Nashville awarded major federal grant to expand and improve early childhood education

Mayor Karl Dean, Board of Education Rep. Tyese Hunter and Dr. Jesse Register tour the Casa Azafrán Early Learning Center with Lisa Wiltshire, Director of Early Learning Innovation. Metro Schools has won a major new prekindergarten award from the U.S. Department of Education that will give $8.3 million to Metro Schools this year for the development and expansion of high quality pre-K in Nashville, with the possibility for a total of $33 million more over four years.

The most immediate impact of this award is to create 400 new prekindergarten seats, with half in Early Learning Centers and Metro schools and the other half at outside provider sites. Priority placement for these seats will be given to students who are economically disadvantaged or English Language learners, in an effort to help close the achievement gap and opportunity gap. The long-term plan is to use this award to align and improve early childhood education citywide, both in Metro Schools and among private providers, and ensure children are given the developmental and educational opportunities they need from birth to five years.

“This is great news for Nashville and the state of Tennessee,” said Director of Schools Dr. Jesse Register. “This grant will make an enormous difference in the lives of Nashville’s youngest children. Quality early childhood education is one of the most valuable efforts we can undertake to improve educational opportunities and outcomes. We need to continue investing in high-yield strategies like this to better the lives of all children.”

What does high-quality pre-K look like in Metro Schools?

The purpose of the grant is as much to develop and improve early learning as it is to expand access. Through this grant, Metro Schools and its partners will form the Early Childhood Education Commission to include United Way, the Nashville Association for the Education of Young Children, Head Start and private childcare providers. Their mission will be to align and strategically plan for early childhood services across Nashville. They will review all learning services from birth to five years and make annual recommendations to policy leaders. The Commission has its origins in Mayor Karl Dean’s Early Childhood Education Task Force.

“The Commission will bring long needed unity to early childhood services in Nashville,” said Mayor Karl Dean. “Once we are all operating under the same umbrella, we can give all children in Nashville the opportunities they deserve and make sure they are prepared for the first day of kindergarten.”

Students are not the only ones who will benefit from this program. Comprehensive wrap-around services for families are included, with support for:

  • health and mental health screenings,
  • social services,
  • nutrition services,
  • workforce development and
  • parent engagement.

Metro Schools’ top early childhood educators will work to develop the instructional side of this initiative. They will align pre-K instruction with kindergarten, first and second grades so children have a consistent, continuous educational experience and can carry the benefits from pre-K with them through elementary school. They will also work on continuous professional development for pre-K teachers and elementary school principals.

There will be mechanisms in place through third grade to monitor academic and other outcomes, as well as a continued partnership with the Peabody Research Institute (PRI) at Vanderbilt University. PRI assesses program quality in the new classrooms with a focus on student outcomes, growth and classroom observations.

Look inside the Early Learning Center at Casa Azafrán

“We know pre-K works,” said Dr. Register. “It is much better to invest early than to remediate later. We have learned from the pre-K programs that came before this, and that is why we are so focused on quality as much as expansion.

“Offering prekindergarten to every child who wants or needs it in Nashville is our goal. It is perhaps the single most important strategy we can implement to close achievement gaps, particularly for economically disadvantaged students and English learners. It is one of the central pillars of our district improvement efforts.”

This award was made possible because of the investment Mayor Dean, the Metro Council and Metro Schools made in prekindergarten this year by opening the Early Learning Centers at Ross, Bordeaux and Casa Azafrán. That $5 million counted as the matching funds required to be eligible for this grant.

Senator Lamar Alexander and Congressman Jim Cooper gave their full support to this application, and Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman helped coordinate our joint application with Memphis. The award was also strongly supported by Mayor Dean and his staff, the Chamber of Commerce, the Nashville Public Education Foundation, Stand for Children and the Hyde Foundation in Memphis. Continuing partners also played a key role, including Vanderbilt University, the Nashville Association for the Education of Young Children, United Way, Metro Action Commission and the hundreds of prekindergarten teachers and staff across Nashville.