Setting up SAISD’s youngest learners for a lifetime of success

SAISD’s early childhood redesign in action

Traditional program: Lessons are based on pre-selected texts and curriculum.

DIFYC program: Teachers find out their students’ interests and personal experiences, and create lessons that relate directly to those interests and experiences.

Traditional program: A student is given a piece of candy or sticker when they get a correct answer.

DIFYC program: Teachers inspire the students to focus on enjoying the activity for what it is and what they and their classroom family and friends are learning.

Traditional program: Students are required to walk quietly down the hall, in straight lines.

DIFYC program: Students sing and chant as they move from their classroom to the library, touching the interactive learning objects that are pasted to the walls in the school.

This fall, San Antonio ISD has partnered with a team of researchers from The University of Texas at Austin in an ambitious, five-year collaboration aimed to redesign early childhood education in the District. Hands-on, child-centered learning where each child’s distinctive capabilities and their linguistic and cultural backgrounds are seen as assets is at the crux of the redesign.

Dynamic Innovation for Young Children, or DIFYC for short, puts the child, not the teacher or curriculum, at the center of the classroom and allows children to be active decision-makers in their own education. DIFYC sets the stage for a love of learning in a child’s educational journey through high school and beyond.

“The initiative is the first of its kind,” said Dr. Pauline Dow, deputy superintendent for Academics and School Leadership at SAISD. “It is not about pushing down a prepackaged program or curriculum recipe; we are redesigning and developing a new experience for our kids that allows them to become intellectual explorers and problem solvers.”

Though the redesign officially started during the 2018-19 school year, the spark that turned into the District-wide initiative was ignited three years ago with Dr. Alejandra Barraza, network principal at Carroll Early Childhood Education Center, who was pursuing her doctorate in early childhood education at UT Austin. Under the mentorship of Dr. Jennifer Adair, associate professor at the university’s College of Education, Barraza studied a number of research-proven methods of teaching young learners. Her eyes were opened to a new way of interacting with and teaching her student population.

“There are a number of facets that set classrooms using the DIFYC philosophy apart from other early childhood classrooms,” Barraza said. “We have expanded learning outside of the classroom. There are so many different spaces where learning goes on, it is not restrained to a classroom. And the way the teachers talk with the children and give them choices in their activities is key.”

Another unique aspect to the DIFYC philosophy is that extrinsic motivators are not used.

“There is no candy or stickers or, ‘Do this and the class gets a marble in the jar,’” Barraza said. “That is very behaviorist - do this, and you get that. Extrinsic motivators can be a quick fix, and we are trying to capture how kids create the sense of community that they want to do well because it is for the good of the whole group and not just because it is good for themselves.”

Barraza also said that if there is a conflict between students, teachers let the children work through it on their own.

“We embrace conflict, but the teacher is always close by to monitor the situation and show them how to use their words,” she said. “This helps our littlest learners enhance their communication skills and become more self-assured when conflict does arise.”

In addition to Carroll, five other SAISD schools are participating in the first year of the early childhood redesign: Advanced Learning Academy, Ball Academy, Cotton Academy, Tynan ECEC, and Gates ES. Eighteen teachers and six principals are participating in a series of professional development courses with members of the UT Austin redesign team, led by Adair.

Pre K Story“One significant factor of this professional development is that each principal from the participating schools is required to attend the trainings alongside their teachers,” said Dow. “The support and backing of administrators is key to helping teachers successfully implement the DIFYC philosophy in their classrooms.”

This different way of learning has shown extremely positive results at Carroll. An analysis of MAP testing among kindergarteners showed the scores of the students who attended Pre-K at Carroll were significantly higher than students who attended Pre-K outside of SAISD or at another SAISD campus.

Over the course of the next five years, it is estimated that more than 600 teachers and 50 principals will participate in a DIFYC professional development cohort in SAISD. Non-cohort participants, including teachers, instructional coaches, instructional assistants and principals will also be invited to engage in DIFYC workshops. More than 350 students will benefit from the program in the 2018-19 school year, and over 3,000 students will have benefited by the end of year five of the initiative.

“We need to change the paradigm of how we teach and what type of learning environments we offer the children,” said Barraza. “We don’t want to stifle our kids, we need to encourage them to be confident, self-aware learners so they are successful in the long run. We want them to not only be successful in school, but also in life.”