What does it look like to get started with CLASS? Aven Ford of the Children's Coalition for Northeast Louisiana joins to discuss what it's like to implement CLASS observation. We explore effective methods for securing stakeholder buy-in and discuss the importance of performance profiles and personalized coaching in improving childcare quality, especially in rural communities. 


Watch & Listen Now

Read the Transcript 

Marnetta: Hello, listeners. It's me, Marnetta Larrimer, host here at Impacting the Classroom. As always, we like to kick off our conversation by asking, what's impacting the classroom? Today we have with us, Aven Ford. Aven, can you introduce yourself to our audience?

Aven: Hello, I'm Aven Ford with the Children's Coalition for Northeast Louisiana. We are based in Monroe, and we are a 501(c) non-profit. We work with the surrounding parishes in our area, working to help create communities where children and families thrive.

Marnetta: Wonderful. Welcome, Aven. Good to see you again.

Aven: It is good to see you again. We've met before.

Marnetta: Yup. I always love when Louisiana's in the house. Good vibes always. Today we want to talk about how your program implemented CLASS, what worked, what were the lessons you learned, and any recommendations you have for other programs. The first question I want to ask you is, what was your first impression of CLASS?

Aven: It's a new tool. I was first trained in the CLASS 2008 pre-K tool back in either 2013 or 2014, so about 10 years now. Prior to that, I was actually observing classrooms using the Itters and Eckers tool.

My first impression of CLASS is there are some similarities with the interactions. It was new, so it's like, okay, it's a little different, but once I learned the tool deeper, my impressions with this is going to continue to help get children to be ready for school and further down the line.

Marnetta: That's wonderful. I remember when it first rolled out with Act 3. It was 2012, Act 3 became a mandate. Yes, there are some similarities with Itters and Eckers, but just the fear that engulfs the state of Louisiana as this [...]. You had a very, very diplomatic way of approaching that. That's not what's happening up in the north part of Louisiana. We got this mandate that had to happen, so that meant we had to implement it. Can you define for us your implementation team and how it was formed?

Aven: As I mentioned earlier, I've been with the Children's Coalition for eight years this month of March. I joined in 2016. I actually joined the team prior to the implementation team being formed. When I first came to the Children's Coalition, I came on as a child care specialist with the Child Care Resource and Referral Agency as a coach, where I would go into centers and work one-on-one with teachers to help further improve their practices and interactions with children.

With our implementation team, the way that it ebbed, flowed, and formed throughout the years because we're always learning, what can we do a little bit better? What needs to be changed? As our implementation team, we've definitely worked to deepen our knowledge as a whole.

I am the CLASS observation specialist in our office, where I oversee all the observations for our community lead agencies that we house in our building. With our implementation team, at this point in time, it starts with me because I have that deep knowledge of CLASS, that deep understanding of the tool. I also hold several of the certifications for Train the Trainer for the observation tools as well as coaching and MMCI.

Because of that deep knowledge, it has made sense for me to be in this spot because I do a lot of double coding in Louisiana. We call that shadowing, where there are two of us going out and doing observations. I get to work one-on-one with our observers to also coach them in furthering their knowledge of the tools just making sure, where do you need some help? What can I do to help you better understand?

With our implementation team in the building, it's small. However, we also contract out our observers. We are actually quite a large team. I'm actually responsible. We house five community lead agencies in our building. That tends to be anywhere between 480–485 classrooms that have to ensure are observed in the fall and the spring. We do contract out our observers. If they're not trained, we get them trained because we have those in-house trainers, myself as well as other coworkers.

How our team gets formed, how our team grows as far as observers go, while we do let people know, like hey, we're are looking for observers because we're always can use more observers—like I said, we have a large number of classrooms—we get more word of mouth for those who are interested in observing. I will say it's very effective.

Very often, I'll be speaking to somebody and they'll say, oh, just last year, I retired teaching pre-K. Oh, you're a retired pre-K teacher? Would you like something to do for a couple of days a week? That's the way that we keep that team going and forming.

Marnetta: Wonderful. What I heard you say is in your implementation process, it was about, first of all, your team leads getting certified in CLASS in different age groups, but also through coaching. You use that to build a base of observers so that you could collect the data that you needed. I'm going to piggyback on some of that.

My next question would be, and I'm just going to go in the vein of observations, how do you communicate with educators in the weeks leading up to their CLASS observations?

Aven: In Louisiana, we have a system that is called the Early Childhood Portal. Within this, this is going to house literally everything. In the Early Childhood Portal, each site has a site administrator who has login information. Within that site is where I'll enter in the classroom names as they give them to me, some people.

If it's a smaller center that may only have three classrooms, you may have your infant classroom, toddler classroom, pre-K classroom. Larger centers may use room numbers. I put in the classroom names as well as the lead teacher that they report to me. From there, once I schedule the observation, I put those observation orders into the early childhood portal.

When I do that, it sends an email to the observer letting them know that they have an observation they need to do. The site administrator can also see those dates for the classrooms as well. That's one way how we communicate.

We also highly encourage our observers to call the day before just to confirm that it's still good. Recently, we're coming out of winter. There are times where we've had to reschedule observations because the observer goes to call, and the director's like, oh, I'm so glad you called. We just had to send that teacher home with the flu. Okay, well, you know what? We're going to see if we can reschedule that for a better day because it just might not be the best day for you. That's just another additional way that we communicate with sites.

Marnetta: Wonderful. As we stated, this became a mandate. We talked about some of the fury around that.

Aven: It's just the fear of the unknown.

Marnetta: It is. It's this thing. I think it's also in Louisiana, it came in different levels. It was also childcare facilities who were having those types of observations happening with them, whether they're public or private. It's just this unknown of what's happening. But with the eye on what was important, which is children having the opportunity to have high quality interactions with their educators and caregivers, there were some real shifts in Louisiana due to that work.

Aven: Yeah, that was a lot of hard work. It's still going on.

Marnetta: Absolutely. What have been your most effective methods in investing all the stakeholders in interactions and the CLASS system?

Aven: Some of the more effective ways of getting that buy-in from our stakeholders, which is a broad term. Our childcare directors set principals that have pre-K classrooms, early head start head starts, as well as those out that may be out in the community, looking at the closer stakeholders such as like I said, directors, principals, and all of that.

Part of it is in Louisiana, we have what are called performance profiles, where at the end of the year, after all observations are completed, and we also have what are called third party observers who observe a certain percentage of classrooms as well, just for those checks and balances to make sure we are observing accurately, all that gets calculated and sites get their performance profile for the year. Those are typically released in November the following year.

Part of that buy-in is it helps the sites to see their own growth. They can also let the parents of the children in their sites know like, hey, this is what we're doing to help your children get ready for school, as well as other parents who might have just recently moved to the area. Other ways too is we offer so many training opportunities for teachers to increase their knowledge in the CLASS tool, as well as just best practices with children.

We're also having that one-on-one coaching with our child care resource. Referral coaches have also helped them be more willing to continue to participate as well as far as outside stakeholders. It helps them see the importance of early childhood.

Learning begins at birth. It doesn't begin when they enter kindergarten or first grade, and the importance of that early learning and building those foundations because it's not just helping the future, it's also helping now as well. If we can do all these things now, there are less things down the road that we have to fix later.

Marnetta: Absolutely. My next question is around educators because we were talking about that, so I'm going to allude to that. You were talking about different training that you have available for them. We already know that you're doing MMCI class group coaching. Let's talk some about the coaching that's available for the educators and what that training and ongoing support looks like.

Aven: For our educators in our area, like I said, we house the child care resource and referral agency for our region that covers about 11 parishes, counties for those outside of Louisiana, of course. Those child care specialists, those coaches, go out and they work with the child care centers, as well as the family child care providers who are academically approved.

Our traditional child care isn't a fit for everybody. Northeast Louisiana is a more rural area as well, so sometimes we have to deal with these child care deserts. Those family child care providers definitely help to fill that. But our coaches, they'll go out work with the teachers one-on-one, and they just meet them where they're at. They do that in a variety of ways.

I know very often, there are some coaches that very much like to double code to shadow observations. They have that direct knowledge of what happened to be able to use that to build on top of it for the teacher as well. They'll work with the teachers one-on-one and be like, hey, what are your goals? What would you like to do? They work with them to help build towards those goals may be that the coach models with the children in the classroom for the teacher.

It may also influence the training that we provide on a weekly basis that cover a variety of topics. It covers CLASS topics, it covers developmental milestones, the different curricula that we see used in classrooms in our region. Those are just some of the educational supports.

We also are able to provide grants to these childcare centers as well that take a variety of forms. I know in the past we've done a classroom makeover grant, where there's an application process and sites that are selected. We get to choose just one classroom, unfortunately. We can only do one classroom at a time because we have our constraints as well.

We look at that classroom and say, okay, what do you have? What else do you need? You may have a teacher that's doing all right, doing well with what little she has. It's like, what could she do if she had all the shiny new objects? We've been able to do classroom makeovers.

Other grants to help books, blocks grants, all STEM-related grants, to get more materials in the classrooms. They always come with a training component to help the teacher better utilize those materials that they're bringing into the classroom.

Marnetta: What is the cadence of those one-to-one visits and those coaching sessions? What is the cadence of that?

Aven: It would vary from coach to coach and person to person. Everybody is different. The coaches are assigned to sites. That way those teachers know, I'm always going to see this person. That way they can build those relationships and build that trust. The coaches know the teachers that they're working with. They'll know, okay, she's a little hesitant to change, so I'm just going to have to slowly work with her and gain her trust. Other teachers are like, I know I can push her a little bit further. So it truly varies. I know that's not the clearest answer.

Marnetta: Is there a baseline number though? Regardless of where they are in that continuum, this is how many should happen in a quarter or in a month.

Aven: Visits with the teachers?

Marnetta: Yes, the coaching visit.

Aven: I'm not quite as familiar with all of those specific requirements of meeting with teacher A, X number of times. I can say it probably most likely does vary from teacher to teacher just simply because some teachers are able to work towards their goal quicker than others. Others may have bigger goals.

Marnetta: Site by site, I’m agreeing with you. Educator by educator, but also depending on the site.

Aven: Absolutely. Some people are able to work towards their goals quicker, and some people might have those big goals that might take a little longer.

Marnetta: What about if you have educators that come mid-year? What does that process look like to put them into the fold of this CLASS system?

Aven: We do see teacher turnover from time to time. It's more common in childcares. Once I hear that there is a new teacher that has started, directors are typically really fantastic at letting me know. