Collaborating to Build a Culturally Inclusive Early Childhood Education Approach

A decade-long research-practice partnership between the Eliot-Pearson Department and ABCD Head Start has improved science education for children and professional development for teachers
Preschoolers at ABCD Head Start & Children's Services learn science while creating paper sculptures in this photo taken in 2014.
“When Tufts students spend time in classrooms, they’re part of the classroom life. They're an extra pair of hands for the teacher, and they get to see amazing, dynamic classrooms,” said Christine McWayne. Photo: Taken in 2014, Courtesy of RISE
November 17, 2021

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A dozen years ago, professor Christine McWayne came to Tufts with a vision for preparing early childhood education teachers through an equity lens. One of the very first things she did was reach out to ABCD Head Start & Children’s Services, which runs several infant and toddler and preschool programs around Boston, about a potential research-practice partnership.

Today, that partnership is a decade-old endeavor that has not only prepared many Tufts students to work in partnership with communities, but also has provided thousands of young children from economically challenged backgrounds with science, technology, and engineering (STE) education and more than 130 Head Start preschool teachers with professional development.

At the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development, McWayne, who is director and principal investigator of the Readiness through Integrative Science and Engineering (RISE) Project, along with her colleagues, including co-principal investigator Jayanthi Mistry, focus on developing culturally relevant integrative preschool curriculum and home-school connections to support urban-residing, dual language learners. The mission of RISE aligns closely with the mission of Head Start, which provides services for early learning to low-income families and their young children prior to kindergarten.

“Head Start is not just an education program,” said McWayne. “It is a two-generational, whole-child, whole-family program. I’ve always been very interested in working with families and making community connections, and Head Start is an ideal place to do that.”

“One of the hallmarks of Head Start is a huge commitment to making sure the teachers they hire are reflective of the children they're serving. They may be the only program on a national scale to make that kind of promise," said Christine McWayne. Photo: Taken in 2019, courtesy of RISE

McWayne has worked with Head Start throughout her career, ever since she was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. When she and her colleagues received a grant in 2012 from the National Science Foundation to fund the partnership between RISE and Head Start, the collaboration became official.

Through the Head Start partnership, Tufts undergraduate and graduate students are “exposed to an amazing model,” she said. They have the opportunity to learn how to conduct education research in a preschool classroom setting and form deep connections with the teachers and children with whom they work.

“When our students spend time in classrooms, they’re part of the classroom life,” said McWayne. “They're an extra pair of hands for the teacher, and they get to see amazing, dynamic classrooms. But a big part of the benefit is for the preschool teachers, who are often taken for granted and their work devalued in society.”

The team at ABCD Head Start enjoys sharing their work with people who appreciate and respect what they’re doing, said Yvette Rodriguez, vice president of ABCD Head Start & Children’s Services.

“As an early education program, we take pride in saying that we are of high quality. We embrace and welcome any new research coming from an institution of higher education or health, because it adds more elements to the quality of the services that we provide,” said Rodriguez.

The partnership has gone through three phases over the years. During the first phase, Tufts students in the RISE program were in preschool classrooms conducting research about STE education. The second phase was focused on providing for stronger home-school connections and larger-scale professional development for Head Start teachers. And the third phase, happening now, is focused on providing professional development for Head Start education and family-community engagement supervisors.

“The partnership between Head Start and RISE represents the research-practice integration that is a signature of the Eliot-Pearson Department,” said Mistry, chair of the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development. “It recognizes the need to build and sustain long-term partnerships with public institutions and community-based organizations with the purpose of generating knowledge that is germane to both scientific discovery and community problem-solving.”

Hitting the Ground Running

In this photo taken in 2014, preschoolers at ABCD Head Start & Children's Services engage with engineering education through the partnership with RISE. Photo: Courtesy of RISE

In the first phase, which McWayne calls the development phase, they worked with Head Start teachers to understand what natural opportunities were available in classrooms for science and engineering.

“For three years, we spent a lot of time in classrooms, learning about the landscape, understanding the existing strengths teachers brought to the STE subject area,” said McWayne. “And we looked for opportunities that we felt were primed but missed — places we could support and bolster the teachers’ practice around science and engineering.”

