Whitmire: Partnering With Charters, AppleTree Plants Seeds for New Approach to Early Childhood Ed

Richard Whitmire
Washington, D.C.
Preschool classes have a way of looking alike. Tiny kids gather on big rugs as teachers read stories aloud. Then they shuffle off to small groups to beaver away at mini-projects. Always, they sniffle, and occasionally, they melt down.
And yet, some of those preschools change lives, while others, despite looking pretty much the same, achieve little more than babysitting your kid for a day.
Truly, preschool is more like rocket science than you might think. So why do we so often leave it to semi-professionals — or even amateurs?
Here in Washington, which leads the nation both in preschool participation and smart charter school policy (half the students here attend charters), an answer is emerging: Turn preschool over to true professionals by partnering and co-locating a preschool charter with a charter that specializes in elementary grades.
(The 74: Washington, D.C. — The Pre-K Capital Where Nearly All 4-Year-Olds (and Most 3-Year-Olds!) Go to School)
These twinnings appear to have promise.
“They allow charters to work together doing what they do best, focusing on areas where they have expertise,” said Anne Malone, chief of schools for Washington-based AppleTree Early Learning, which partners with several charters here. “AppleTree has no business teaching first grade. We’ve been around for years focusing only on early childhood. So it’s two schools doing what they do best.”
All of which raises the obvious question: Why is this not happening elsewhere in the country? There’s no good explanation, other than the combination of paltry preschool funding and myopic lawmakers imposing mindless barriers.
But there truly is a better way of doing this, and that’s what I’m observing on a recent rainy Tuesday: a highly regarded preschool charter, AppleTree, twinned with an innovative charter school, Rocketship Rise. AppleTree takes the preschoolers (3-year-olds) and pre-K children (4-year-olds) and then passes them along to Rocketship kindergarten teachers.
Again, each school doing what it does best, with AppleTree operating within the new Rocketship building as a partner.
Here’s what it looks like on this day (Sample a video of AppleTree daily rhythms) in the classroom: I’m watching lead teacher Alexandra Bellamy (two lead teachers present, both with college degrees, and two teachers-in-training observing) read The Canyon with 15 4-year-olds gathered ’round on the carpet.
Looks like every other preschool, right? Not really.
Let’s start with the fact that The Canyon is one of 110 books that AppleTree staffers and consultants wrote and published themselves, a story based on a Mayan folk tale that was shaped to fit AppleTree’s unique needs.
How many preschools do that?
There’s a reason AppleTree went into publishing despite the fact that thousands of children’s books are already available. For starters, few are written by minority authors, with the unique perspectives that brings. In this Rocketship classroom, located in D.C.’s high-poverty Eighth Ward, all the students are African-American.
Plus, AppleTree needs stories that can surface precise skills, including social-emotional. Here’s another sample of an AppleTree book.
I’m sitting with Belinda Jackson, who oversees the partnerships that emerge when schools adopt AppleTree’s Every Child Ready curriculum. (AppleTree makes it available to other early-childhood operators.) She opens an Every Child Ready page on her laptop to show exactly where the students are as they listen to The Canyon. Every vocabulary word emphasized by Bellamy as she reads is part of a multiple-step literacy progression, leading up to Common Core standards and beyond.
Sound too serious for little kids? Trust me, each of these sessions begins and ends with “wriggle” callouts, inviting the kids to shake out their squirms. There’s nothing flash-cardy going on here.
Having a preschool that understands preschool-as-rocket-science isn’t the only advantage Rocketship enjoys with AppleTree as its partner. AppleTree, with 10 sites around Washington, has a reservoir of kids whose parents end up looking for good elementary schools. Any charter embracing AppleTree gets love in return, by way of students sent their way.
Among Rocketship’s first kindergarten class, 78 of the 120 kids came from AppleTree schools. For a California-based charter operator such as Rocketship, establishing its first school in D.C., that’s a recruiting dream come true.
There’s another advantage: Children enrolled in the AppleTree program at Rocketship get automatic admission into Rocketship at kindergarten. No need to enter the school lottery. That’s a big win for parents fretting over where their kids will go to school.
The final advantage falls to Rocketship: By tapping into the AppleTree pipeline, Rocketship gets far more school-ready kids. That became obvious to Rocketship Rise school leader Josh Pacos when the school opened this year with nearly two thirds of the kindergartners coming from AppleTree programs.
