Teachers changed to make the grade

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At Jackson Elementary School in Auburn-Gresham, state prekindergarten teacher Evelyn Green learned to respond softly rather than sternly to youngsters who misbehave. At Reinberg Elementary in Portage Park, Sharon Hoglind was prompted to invent a new way to help her non-English-speaking students develop language and literacy skills.

Both teachers made the changes after conducting thorough self-appraisals as part of their schools’ bids for accreditation from the National Academy of Early Childhood Programs, an arm of the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

The self-study is the hardest part of the accreditation process, teachers say, because it forces them to look closely at how they do their jobs.

But once a program is accredited, says Bonnie Roelle, an early childhood education facilitator for the Chicago public schools, “It’s like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. Accreditation means a program meets nationally recognized criteria for quality care and education.”

In Chicago, private preschools took the lead in seeking accreditation, while the public school system figured it didn’t need outside validation. In 1991, however, the system’s Department of Early Childhood Education decided that accreditation could be a route to program improvement. Since then, 17 of the 257 state prekindergarten programs in Chicago public schools have been accredited, and 25 more are going through the process.

The first step is the self-study. Teachers examine their programs, identifying what they teach, how they teach and whether what they do measures up to the National Academy’s standards. Then, teachers identify what they need to do to shore up any weaknesses. Parents also are asked to rate the program.

Next, an early childhood professional from the National Academy visits the school to determine whether the teacher’s description and ratings of the program are accurate. Finally, a three- person commission, comprised of early childhood professionals such as program administrators, teacher educators and researchers, reviews the self-study and the report from the site visit, and decides whether the program warrants accreditation.

For Hoglind, the process made her see that she wasn’t paying enough attention to language and literacy development. She had skirted that area, she explains, because 28 of her 36 students spoke other languages, including Spanish, Polish and Arabic, that she doesn’t speak. (Her aide speaks Italian.) The remedy she came up with was to have pupils “write” journals by drawing pictures.

“They draw a picture and tell us what it is. Even though they may tell us in their language, we figure out what they are saying either by looking at the picture or through their family members,” Hoglind relates. “At the beginning of the semester, we have some children that don’t say one word to us, but before long they are putting words together. I have really been seeing a difference since we started in March. The pictures are starting to get more elaborate, and they are telling stories in their journals.”

“I probably never would have thought up that idea if I hadn’t been trying to get accredited and was driven to come up with a solution.” she adds.

Green of Jackson Elementary says that she and her assistant came up short in the area of positive interaction with pupils, which contributes to all areas of a child’s growth and development.

“We had forgotten they were only 3, 4 and 5 years old,” she recalls. “Our kids really know how to push your buttons. We found that we were doing a lot of yelling and screaming and always using the ‘time-out’ chair,” where misbehaving children must sit to cool down.

Now, Green and her assistant speak in softer tones, bend down to speak at child’s-eye level and don’t “talk down” to the children. In place of the time-out chair, they ask unruly children themselves to find a place where they can be alone until they calm down. To make all children feel special, they also set up a schedule to ensure that two or three children get extra attention each day.

“We realized that quieter children may not have the teacher’s ear as much as some of the louder children. So, this way, each child gets noticed,” Green explains.

The accreditation process also asks teachers to look at their classrooms’ physical environment; here, too, Green found a need for improvement. First, she made her room cozier and more inviting by adding a rug and bean-bag chairs and by asking parents to make curtains. She also rearranged furniture and interest areas. For example, a loft that had been designated a “quiet area” was never used; so she converted it to a “discovery area,” with plants and a fish tank.

In the process of making all these changes, Green’s relationship with her assistant, Pearlie Billings, changed, too. “We watch each other and are more critical of each other, but in a constructive way,” she says. “She may tell me, ‘You spent more time on the phone and on paperwork than with the kids today.’ So I don’t let that happen again.”

Green and Hoglind say the accreditation process also opened their eyes to little things that make a difference.

For instance, while Hoglind and her students were good about washing their hands before meals, they had not been as diligent about hand-washing before using the water table, which children use to play with water toys. Hoglind also sometimes sat in the middle of the classroom, where she couldn’t see all the children. “I would miss some things that were going on in the room, but didn’t realize why,” she recalls. “Before the self-analysis, I had never even thought of that.”

Now, Green thinks she and her assistant should do a self-study every year. “If we don’t get accredited, I still think we have gotten better for our efforts,” she concludes.

For more information about the accreditation process, costs and eligibility, call the National Academy of Early Childhood Programs at (800) 424-2460.

Following these interviews, Reinberg’s preschool received accreditation. Jackson hopes it will be prepared to request a site visit in October.