Maria Cristina Limlingan, AG16, was McWayne’s first doctoral student at Tufts. Her role was to supervise a team of up to 20 Tufts undergraduate and graduate students who were embedded in Head Start preschool classrooms across five centers. Day to day, she traveled between the centers, meeting with her team as well as Head Start teachers and administrators, and relaying everything she saw and learned back to McWayne. She called it “one of the most meaningful and growing professional experiences I've had.”

“What Christy and Jayanthi have is really unique,” said Limlingan, who now works for Cultivate Learning, a research and professional development center at the University of Washington College of Education. “The students collected data for the research, but since they were embedded in classrooms from the beginning, the teachers knew them. They were like teacher assistants — there to support and learn. When the data needed to be collected, it was collected, but it wasn't like a researcher coming in cold. It was a long-standing relationship, and they were sensitive to the needs of the teachers and the children because of the time they spent in the classroom.”

Data gathered by the RISE students during this stage showed promise for the STE approach, which McWayne called a co-construction approach because there was co-construction happening between RISE and teachers, teachers and families, and RISE and families. They spent a year or two analyzing the data to best determine their next steps.

“What emerged was not a curriculum so much as an approach to building curriculum around science and engineering with Head Start teachers that incorporated children's familiar knowledge and families’ experiential knowledge,” said McWayne. “It’s really built on helping teachers access what families know and do for purposes of making school curriculum and classroom learning experiences more culturally inclusive.”

With this momentum, McWayne and Rodriguez decided to take phase two — the implementation and testing phase — to a larger scale and focus on building out the home-school connections component and the professional development approach for a bigger group of Head Start teachers. They created a randomized control trial, with a set number of teachers in the RISE intervention group, and a set number of teachers in the control group who were randomly assigned. Five times a year, they brought RISE teachers together for professional development, while also providing individualized classroom coaching.

“I saw the reaction,” said Rodriguez. “The quality of the teachers went straight up.” They felt happier, more respected, and more engaged with teaching.

“One of the hallmarks of Head Start is a genuine commitment to helping people develop professional skills and promoting from within,” said McWayne. “There's also a huge commitment to making sure the teachers they hire are reflective of the children they're serving. They may be the only program on a national scale to make that kind of promise to communities.”

Through this effort, they found even more evidence that the partnership was making a difference with respect to teachers and their practice of science and engineering teaching and with families experiencing fewer barriers to engaging with Head Start.

Today, an Evolved Partnership

“As an early education program, we embrace and welcome any new research coming from an institution of higher education or health, because it adds to the quality of the services we provide,” said Yvette Rodriguez (left), pictured with McWayne. Photo: Alonso Nichols / Tufts UniversityActive parent participation is part of Head Start’s core mission, but they wanted a fresh way of thinking about it. “Parents are our partners,” said Rodriguez. “We share governance, and they are a member of the decision-making process, whether regarding hiring, termination, or budget. This is very different from a traditional childcare program and even the public school system.”

Phase three focuses on taking the home-to-school approach to scale and bridging the efforts of Head Start’s education supervisors and coaches, who work with teachers to develop curriculum, with that of the family-community engagement supervisors, who help support families in their development of their child.

The education and social service arms of the agency wanted to figure out how to collaborate more regularly, and a pilot project with five local Head Start centers is helping them to do just that. The goal is to figure out how to implement a home-to-school approach across the Head Start program involving the social service team, which is closer to the families, as well as educators who can truly bring a home-to-school approach into the classroom for the benefit of children.

“Universities, especially privileged universities like Tufts, need to create bridges across the walls of the university to the community, to create authentic spaces in which members of the community can critically shape the dialogues that occur in universities regarding the local, national, and global communities within which they are located,” said Mistry.

“What we hope to document is how you bring a home-to-school approach to scale across these five programs, what are the challenges, what are the successes,” said McWayne. “There's no one way to do this, it's really about mindset shifts about how to work with families and how to have culturally inclusive curriculum. It's always easier said than done, but this is an opportunity for them, with our support, to try something new.”

And this is what McWayne, Mistry, Rodriguez, and Limlingan all love about RISE. There’s no set formula — people build on each other’s strengths and bring something wonderful to fruition.

“We're not evaluators. We're there to help them see the good things they're already doing and the opportunities they have because of the natural resources that a program like Head Start has,” said McWayne. “There's just so, so much opportunity to build. We feel lucky to get to do this work together!”

Angela Nelson can be reached at angela.nelson@tufts.edu.