In 2021, the Texas Urban Council established collective goals for its member school systems. One of these goals is to increase “the average percentage of students within TUC districts meeting state 3rd-grade reading and math standards… while reducing existing racial and family income gaps.” Achievement in third grade is a lodestar for the Council because research has found it predictive of high school graduation and postsecondary achievement.
Studies also find success in third grade is itself predicted by kindergarten readiness, making the earliest years especially important for school leaders aiming to reach these goals. In recent years, TUC member district Aldine ISD has made impressive gains in this critical benchmark, holding scores steady through the pandemic and growing seven percentage points just in the last school year.
Aldine Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning Patty Rodríguez sees this growth as the culmination of years worth of effort and several success factors rather than the result of any singular strategy: “I look at it as different layers that just kept strengthening our program.” Rodriguez and Early Learning Executive Director Ray Mondragon were gracious enough to outline those “layers” – and how they built upon one another – in the conversation excerpted below.
Data-Driven Decision Making
Rodríguez: “As we dove into the data, we realized there are many things that still were not quite right in early childhood … What I thought was important [was] painting the current reality, really naming and stating ‘these are all the things that we have done thus far, and this is where we are at, and this would be the trajectory if we continue on this way.’ A clear picture was painted, without judgment, without pointing fingers. [We] state[ed], as leaders, ‘we’ve got to do something different for our kids. This isn’t working.’ We brought in lots of research [on] how we support our youngest learners. What came out of all of that was one united vision.
And that’s when Mr. Mondragon stepped in, and he brought this vision to the classroom [through] our early childhood framework.”
The “Laserlike Focus” of Primary Campuses
Mondragon: “Our district has 12 primary schools that only house prekindergarten and kindergarten. Then on top of that, we had a dedicated leader for those 12 primary schools, our school assistant superintendent Ms. Rodríguez [then Assistant Supt. of Primary Schools], who had that laserlike focus on what primary needed to look like.
That is an essential configuration that’s unique to Aldine. We can support our leaders in knowing what’s appropriate and where we need to get our students to be at those two specific grade levels. They’re not focusing on third grade. They’re not focusing on [STAAR]. They’re focusing on the youngest learners in our district. Our school assistant superintendent focused on our youngest learners, and I, as the executive director, were all moving in the same direction. There was no fragmentation in our dedication to getting our students ready to be kindergarten and first grade ready, which aligns with our overall district strategic plan.
We reconfigured the district to have 12 primary schools [in 2018]. That really dovetails quite nicely [with] this data: over the years of having that specific configuration, [we] have continued to raise the scores.”
High-Quality Instructional Materials (HQIM)
Rodríguez: “What [HQIM] means is that the curriculum, the resources, that material that we are putting in front of children are at the correct rigor, age-appropriate, [and] gives them access to whatever learning experience they’re about to have between themselves, other children and the teachers.
Regarding 3- to 6-year-olds, we look at language development and how readers become proficient. According to research, there is an actual order in which that type of instruction happens. This is the order in which children should be exposed to different kinds of lessons regarding phonics and decoding. It doesn’t matter how Mr. Mondragon taught when he was a teacher and the same for me. Our HQIM is going to support that.
Why that’s important is because, in Aldine, we want to make sure that from classroom to classroom or from campus to campus across the district, wherever a student chooses to go to school and then for whatever reason has to move, we are sure that they’re going to get that same quality of instruction. Campuses don’t need to create their own curriculum. It is there for them, and all we have to do is support our teachers to help children to access it.”
Mission-Driven School Leadership
Rodríguez: “Our definition [of a school leader centers] around inspiring, connecting, and impacting. That’s broad, but we define role-specific behaviors in each bucket. Language is part of our coaching when we coach leaders about professional development. [That] is what distinguishes leaders in Aldine.”
Mondragon: “And then how I support that is leaning into: what does that look like on a primary campus? We cannot make our 4- and 5-year-old classrooms look like younger versions of first- and second-grade classrooms. What are the best practices you need to know as a school principal when you enter a classroom? What does the environment look like? How are teachers interacting with 4- and 5-year-olds that produce the best outcomes? How are you supporting teachers to understand how to develop lessons, bring in strong oral language development, and play-based learning?
We have trained most principals using CLASS [the Classroom Assessment Scoring System]. This really supports our teachers in enhancing their skills by developing lessons and interactions with students.”
A Seat At The Table
Mondragon: “Is early learning part of your strategy? Is it part of your focus for your district? Where can it be found? Is it part of your overall district strategy? Do you have an early learning framework?
One thing to consider as a superintendent is where is your early learning leader in the organizational structure? Are they at the table with the cabinet? Or are they buried so far below in the organizational structure that they must go through many bureaucratic layers to get what they need to be done for their program?
In Aldine, the early learning leaders are not buried. The Primary School Assistant Superintendent sits on the executive leadership team while the Executive Director of Early Learning reports to the Chief Academic Officer. We are up at a level where we can move the work. I could develop proposals, we could create and improve our programs. This was done effectively because we didn’t have to go through many layers within the organization.