Abell Salutes: Baltimore County Head Start—Core Knowledge Partnership

June 2006 / Salutes / Education

For effecting quantum leaps in the cognitive development of at-risk children.

In fall 2001, only 22 percent of Baltimore County’s Head Start pre-schoolers entering kindergarten were assessed as “fully ready” for school by Maryland’s Model For School Readiness assessment; today, that percentage is 66. Moreover, Baltimore County Head Start children have moved from among the lowest performers in the State to the highest, surpassing the State average for Head Start students at 49 percent “fully ready.” (Urban Head Start programs with comparable demographics such as Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties have less significant increases. Baltimore City’s percentage of “fully ready” Head Start children was only 37 percent). Skeptics may well wonder what’s going on here, what’s making the difference?

What’s making the difference is the decision by Baltimore County Head Start and its operator, the YMCA of Central Maryland in 2001, to collaborate with the Core Knowledge Foundation in a five-year pre-school pilot program. Funded by the Abell Foundation and the Weinberg Foundation, the Core Knowledge Pre-School Initiative helped Baltimore County Head Start administrators, teachers, children and parents focus on providing the resources and training needed to produce what Heather Callister, director of the pre-school initiative, calls “quantum leaps in the cognitive development of at-risk children.”

Ms. Callister observes, “The remarkable success of the Baltimore County Head Start program is due, purely and simply, to the commitment of Head Start teachers and YMCA administrators to embrace change for
the betterment of the children.

“The change includes the adoption of the Core Knowledge preschool curriculum, which includes the best practices that research has identified and continues to identify. No rocket science here, just skill-based planning, intentional teaching that develops children’s skills, specifically early language and literacy classroom mentoring of teachers, and ongoing assessment of skills to evaluate a child’s progress and needs. Yes, and for the critics, play is an integral component. Core Knowledge is one of the very few pre-school curricula that has external evaluation to demonstrate its effectiveness. And finally at a cost of $450 per child annually, the project can be replicated.”

Over the last five years, the Core Knowledge Pre-School Initiative has provided not only intensive staff training for all County Head Start Teachers and Assistants in the Core Knowledge domains: Social Skills;
Children’s Literature; Phonemic Awareness; Oral Language; Mathematical and Scientific Reasoning; Art and Music; and Movement and Coordinators. In addition, every classroom was given the necessary resources
and materials to implement the curriculum and was provided with twice-monthly mentoring.

According to Ms. Callister, Baltimore County’s Head Start children are excelling in three of kindergarten’s most important and, for low income children, most challenging academic areas: language and literacy (53 percent ready); mathematical thinking (64 percent ready); and scientific thinking (45 percent ready). Baltimore County Head Start children rated 61 percent “fully ready” in the domain of social competence, on a par with the State average. The program runs four half-days a week, 20 percent of its children have assessed challenging behaviors and 10 percent are English As A Second Language (ESL) students. Interestingly, only 15 percent of Baltimore County Head Start teachers have a Bachelor’s Degree and a small percentage of those have a major in childhood education. “Yet,” Ms. Callister notes, “these teachers have demonstrated that, with adequate support, they are more than qualified for the challenge.”

The Abell Foundation salutes Baltimore County Head Start, the YMCA of Central Maryland, and the Core Knowledge Pre-School Initiative for effecting “quantum leaps in the cognitive development of at-risk children.”