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Moving early childhood professional learning online: What we’ve learned in NYC

By Helen Barahal and Omar Etman

The week that the COVID-19 pandemic closed school buildings in New York City, the professional learning teams at the New York City Department of Education’s Division of Early Childhood Education (DECE) were scheduled to provide in-person professional learning sessions for thousands of early childhood educators and program leaders. Prior to the shutdown, DECE had been developing a long-term plan to build a system for online professional learning. Suddenly our six-month plan became a six-week rollout. Our rush to bring professional learning online, and the response from participants showed us the possibilities of high quality, interactive remote professional learning, as well as its challenges.

DECE collaborated with colleagues from across the NYC Department of Education, including the Division of Instructional and Information Technology, to launch an interactive online professional learning management system, through which educators and early childhood program leaders could select from a range of online courses. For content, we partnered with outside organizations and the Department of Education teams, including the Office of Equity and Access. As classrooms made the move to remote learning, we were newly able to provide remote professional learning, asynchronously and synchronously, to educators and program leaders at the close of the school year.

To our delight, participant feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Educators enjoyed the chance to learn at their own pace and select the learning opportunities that best met their needs. Online professional learning presents opportunities for differentiated experiences that are accessible to more educators. The lessons we’ve learned since our unexpectedly quick rollout will allow us to build capacity not only during the pandemic but beyond.

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Building the capacity of the NYC early childhood sector 

The New York City Department of Education serves 1.1 million students from birth through grade 12; approximately 100,000 of those students are in Pre-K or below. In 2014, the department began expanding its reach to offer Pre-K for All to all four-year-olds in the city. The expansion has ramped up in recent years, and now serves children from birth through Pre-K in a range of settings, including family childcare homes, Pre-K centers, Head Start programs, community-based organizations, and public elementary schools.

Across these settings, early childhood programs are directly supported by a team of staff that includes instructional coordinators, social workers, operations analysts, policy support specialists, and education administrators, among others who provide the day-to-day support that is part of our larger approach to capacity-building. Instructional coordinators provide coaching and, before the pandemic, facilitated in-person professional learning communities for thousands of educators. The focus of their support toward continuous improvement in high-quality early childhood programming is defined by our Early Childhood Framework for Quality.

The city’s vast and complex system of early childhood education settings presents challenges for professional learning, namely how to provide support to educators and leaders in ways that are convenient, engaging, and differentiated. As part of our strategic shift to online professional learning, we knew we should also continue our focus on building the capacity of leaders. Early childhood program leaders include individuals like public school principals, Head Start directors, and leaders of community-based programs. They have varying degrees of expertise in early childhood education and leadership experience. While we provide many supports to programs, ultimately leaders are there every day bringing their vision for early childhood education to life. Our professional learning sessions, developed in collaboration with partners, are informed by leader preferences and data gathered from across the system. Through toolkits of professional learning activities, we are supporting leaders as they facilitate their own, more local professional learning.

Professional learning for equity in early childhood education

One of the many partnerships that DECE is committed to is with the Department of Education’s Office of Equity and Access (OEA). Through our collaboration with OEA, we have begun two major professional learning projects: 1) offering a virtual Implicit Bias Awareness Workshop to all our early childhood programs, and 2) developing a new professional learning toolkit focused on the first element of the Early Childhood Framework for Quality: respecting and valuing differences.

At the same time that we were wrestling with building the system that would allow us to shift from in-person to online professional learning, our colleagues at OEA were bringing their Implicit Bias Awareness workshops online. Since 2018, OEA has offered five hour, in-person implicit bias awareness workshops for all K-12 educators. Last school year, OEA extended the workshops to early childhood educators. Paul Forbes, Executive Director within OEA, explained the particular importance of anti-bias education for teachers of young children: “Research shows us that babies begin to reveal unconscious biases as young as six-months-old, and these biases increase as they get older. While we cannot eliminate our biases, we can mitigate the effects that they have on people, behaviors, practices, and policies. Therefore, it’s important that educators and leaders incorporate an anti-bias lens in their pedagogy, especially in early childhood programs.”

To bring the trainings online, Forbes and his team first extracted core concepts from the in-person implicit bias awareness workshops and incorporated them into four virtual modules. Three of the modules are asynchronous and self-paced, and the fourth is a 90-minute, virtual session facilitated live by a trained OEA team member. By focusing on self-reflection and continuing to incorporate live instruction, OEA found a way to remotely encourage teachers to consider their implicit biases while maintaining some of the human connection of in-person professional learning.

With OEA, we are also co-developing a professional learning toolkit of activities focused around the belief that “high-quality early childhood programs respect and value differences.” The Toolkit contains a full day of professional learning activities that can be facilitated by leaders or groups of educators, along with supporting resources and tips for facilitation. When the Toolkit is released in the fall of 2020, teachers and program leaders will be able to engage with the activities online as they choose, selecting the sections and sequences that best meet their needs. This latest Toolkit joins two previous Toolkits: Using Data to Inform Practice and Advancing Play-based Learning and Responsive Instruction. Taken together, they are meant to build the capacity of leaders and educators to drive their own professional learning, as part of our ongoing goal to offer flexible professional learning that supports and extends programs’ own efforts.

Looking ahead

As we enter another school year, we are continuing to learn how best to use our new capability for online professional learning. Like districts across the country, we are planning in the face of uncertainty. There is not one easy answer, especially in a system as large as ours where communities’ circumstances vary considerably. We will use our newly developed learning management system to augment the experience, expertise, and empathy of our instructional coordinators and other central support staff.

We know that human interaction is key to constructing understanding and high-quality professional learning. Until groups of people can gather together safely, DECE will conduct all professional learning and support through a combination of asynchronous and synchronous online experiences on a range of topics, including trauma-informed care, the Early Childhood Framework for Quality, and blended learning. The work that remains is significant and will only be successful through continued collaboration and dialogue across the NYC Department of Education and with program leaders, educators, and communities.

Helen Barahal (hbarahal@schools.nyc.gov) is executive director of teaching and learning and Omar Etman is coordinator of multilingual learning at the New York City Department of Education Division of Early Childhood Education.

 

 

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