Delaware’s Secretary of Education, Dr. Susan Bunting, has a penchant for quality early learning. The Selbyville native, who previously helmed one of the state’s largest districts in Indian River, is a firm believer in the powers of high-quality pre-K. It’s why she helped spearhead the acclaimed Project V.I.L.L.A.G.E. program for four-year-olds who came from low-income Indian River families.
We caught up with Sec. Bunting to talk Project V.I.L.L.A.G.E., and her early learning priorities as the head of Delaware’s educational efforts.
As a lifelong educator, parent, and grandparent, tell us about your experience with children who get high-quality learning experiences before they get to kindergarten.
It can be hard to separate my parent/grandparent and educator selves, but in both areas, I see the need for children to be ready for kindergarten to be able to maximize what happens when they get there.
My mother was an educator, so I think this was always bred into me. I am one of those people who was reading to babies in utero and to infants.
We see the impact of high-quality learning before children get to kindergarten—the vocabulary of children who are read to and spoken with, and those who have context about what they are reading so they can understand the story and the ideas.
The children who have had some preschool experience are oriented to school, to a schedule, to finishing a task, and how to interact with each other. While the children who have no experience are not as well prepared. Without something miraculous happening, the gap these children enter with is something that persists throughout their lives.
What can you tell us about your approach and prioritization as Secretary of Education when it comes to early childhood education? Where would you like to see us go as a state?
I am particularly focused on what happens before kindergarten, because for those who have high-quality experiences, their transition is so much easier.
I would like to see Delaware make sure all students are entering with the skills they need to be ready to learn.
In addition, I am particularly concerned about the economically challenged child that might not otherwise have an early learning experience.
One of the success stories you were known for as Indian River’s superintendent was Project V.I.L.L.A.G.E. How did that program come to be? And, how did it inform your perspective on early learning?
When I was in the Indian River School District, we had the opportunity to apply for an Early Childhood Assistance Program (ECAP) [Delaware’s state funded pre-K program for four-year-olds from low-income families] grant. We didn’t have anyone to run it, so I was the administrator who ran the program, registered children, and oversaw the staff. And, to our board’s credit, they devoted district and Title I funds to the program.
A member of the community, a local priest, raised concerns about helping new migrant, Spanish-speaking neighbors in Sussex. He saw the need to work with children of workers at agricultural plants, which is why the program focused on English learners. The program has made a major difference for those students, so much that we have been able to track their progress throughout school and demonstrate that they continue to outperform their non-participating peers.
I remember when I was registering a family, a woman in tears said to me, “I always dreamed my children would have the opportunity to go to preschool…you are making it happen for my granddaughter.” I am still in touch with that child, who is thriving today.
The program, which is still in place today, received national recognition from the American Association of School Administrators and the National Association of State Boards of Education, and we were even able to create a scholarship for Project VILLAGE students who go on to college. It warms my heart to see the kids attending graduate programs, serving as leaders in student council, and coming back to teach in the district.
A number of districts have sought to expand their pre-K offerings for four-year-olds and to work with the early childhood community on shared professional development, walkthroughs, and other collaborations. What do you think has driven their efforts? And, how can we prioritize the teachers who are the most important factor in the classroom with students every day?
There is a growing interest in developing relationships with early learning programs and districts. One of the things we did in Indian River was include our ECAP teachers in district professional learning to ensure we had alignment and training for our workforce. Our reading specialists held workshops at night with child care and family child care providers on topics such as how to learn through music and how to read a book to a child. The specialists also went out to child care providers to model how to engage children in reading.
Other districts’ efforts are driven by recognition of lack of preparation for kindergarten. They see in their kindergarten screening/diagnostic tools that children are not where they should be in terms of vocabulary and basic concepts.
We saw last month from NIEER that some of our neighboring states are putting more emphasis on expanding state-sponsored pre-K for four-year-olds. How should we in Delaware approach pre-K?
We have seen a thirst to expand—in districts and in the community, and more can be done through ECAP efforts and other strategies. We see the opportunity, interest, and energy—to truly impact more children who need support. We will need resources and public will.
We are working with districts to leverage federal funding streams and opportunities in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), and the state is being supported by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and national experts to look at the policies involved in expanding high quality pre-K.
You’re a self-titled “die-hard optimist”—what are the biggest opportunities you see for Delaware’s students?
I am optimistic because we have caring educators, and we have more and more people who understand the importance of high-quality early childhood learning experiences—and that it is not babysitting but true learning and development.
As Hellen Keller said, “Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.”
We truly can impact forever the trajectory of a child by making sure he or she is ready to learn—and we have lots of work to do for kids!