“The biggest difference is that AppleTree kids come to us with higher-level foundational skills in reading and math,” said Pacos. “Plus, they have much stronger social-emotional skills. They have a stronger ability to persevere through challenges.”
In January, AppleTree and Rocketship will begin what they call a vertical alignment process, which means introducing the pre-K students to life as a Rocketship kindergartner. That could be dubbed a “no surprises” policy for Rocketship teachers, who will be ready to meet the exact needs of each child on day one.
Sounds impressive, right? So why doesn’t this happen elsewhere?
Part of that answer is pretty simple: Washington not only has universal preschool (no means testing); it also gives preschools an almost unheard-of amount of money, roughly $18,000 per child. Hardly a surprise that AppleTree emerged in Washington.
But that doesn’t preclude AppleTree-like charters from forming elsewhere in the country, especially considering the national, bipartisan push for opening more preschools. Why not have experts run those preschools?
For starters, many educators don’t see preschool as rocket science. Some schools, including charters, seem to think that opening up preschool classes amounts to little more than expanding their kindergartens to lower grades. But in reality, said Nina Rees, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, designing great programs for 3- and 4-year-olds is every bit as challenging as starting a two-year associate’s degree program for high school graduates. How many K-12 schools would even think of taking that on?
Also, charters have a profit motive for doing their own early-childhood programs. Compared to the upper grades, where schools must provide sports and chemistry labs, preschools can appear inexpensive. The temptation can be difficult to resist: Why not take preschool funding, shift those “profits” to the upper grades and spend less on the early-childhood grades?
AppleTree, by contrast, spends every penny just on its programs for 3- and 4-year-olds. The intricate learning program AppleTree spent years developing, Every Child Ready, is just one example of how that money gets spent.
Why look to charters for innovation here? Because unlike programs such as Head Start, where accountability consists of input checklists to ensure everything is being done per official guidance, innovators such as AppleTree are free to focus solely on one output challenge: What actually makes children ready for kindergarten and beyond?
AppleTree is guided by an audacious goal: In just two years, make up ground for kids who grew up in high-poverty households. “What we’ve seen so far is encouraging,” said AppleTree founder Jack McCarthy.
It all comes down to: Preschool is rocket science, and rocket science ain’t cheap.
One way to urge schools to do right by its preschoolers is guidance from a heavy hand. In Washington, that hand belongs to Scott Pearson, who runs the Public Charter School Board. As he is the overseer of who gets green-lighted to open schools, what Pearson “suggests” to charter operators carries enormous weight.
These AppleTree charter-to-charter partnerships, four in total within the district, were strongly encouraged by Pearson.
“Many of our elementary schools recognize that running a quality pre-K program is a very different challenge than running a quality elementary school,” said Pearson. “At times we have steered elementary schools to working with a quality outside partner for preschool. For example, we’ll recommend partnering for a new applicant that has a strong elementary program design but a weak or nonexistent preschool program design.”
Opening up AppleTree-like compacts in other cities would require overcoming a myriad of legal impediments, as Sara Mead, who leads the early-childhood work at Bellwether Education Partners, discovered as she researched the hurdles.
So what would it take to see D.C.-like twinnings elsewhere? “We would need to see more states treating education for 3- and 4-year-olds as a core part of their education system, with sustainable funding mechanisms,” said Mead.
Rees would love to see other AppleTree-like charters spring up around the country, which is one reason she scheduled a special pre-conference gathering on early childhood at next year’s annual national meeting of the alliance — to be held, conveniently, in Washington.
One national kickstarter for spreading the practice, said Rees, could come from philanthropists who fund charters. To date, they have focused on early-childhood specialties, such as Montessori. But in D.C., anyone visiting an AppleTree site will get a glimpse of what could be broadly transformative in other cities.
Said Rees, “We’re trying to start the conversation.”

Kauffman Foundation senior fellow Richard Whitmire is the author of several education books.

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