Putting Our Heads Together

by Nicole DellaRocco
December 3, 2012

Nicole DellaRocco is a Master’s candidate in Brown’s Urban Education Policy program.  As part of her participation in TRI-Lab, she interned at Rhode Island KIDS COUNT (RIKC) in the summer and fall semester. Nicole reflects on her work at RIKC and how it has informed her TRI-Lab project team’s work on the topic of “Baby Brains” (self-regulation, executive function, and early neurological development).

According to the Rhode Island KIDS COUNT 2013 Factbook, in 2012, 24% of English Language Learners (ELLs) scored at or above proficiency in reading on the NECAP exam, compared to 69% of fourth graders statewide (link to 2013 RIKC Factbook). Reading ability at 3rd grade is a major predictor of later academic success and these students are already significantly behind their peers.

Let me explain how this statistic connects to TRI-Lab.

A component of this year’s TRI-Lab was to have student participants intern with faculty or community practitioners over the summer. As a master’s candidate in the Urban Education Policy program at Brown University, I jumped at the chance to intern at Rhode Island KIDS COUNT (RIKC), a children’s policy and advocacy group (Executive Director, Elizabeth Burke Bryant and Senior Policy Analyst, Leanne Barrett are also involved with TRI-Lab). While flipping through the Factbook, the primary publication of RIKC that gives data across five areas of child well-being, I noticed a bar graph that pointed to a sharp contrast in student achievement between ELLs and their English speaking peers. The statistic I mentioned above stayed with me as I began the fall semester both as a TRI-Lab student and an intern at Rhode Island KIDS COUNT.

When it came time to begin to explore project ideas, the academic success of ELLs in Rhode Island came up as a potential project idea. Several reports have come out recently that talk about the achievement gap that exists between ELLs and non-ELLs and what those in the education community can do to better support these students. We noticed that many of these reports were not looking at ELLs before they entered kindergarten. We were aware of the achievement gap in later grades, but we wanted to find out more about the experience of a child who does not speak English in Rhode Island before they enter Kindergarten and what can we do to better support their language development. We also wanted to try to connect this to research on young children’s development of executive functioning, and more specifically, bilingual children’s development of executive functioning. Our challenge now is to combine language and executive functioning development into an intervention to improve school readiness and to work to close the achievement gap between ELLs and non-Ells in Rhode Island. Armed with data from KIDS COUNT, insights from faculty and community practitioners, and other students who are passionate about improving health early childhood development, we are ready to put our heads together to do just that.