PBS is turning its educational focus to America’s youngest learners as it rolls out several initiatives and deepens its collaborations with stations to help kids prepare for school.
“We are planting our flag firmly on a single goal: Kindergarten readiness for all children across America,” said Lesli Rotenberg, SVP and GM, children’s media and education, at the PBS Annual Meeting in New Orleans this month. “This is where PBS Kids can make the biggest impact and where your stations are uniquely positioned to make a difference.”
The need is critical, Rotenberg said. Nearly half of America’s kids under 6 years old live in low-income homes, she said, and many enter kindergarten lacking the skills they need to succeed. School-readiness skills encompass both early literacy and social, emotional and physical development, such as being able to count to 10, write their own name and play well with others.
Sara Schapiro, VP of education, said PBS’ strategy will prioritize content, community-building and professional learning.
“We believe engagement across these three areas will lead to measurable improvement in teaching practice, a stronger educator workforce, and, most importantly, better outcomes for kids,” Schapiro said.
Many of PBS’s initiatives are aimed at parents and early childhood educators. A revamp of the PBS Kids for Parents website will add station co-branding and optimize content for use on mobile devices. PBS EdCamps, a pilot program that invites preschool teachers to gather for participant-driven professional development, will expand. PBS also will build on its Teacher Community Program, a grant-based initiative that supports the work of “Teacher Ambassadors.” These employees, now placed at five stations around the country, help provide professional development resources to educators in rural communities.
Rotenberg noted that member stations “represent the critical ‘last mile’ in connecting PBS content and local services designed to help children learn with the people who need them most.”
“If we work together,” Schapiro noted, “we can be there for the educators that need us most — so that they can be there for the kids who need them most.”
Edcamps fill gap for educators
Those educators are hungry for resources. When PBS premiered a virtual training series in January for pre-K to third grade teachers and childcare providers, “we used PBS Kids branding for the first time to target educators,” Schapiro said. “The results? We shattered all of our previous records for virtual trainings — in fact, so many educators wanted to participate that we crashed the server.”
“Looking ahead,” Schapiro added, “we plan not to crash the server, but really, to build on this success with an ongoing series of free virtual trainings” available through stations.
PBS Edcamp, a participant-drive approach to professional development for educators, is also filling the gap for those who work with preschool children. Responses to the pilot program were overwhelming, so PBS aims to expand it to 20 more stations.
Early childhood educators are “often isolated and need professional support,” said Laila Hirschfeld, PBS director of educator and community engagement, during an Annual Meeting session. She recalled attending the first PBS EdCamp in Detroit and realizing “They really want and need this.”
PBS partnered with EdCamp, a nonprofit that developed an “unconference” approach in 2010 to professional development for educators, to launch the pilot.
All PBS Edcamps are free, and participants develop the agenda the day of the event for their own learning experiences.
During the pilot PBS Edcamps, specifically designed for early childhood educators, topics included “biting and hair-pulling and crying in the classroom, potty training, teacher burnout and difficult conversations with parents,” Hirschfeld said.
Once topics are set, educators join the sessions that interest them. Participants take and share notes for each session.
Pilot stations reported enthusiastic responses in their communities. Louisiana Public Broadcasting quickly hit its maximum capacity for registration at 150 people. Seventy-four educators attended two Edcamps in Baton Rouge and Shreveport, said Nancy Tooraen, LPB education technology specialist. “We never expected that many,” she said.
At the events, educators finally get a chance to network. “They were so excited to make a new friend, and share contact information,” Tooraen said. “They left with a support system. These teachers don’t have that.”
For Detroit Public Television, “the experience also made us think about how we approach early childhood education,” said Georgeann Herbert, SVP of strategy and community engagement. The station is experimenting with using the Edcamp approach “almost as a diagnostic tool in neighborhoods where we expect to spend a lot of time, to surface the issues that educators are seeing.”
Maricella Borrel, director of education at KLRN in San Antonio, said the Edcamp “is honoring what teachers need. We give them the space to work and to have honest conversations.”
The initiatives on early childhood learning are supported by PBS’ proposed budget for fiscal year 2019. Ranked among four priorities is “focusing on children’s school readiness with content and experiences for kids, parents and teachers.” The priority is second only to “continued innovation in general audience programming.”
In the FY19 draft, now with stations for comment, grant revenue for Kids Content and Education is projected to grow from $2 million this fiscal year to $3.3 million in FY19. The increase is driven mainly by a CPB Digital Innovation grant that supports community engagement around the PBS Kids 24/7 service for children 2 to 8 years old. That line item is part of PBS’ $53.4 million proposed budget for Children’s Media and Education, projected to remain flat to this year’s revenues.
The Children’s Media and Education team is working on the goal of “measurably improving school readiness,” the draft budget said.
The draft budget noted that early childhood educators and caregivers “have an outsized influence on a child’s success in kindergarten and beyond, but often lack professional development opportunities and can benefit most from strategies that integrate our developmentally appropriate resources for young children.”