeracy curriculum; I Can Problem Solve, which fosters social interaction skills; and Learning Links, designed to enhance literacy and numeracy outcomes while protecting against social/emotional maladjustment. The biggest challenge, according to co-investigator Gadsden, was integrating these disparate curricula in a way that would satisfy educators in all camps. In particular, she anticipated criticism from literacy and numeracy specialists concerned that a curriculum focusing on children's emotions, behavior, and social skills would inevitably compromise academic content. "[We had] to make sure that we had a strong enough literacy curriculum that the literacy community would take us seriously," says Gadsden, recounting the first two years of curriculum development, in which her team pored through hundreds of picture books. "It was harder than we all expected" to find books that build vocabulary, reinforce counting skills and number recognition, and model behavior all at the same time. In the end several classroom classics, like Erik Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar, a literate counting book that also addresses "attention and persistence" fit the bill.

Now that EPIC's fifth year and final phase — randomized field trials — has ended, Gadsden can answer critics with confidence. "Just look at the value-added," she says. "[EPIC] speaks to literacy. It speaks to numeracy. Here's the plus that we have: it acknowledges the real lives of kids."

In fact, EPIC weaves together the best empirically tested approaches in pre-literacy, numeracy, and emotional and social and behavioral development so seamlessly that, to an outside observer, it's hard to see where emotional learning stops and academic learning begins. "You can't just go in and pull out a piece [of the curriculum]. That's one of the program's strengths," says Gadsden. When a three-year-old, asked to find the little seed hidden on a page of another Erik Carle classic, The Tiny Seed, stands stumped in front of her peers, her teacher gently encourages her to ask for a helping hand. In an EPIC classroom, even moments of academic struggle, rife with potential frustration and humiliation, are transformed into positive, affirming lessons into knowing how to ask for help when needed. Similarly, dialoguing, interactive readings, and key vocabulary, all important "building blocks" in an EPIC classroom day, are not seen merely as means to give kids an edge on standardized tests. Instead, enhanced language skills enable children to communicate their ideas and strengthen their friendships. Says Gadsden: "That's a real contribution to the full experiences of young children."

The teachers, many of them Head Start veterans, appreciate the "road map" EPIC gives them. When Winkelspecht came to Head Start 13 years ago after teaching in parochial school, "I was totally lost.... I felt like an arts and crafts teacher. [With EPIC] there's a curriculum to follow. It's more defined. It actually was a salvation." Adds Luckey, "This is the first time in my career that I've been excited about the curriculum."

Excitement abounds in the jam-packed EPIC day. Every minute serves an instructional purpose, yet the schedule never seems rigid or forced. Instead, the shifts from one activity to the next match the rhythms of preschoolers' energies and attention spans. Before exploring the outdoors, Whittaker's class gathered in circle to sing a song ("Dig, dig, dig a hole. Plant, plant, plant a seed.") and arrange picture cards into the proper sequence to tell a story about planting and growing tomatoes. In Small Group activities, some kids will choose to cut out Play Doh flowers with cookie cutters, while Miss Susan calls each in turn to plant a petunia in a pot. Right before lunch, they'll gather to be interviewed "Oprah-style," as Whittaker jokes, about the beans, popcorn, lemon, or apple seeds they collected at home, with their parents or grandparents. Home Connections, building on Vivian Gadsden's research on involving mothers and fathers in their children's education, further ensures these preschoolers' success by engaging their families in their learning.

The classroom environment, which EPIC designers call "the third teacher," changes along with the theme. Every inch of wall and floor space is alive with colorful details, purposefully chosen and displayed, from the picture books (Becoming Butterflies; In the Tall, Tall Grass; A Gardener's Alphabet) to the giant cut-out light bulb proclaiming "I have an idea" to the artwork the kids have made with their families as part of Home Connections. The curriculum also eliminates boundaries between instructional time and the "transitions" — the line-ups, bathroom breaks, coat donning and doffing — that devour so much precious time in the preschool day. EPIC fills these usually wasted moments with "thoughtful, fun activities," says Fantuzzo, that reinforce lessons about numbers and letters.

"It's not by happenstance," says Dr. Stephanie Childs, retired Assistant Director of the Pre-Kindergarten Head Start Program in the School District of Philadelphia. "It's intentional. It's deliberate." Agrees her SDP colleague Donna Piekarski, Officer of the Office of Early Childhood Education, "[In early childhood education] we're always trying to get the message across that there is some intentionality with three and four-year-olds. You need to bring the child where she or he is to the next place." Jennifer Plumer-Davis, Director of the Head Start Program, is also part of the School District team whose collaboration with GSE has been key to implementing EPIC.

Even assessment is built into the curriculum. During small group activities, the teachers perform regular check-ins with each student, sorting and matching games that quickly test their abilities and progress in counting, sorting, or identifying letters. A practical tool integrated into the classroom routine and tied to the curriculum, these weekly assessments differ from the traditional teacher reports, always regarded as an extra chore imposed on teachers' already overloaded schedules. Check-ins have become tools of empowerment, notes Gadsden; they show teachers "who are in classrooms everyday [that they] can engage in that same kind of observation [as researchers] and that it matters... to the well being of the child in the classroom but also as an important data source that can be used [in a broader context]."

"Having evidence that informs is critical in early childhood education," says Fantuzzo. For teachers, the check-ins also help them tailor their instruction to each individual child's skill level. In the words of Hannah Blaine, a 17-year Head Start veteran: "We teach them from where they're coming from, but we know where we want them to go."

Building the Plane As You Fly

What makes EPIC unique is that the teachers, all School District of Philadelphia employees, rather than GSE students or researchers, helped create and develop the curriculum as they were implementing it. The classroom teachers and their assistants meet weekly in small Learning Communities, where, guided by a mentor teacher, they voice their frustrations and concerns, share ideas, discuss what works and what doesn't, laugh, and shed a few tears as they talk about the real lives of the kids they teach. "We're building the plane we're flying it," Fantuzzo describes the process. "It's incredibly intense and creative," says Head Start coach Susan Bowdon.

"We plan, we implement, we go over, we revise. It's constant," Whittaker describes the Learning Community dynamic. "When anybody has something to say, it's listened to with respect and acted on. It gives a sense of ownership." For the GSE team, watching the teachers grow in the course of the EPIC project has been tremendously satisfying. Those who were most reluctant and skeptical have become EPIC's biggest proponents. Younger teachers now see themselves in a mentor's role. And teaching assistants, viewed as valuable partners in the classroom, envision continuing their education and running their own classroom someday.

"The learning community has just been fabulous," says Gadsden. "In a field where people just went into a classroom and did whatever they wanted to do, these teachers were willing to peel away their sense of insecurity to share their sense of practice, then were willing to work together cooperatively to improve their practice." Early childhood teachers are often the most isolated, especially in a public school district. The EPIC Learning Community brought a group of Head Start teachers together for a common cause. As Whittaker says, "We're not isolated anymore."

E is for Evidence

Even before the data are complete, the teachers involved already enthusiastically endorse the curriculum they helped design and implement. The School District of Philadelphia's Office of Early Childhood Education also regards EPIC as a success, the culmination of a longstanding collaboration with Fantuzzo and his GSE team. "It's been a strong and healthy partnership," says Childs. "We've been pioneers. So much new information has come out of this collaboration over a number of years."

The District appreciates that, unlike many urban-based university graduate programs in education, GSE does not regard them as a laboratory but as a partner. Fantuzzo, in the eyes of the Office of Early Childhood Education, is first and foremost an advocate, whose research aims to benefit the very same children the district serves.

Says Piekarski: "We have an understanding [with GSE] that whatever we're going to do is going to be immediately practical. As a large public school district, we have a lot of people who want to study our children. With GSE, we know the research is immediately practical and will benefit our teachers and our children."

One of those children, five-year old Ahyir, making pink Play Doh flowers in Whittaker's class, has her own criteria for evaluating EPIC. She likes school, she says. Why? "We play with lots of toys. We play Play Doh and Whack-a-Mole. We read some books. We take a nap and everything. We're really busy. Super, super busy."

Paul McDermott and the GSE assessment team, however, must distance themselves from the enthusiasm. Scientists evaluating EPIC's efficacy, they retain an objective stance on the enterprise. "For a lot of things, we have to keep a wall between us," says McDermott.

Finding tools that would assess the first-ever integrated preschool curriculum proved almost as challenging as building the curriculum itself. In the end, McDermott's team determined that all existing assessments were inadequate and developed the Learning Express, a short and engaging criterion-referenced test that addresses the short attention spans and shifting energy of very young children. Administered individually, the Learning Express assessment is also designed to measure a child's progress over very small intervals. "Most people don't make tests to be given multiple times during the year," McDermott explains. "We had to make the assessment tools from scratch. We do the statistical analysis and look at patterns of change over time. For each child we develop a chart curve to show their progress over time."

Complementing the Learning Express — and key to assessing the efficacy of EPIC's uniquely integrated curricula — are Learning-to-Learn Scales (LTLS), administered by the classroom teacher, who rates each child on 55 different behavioral items and Learning Express Behavior Scales (LEBS), which allows researchers to note a child's behaviors during testing that may reflect general attitudes towards learning. Since parent involvement through Home Connections is a crucial component of the EPIC curriculum, assessors also developed a questionnaire for parents to measure their satisfaction with their children's Head Start experience.

This coming year will see that data collected and published, with publication of the EPIC curriculum to follow. Then EPIC can benefit not just Philadelphia preschoolers but some of the 865,000 disadvantaged children enrolled in Head Start across the country.

The GSE team and the School District of Philadelphia partners would also like to expand the assessments to follow Devon, Ayhir, Tyshaun, and the other EPIC kids as they move on to kindergarten and beyond. In fact, the Early Childhood team at the School District would like to incorporate many of EPIC's innovations — particularly the Learning Community and Home Connections — continued in higher grades.

"If there be any concern that I have it's where do we go next?" says Piekarski. "How do we sustain it? How do we build it? How do we fund it? We don't want to just say the project's over and we've learned a lot. We've heard nothing but positives. It makes sense that we'll want to do it bigger and better."

As researchers sift through their data and prepare to publish the results, life in the Head Start classroom doesn't stop. Three children sit with Susan Whittaker at a small round table. She hands each an empty flowerpot. "What are you going to do now?" she asks. "Plant a flower," they answer. They pick the color petunia they want; they name the parts of the flower. "What do you need?" Miss Susan continues. They ask for dirt and a small shovel. They plant their flowers in the pot. "What do you need to help it grow?" she asks, smiling.

"Dig, dig, dig a hole/Plant, plant, plant a seed/Watch, watch, watch it grow," they sang together earlier in the morning. Now they're actually planting their own flowers, preparing them for the garden that the tangled mess outside will soon become. Whittaker smiles as she watches them, so intent on their task. They don't know that she's giving them what they need to grow, that she is working with a plan to transform their lives. "I can define EPIC in one word," says the 11-year veteran of Head Start. "Hope."