Network Building is Essential as IMLS, Boston Children's Museum Early Learning Initiative Expands

The Boston Children’s Museum and the Institute of Museum and Library Services are doubling the number of states participating in a school readiness initiative. Creating a coalition of museums, libraries, and community groups is key to its success.

Expanding upon their efforts to prepare more children for kindergarten, the Boston Children’s Museum and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) recently announced plans to double the number of states participating in a school readiness initiative from three to six.

Building a National Network of Museums and Libraries for School Readiness is an initiative that aims to expose children to informal learning opportunities early on so that by the time they enter kindergarten, not only are they meeting academic standards, but they’re equipped with certain social and developmental skills such as knowing how to play with other children or how to hold a pencil.

Photo credit: Karin Hanson

The network will target vulnerable populations that are less likely to have access to so-called “school readiness” activities that foster social interactions and skills development among young children. Vulnerable populations include those living in rural areas, immigrant children, English learners and the socioeconomically disadvantaged.

By forming coalitions of museums, libraries, and community groups—within a state and among different states—organizers hope to not only to reach vulnerable families but to provide an avenue for member organizations to share resources and best practices that promote early education, said Kathryn Jones, senior director of community engagement for Boston Children’s Museum, which is spearheading the initiative with funding from IMLS.

“This is about network,” she said. “Institutions don’t have to work alone.”

The idea is for museums and libraries to partner with community organizations that interact regularly with the families they’re trying to reach and to have those groups promote programs that local museums and libraries provide, Jones said. For example, libraries may offer free playgroups that engage children in singing and activities that build their motor skills, but families aren’t always aware of them, she said.

A large body of research shows the benefits of school readiness, including a young learner’s ability to demonstrate academic proficiency, develop social-emotional skills, and exhibit fewer behavioral issues.

On the flip side, students who lag behind their peers when they start school usually remain behind through high school. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, children who can’t identify the letters of the alphabet at the start of kindergarten have substantially lower reading skills by the time they complete the first grade. 

Photo credit: Boston Children's Museum

Each state has its own standards as to what developmental skills—academic and social-emotional—children should be able to demonstrate at various stages from ages 0 to 5, Jones said. This initiative will take a look at those standards, identify the gaps in different communities and address them.

Plans for tackling the issues differ from state to state. In Massachusetts, museums, libraries, and partner organizations participated in a coordinated engagement effort to reach more families. In Virginia, museums, and libraries partnered with a social services agency with strong ties to the Latino community.

Boston Children’s Museum began addressing the issue of school readiness in 2012 when it received a federal Race to the Top grant to provide kits to museums and libraries throughout Massachusetts to expose children to science, technology, engineering, and math-related materials, along with other activities to get them ready for kindergarten.

Three years after the Race to the Top grant, the museum received a grant worth nearly $464,000 from IMLS to build upon that work. Nine “hubs” were established throughout Massachusetts, allowing for museum and library professionals and educators to receive resources and training to implement kindergarten readiness activities. The grant also allowed the Boston museum to help establish similar pilot programs in South Carolina and Virginia.

Now, with another $350,000 National Leadership Grant from IMLS, organizers are looking to strengthen networks that have already been established in Massachusetts, scale-up nascent networks in South Carolina and Virginia, and establish new networks in Iowa, Mississippi and New Mexico over the next three years.

The Education Development Center, a global nonprofit organization, will be a third-party evaluator to gauge the network’s progress and effectiveness.

Paula Gangopadhyay, deputy director of IMLS’s Office of Museum Services, said the hope is for institutions to continue the work after grant funds run out and for more networks to be established around the country in the future.

Photo credit: Boston Children's Museum

“Our goal is to scale up the current model to six states and ‘learn’ from the process,” Gangopadhyay said in an email. “The third-party evaluation will shed more light on the capacity of further expansion or replication.”

Jones also stressed the need to make sure the network is sustainable. Additionally, she said, participants will collect and rely heavily on data to inform their work.

“We’re going to be bringing all six states together, as a way to share and exchange [information], host webinars, conference calls and help build networks that exist so that they have continued capacity,” she said.

Linh Tat is a freelance reporter based in Southern California. Find her on Twitter at @Linh_Tat.



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