As we work to ensure that every child in Santa Clara County gets the strong start they deserve, it’s worth looking around at other early care and education initiatives across the country to see how other folks are doing it, and to remind ourselves that we are part of a movement. The recent release of the San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury report on “The Big Lift” is a great excuse to revisit what our immediate neighbors to the north have been up to, and what they’re finding so far.
In 2013, San Mateo County launched its “Big Lift” initiative to address the fact that fewer than 50% of the county’s children were reading at third grade level. Based on the early learning literature, the initiative uses a four pronged approach of (i) expanding preschool access, (ii) providing summer programs emphasizing literacy and science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) opportunities, (iii) reducing chronic absenteeism and (iv) involving parents in their children’s learning by fostering partnerships among schools, families and local community organizations. Rather than taking a universal approach, the Big Lift focuses school districts with large numbers of students with lower than average English Language Arts test scores, and high proportions of racial minority students, English learners, and economically disadvantaged families, enrolling students from four districts in 2015-16, and an additional three districts in the county in 2016-17.
In 2017, the RAND Corporation published an interim research report on participation in two of Big Lift’s pillars — preschool and summer learning — and measures of readiness at kindergarten entry for the children enrolled in the first four districts. The two Big Lift programs served approximately one third of the entering 2016–2017 kindergarten class in the participating districts (525 of 1,496 children) with roughly one third of children attending the preschool only, one third attending the summer program only, and one third attending both. Of the non-Big Lift children, almost 60% attended some kind of preschool prior to attending kindergarten. Children in the Big Lift programs were more likely to come from less educated and poorer families than the rest of the entering kindergarten class and were more likely to have a home language other than English. However, once these demographic differences were accounted for, the analysis showed that children who attended Big Lift preschools were far more likely to be kindergarten ready than children who did not attend preschool. Comparisons between Big Lift preschoolers and non–Big Lift preschools suggested these groups were equally likely to score in or above the average range on kindergarten readiness. These initial data suggest that the programs are performing as intended – enrolling children with demographic challenges and preparing them for kindergarten. Additional findings are expected at the end of this summer with the first data on third grade reading scores expected towards the end of 2020.
The Big Lift has not been without challenges. The program began with a $10 million in start-up funds from the County of San Mateo and a $7.5 million grant from the federal Social Innovation Fund. An anticipated $9 million in federal continuation funding was subsequently cancelled under a budget continuing resolution, leading to $11.4 million deficit in the funding needed to complete the five-year program. The Big Lift leadership is currently seeking additional capital and funding streams.