The Big Lift
San Mateo County Office of Education
San Mateo is one of the wealthiest counties in the nation, but 50 percent of its children aren’t reading proficiently by third grade. When looking specifically at Latino, African American and Pacific Islander third-graders in the county, this number rises to 73 percent.
Decades of research has found that children who start behind stay behind. A child who can’t read at grade level by the third grade is four times more likely to drop out of high school by age 19 than a child who reads proficiently, according to the American Educational Research Association.
Building on a long history of collaborative approaches to improving the health and well-being of youth, three San Mateo County agencies founded a program called The Big Lift to change the odds for their kids.
“Our goal is to boost student literacy and achievement, and we know that giving children the support they need in the early years is the best way to reach this important milestone,” said San Mateo County Superintendent of Schools Anne Campbell.
The Big Lift combines two years of high-quality preschool with programs to reduce chronic absenteeism, reduce summer learning loss and engage families to support learning.
The collaborative is led by the San Mateo County Office of Education (SMCOE), the County of San Mateo and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.
These three lead agencies are practiced at working together to solve problems. They’ve been doing it since the mid-1990s, when they formed the Peninsula Partnership Leadership Council (PPLC) to improve educational outcomes for children in poverty. PPLC now includes more than 300 organizations and 450 county leaders, and The Big Lift is the focus of its efforts.
“Much of our work with The Big Lift is intentionally weaving together many different early learning efforts, including things the rest of the community is involved in, so we’re not working in siloes,” said Jean-Marie Houston, Director of Early Learning Support Services for SMCOE.
The Big Lift has raised about $33 million in funding, including grants from the federal Social Innovation Fund, San Mateo County Measure A tax dollars, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Silicon Valley Social Venture Fund, First 5 San Mateo County, Google, and the Heising-Simons Foundation.
The Big Lift is funding two cohorts of school district communities to participate in the program. Four communities were selected for the 2015-16 school year, enabling the program to serve 986 children in Big Lift preschool programs and 753 in The Big Lift “Inspiring Summers” program. Three additional school district communities were selected for the 2016-17 school year, doubling the number of children to be served in both programs in this next school year. Many more families are being served by the family engagement and attendance improvement efforts.
Each of the seven communities is made up of a school district, preschool programs and community partners who work together to provide a continuum of high-quality education experiences from preschool to grade three. All seven districts participating in The Big Lift have third-grade reading proficiency scores below the county average.
The Big Lift’s program is based on four “pillars” that will lead to improved outcomes for children:
1.) Quality preschool – A comprehensive school readiness strategy focused on high-quality preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds, leading to an aligned and sequenced set of quality learning experiences in kindergarten through third grade.
2.) Family engagement – Strengthening family and community engagement through strategies that encourage positive literacy experiences in the home and meaningful partnerships between families and schools. This fall The Big Lift will begin using the Ready4K text-messaging program that helps parents prepare their children for kindergarten. Other programs and approaches being used include “Raising a Reader Plus” and “Be Strong Families Parent Cafés.”
3.) Inspiring Summers – Development of inspiring summer learning opportunities that enable children to maintain their academic and developmental gains. The goal is to provide three years of evidence-based summer programs that build on the gains made in preschool. The summer program utilizes the evidence-based literacy program Better Educated Leaders for Life (BELL) in the morning followed by a STEM-focused enrichment component operated by the San Mateo County Library in the afternoon.
4.) Attendance Matters – A focus on reducing chronic absenteeism in the early grades. For this strategy, The Big Lift is partnering with a Harvard research project to find the most effective messages for parents about the importance of attendance.
SMCOE serves as the primary provider of technical assistance to The Big Lift preschool programs, including support for developing Quality Improvement Programs (QIP) and coaching and support to meet QIP goals; professional development; support meeting data collection requirements for evaluation; coaching in effective teaching practices; and support with developmental screening and family engagement. All Big Lift classrooms must be engaged in the CA-QRIS (Quality Rating Improvement System). SMCOE also supports an Early Childhood Language Development Institute to build programs’ skills in authentic family engagement (with a focus on dual language learners), and engages in data/evaluation capacity building and support for all pillars of The Big Lift.
Program evaluation is critical to The Big Lift model. Diana Harlick, Coordinator of Early Learning Quality Improvement Initiatives for The Big Lift, said an overarching evaluation designed by the RAND Corporation “focuses on both the quality of program implementation as well as the ultimate impact of The Big Lift on kids.”
“We’ll use focus groups, surveys, client data and interviews to see how well we’re executing the key programmatic pillars, and to determine if they’re coordinated in strategic ways,” Harlick said.
This school year the four districts in the first Big Lift cohort are administering the Brigance kindergarten readiness assessment on all incoming kindergartners, while the districts in the second cohort will launch the assessment next year. “The districts had to agree to administer the Brigance to all kids in the district, so we can compare Big Lift kids to others,” Harlick said. “This allows us to assess the impact of preschool, because Big Lift kids will have had one or two years of preschool before being assessed.”
The Big Lift will also use the Fountas & Pinnell literacy assessment data to look at progress made between kindergarten and third grade, and to determine whether the “Inspiring Summers” program prevents students from losing ground, Harlick said. Ultimately, The Big Lift will look at standardized test scores in third grade to assess its impact on third grade reading proficiency.
Houston said the county has also figured out a local strategy for assigning preschool kids a Statewide Student Identifier (SSID) to help them track student progress.
The county has been “moving into the realm of big data collection” with various systems for collecting information about students, classrooms, teachers, families and communities, Houston said. “The idea is that we can look at a large sets of data and do analyses in ways we couldn’t do before.
“Our county is investing a lot of Measure A sales tax revenue into The Big Lift,” Houston said. “County supervisors have been very supportive, but they need to know their support is making a difference.”
Three county leaders oversee The Big Lift “and have been the spirit behind it,” Houston said: County Superintendent of Schools Anne Campbell, County Supervisor Carole Groom and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation’s Erica Wood.
“They’re out there all the time rallying people,” she said. “The fact that we have our county leaders front and center, working together and contributing their resources and talent has helped make The Big Lift possible.”
For more information:
• The Big Lift website provides information about how the collaborative was created, who the partners are, key programs, funding and more.
• The Silicon Valley Community Foundation’s website offers background information about The Big Lift, as well as the RFP for preschool implementation.
• More about Big Lift funding from the County of San Mateo is available here.