Marcella at the Early Childhood Professionals Learning Opportunities, October 2017

Early childhood professionals met with colleagues from throughout the state in a series of five regional conferences held by the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE), Division of Early Intervention and Special Education Services, to brainstorm and develop strategies to shift how early intervention and preschool special education services are provided in their communities.

The Early Childhood Professional Learning Opportunities (PLOs) were based on the imperatives outlined in the Strategic Plan for MSDE’s Division of Early Intervention and Special Education Services.

Local Infants and Toddlers Programs, local school systems, the Maryland School for the Blind, and the Maryland School for the Deaf sent local teams to learn about implementing a local birth to kindergarten system of services through evidence-based teaming, natural and inclusive learning opportunities, and effective coaching. Local teams worked on developing local implementation plans to support the broad goal of strengthening early childhood services, particularly for young children with disabilities and their families.

The PLOs were designed to offer early intervention providers, early childhood educators, and local program administrators with direction, resources, and ongoing support to design and implement a plan based on the identified needs of children with disabilities, birth to kindergarten, and their families.  The focus of these grants is on improving child and family outcomes, and narrowing the school readiness performance gap with nondisabled peers.

Marcella E. Franczkowski, Assistant State Superintendent, Division of Early Intervention and Special Education Services, emphasized the state’s vision of preparing students for college and successful careers beginning in early childhood through the use of strategic collaborations, evidence-based practices, data-informed decisions, professional learning, and family partnerships.

“There is no parent who does not want to do the best for their child. We have to inform them so that they can be engaged,” Franczkowski told PLO attendees. “The [most accurate] predictor of success of a child’s achievement—socially, emotionally, behavioral, and academically—is not ABCs, 123s, it’s the relationship between the family and school community.”

She also explained how some school systems would be pursuing a “culture shift” as key educators and administrators work to redefine and implement the mission of special education and early intervention services in their jurisdictions.

“It’s about creating opportunity and access,” Franczkowski said.

Mariam Robins arrived at the PLO with her team from Washington County with a near-ready plan in place and a vision that they knew aligned with Franczkowski’s. From the time the Washington County early education team heard about the grant opportunity last spring, they started discussing priorities and the best way to maximize the funds.

“When we walked in the door, I pretty much had a grant written,” said Robins, the Coordinator of Special Education Programs and Itinerant Services, and Supervisor for the Birth to Five Program in Washington County. “That working time [at the PLO] was us having a chance to all be together after meeting here and there, in hallways and cafeterias, in corners and stairwells.”

One of her team’s priorities is to improve family engagement, which means ensuring that all staff has had the training to be “comfortable and competent” in the classroom and with families of students with disabilities. Training on how to effectively communicate with families will be part of the grant proposal.

“We want the [entire] team to know the hopes and dreams of the families,” Robins said.

Educators from Wicomico County also attended their local PLO with an understanding of MSDE’s idea of a culture shift, as well as the need to address family engagement across their local early childhood programs.

Patti Adkins, the Birth to Five Supervisor for Wicomico County, explained her school system’s need to train teachers to help students be successful, as opposed to just focusing on the child needing to change.

“I see it bigger than just school-system people. We need to have this be a systemic change,” Adkins said.

Part of the systemic change includes providing families with more support so that students are prepared behaviorally when they enter kindergarten, reaching children well before they start school.

“We’re thinking, ‘How are we going to get the families engaged?’” Adkins said.

Harford County educators also took advantage of having the rare time of having their team together to discuss the most important issues facing their communities. They decided to take a closer look at some of their data and meet again to develop a strategic plan.

“[Today was] very useful, very helpful. We brought individuals together who have the ability to make good process implementations,” said Nicol Elliot, Coordinator of the Harford County Infants and Toddlers Program. “We have a lot of work ahead but we understand the long-term impact of this work.”

More resources and information about the Early Childhood PLO are available on Maryland Learning Links: