Science and Literacy for Success

It’s 10 a.m. on a windy Tuesday in February, and Academy Manager of Early Childhood Programs Mariah Romaninsky knocks on the front door of a West Philadelphia row home. She’s greeted with a shower of hellos and smiles as she enters a warm living room filled with children’s books, easels and brightly colored drawings. Even though she’s reporting to work like any other day, she never quite knows what each day will bring. That’s what happens when preschools are your “office.”

woman helps small children wash dinosaurs in colorful backyard
Children from Ms. Cynthia’s Munchkin Romper Room create a dinosaur washing station after learning about paleontology with Mariah Romaninsky and the Academy’s Science and Literacy for Success program.

“You can teach the same lesson 12 days in a row, and each one will be completely different,” Romaninsky says. “I might be sitting on the floor, singing, laughing and even rolling around with the kids,” she says. “I might be reading books and singing songs with the class while the teacher helps a sick child or helping to hold a baby while teaching a lesson. Sometimes you’re just fitting into the day. It’s life, and the day-to-day is never the same.”

It’s work that Romaninsky loves.

Romaninsky visits different home-based childcare centers each day as part of the Academy’s program Science and Literacy for Success (SLFS), an initiative designed to enhance the quality of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and literacy instruction in classrooms. Created for teachers and children in under-resourced neighborhoods in Philadelphia, SLFS is the first program in Philadelphia to use a STEM-based curriculum in early childhood centers.

Woman guides students in discussion in a classroom
SLFS students touch a turtle shell while learning about animal armor.

The SLFS team works to increase early childhood providers’ success in teaching STEM and literacy skills, better preparing children for kindergarten and increasing families’ interest in these areas. In 2019, the program reached more than 700 children, 55 teachers, 25 schools and family childcare centers and two community-based organizations.

Over 50% of the families served are from the federally designated Promise Zone of West Philadelphia, a 2-square-mile area home to 36,000 people and designated by the Obama administration as an area of deep and persistent poverty. The Academy is working with our families in West Philadelphia to identify and break down these systemic barriers to children’s success.

“We are working together as community partners.” Romaninsky says. “We are there to be a part of the scene and become not just an outside source, but friends and partners for real,” she says.

Having resources from and sharing knowledge with a partner like the Academy has made every difference for the teachers, students and families the program reaches. In 2019, the partnership between the Academy and early childhood providers resulted in a 100% increase in the number of children enrolled in high-quality providers. Now, 57% of early childhood providers have a high-quality rating, up from 22%, in part due to the guidance Academy staff provide in classrooms and learning centers.

Why Early Childhood?

High quality ratings for childcare centers are incredibly important, because without them, families may not have a place they can depend on to prepare children for success in STEM and literacy in kindergarten and beyond. Despite teachers’ best efforts, early childhood training programs and curriculums often fall short on STEM. SLFS serves as a supplemental curriculum, providing practical ways to implement science education within existing curriculums.

Children raise hands and smile during group activity
Children have fun with hands-on science at an SLFS Pre-K Family Day at the Academy.

“Studies demonstrate that early science and math skill building not only improves pre-K literacy but also provides opportunities to exercise critical executive functioning skills that signal readiness for kindergarten,” Romaninsky says.

The Academy’s job is to find places for STEM to fit into existing curriculum units. For traditional preschool farm units, for example, Romaninsky and the early childhood team might discuss the different types of animals on the farm and their counterparts in the wild. This conversation opens up opportunities to chat about the animals’ basic needs, adaptations and more.

“We look for fun, scientifically accurate books that bring a way for the students to experience science in a nontechnical way,” Romaninsky says. “If we’re reading a book about arachnids, I may bring a tarantula puppet, and then we’ll do any number of activities leading from the book.”

While the teachers observe, Romaninsky demonstrates skills they can use when they reread the book with the class following her visit. After modeling the activity, Romaninsky will often watch the teacher do the activity and help them prepare to do the activity on their own, including brainstorming together about ideas for future lessons. They’ll meet again for mentoring, discussing the teacher’s and students’ progress.

A parent and child investigate a sinking and floating activity together during one of the STEM Family Days that are part of the Academy’s Science and Literacy for Success program.

Romaninsky’s team goes to larger childcare center classrooms to model hands-on teaching methods and activities. Then they help guide the teachers in implementing inquiry-based teaching methods.

“Modeling and mentoring for teachers in the classroom benefits all generations of kids coming through that classroom door — that knowledge gets passed along for as long as that teacher teaches,” Romaninsky says.

Owner, Operator and Educator at Lil’ Bits Family Child Care Adrienne Briggs opened her learning center nearly 30 years ago. In the past three years, she has been working closely with Romaninsky and the Academy to strengthen the STEM and literacy activities she shares with her students.

“Mariah and the program have been heaven-sent because they have opened the door to so many experiences for myself and my students,” she says. “We have been enlightened about bugs, worms and tortoises. These visits have been awesome. These were experiences that many may have never had.”

Training at the Museum

New opportunities for students and their families don’t end during the school day. Three times yearly, families are invited for special free days where they can do hands-on science and literacy activities while practicing using complimentary Family Learning Kits that support these skills. Families in Briggs’ center look forward to bonding over these hands-on activities, as well as having the opportunity to explore the entire museum free of charge.

Teachers holding colorful coral reef art in front of whiteboard
Teachers at an SLFS workshop show off their creations for a DIY coral reef in the classroom.

Museum opportunities also extend to teachers. Supplementing the classroom and in-home training for teachers, workshops and classes at the museum unite teachers from all over the city who are benefiting from the SLFS program. Many of the teachers the Academy collaborates with have a high school or GED degree or an associate’s degree and are working toward improving their qualifications or toward a higher degree. The workshops and training that the Academy provides can help these individuals gain professional development hours that they can count toward advanced certifications.

Given that many early childhood curriculums lack strength in STEM, even teachers with advanced training, like Briggs, who has a master’s degree in early childhood education, benefit from these experiences. For teachers working in home-based childhood centers, professional development workshops and one-on-one training increase comfort levels, interests in and understanding of how to build science, math and literacy skills among their students. One type of training activity they participate in involves having the teachers use Post-it notes to brainstorm science activities related to a variety of science story books. The teachers then take the books (Post-its included) back to their classrooms and use the activities in their teaching.

“Through these experiences and the tons of resources, I have added more STEAM activities into our regular schedule,” Briggs says. “Mariah is the best and we are so thankful for her and the program.”

Descubre! Juega! Comparte!

Descubre! Juega! Comparte! (Discover! Play! Share!) pairs families from local community-based organizations with museum educators during out-of-school time for bilingual dramatic play focused on literacy and natural science. Developed for Latino and Hispanic families and community members, the program partners with ASPIRA, Inc. and Congreso de Latino to offer the Academy’s successful STEM family workshops and museum days to underserved families in Philadelphia. These workshops help families increase children’s interest, ability and engagement in early literacy and provide families with the resources to improve their early literacy knowledge and skills.

Thank You!

This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. We are extremely grateful for the support of IMLS and the William Penn Foundation’s Great Learning Program, as well as Boeing, for making our early childhood programs successful.

By Mary Alice Hartsock

This article first appeared in the spring/summer 2020 issue of the Academy’s member magazine, Academy Frontiers.

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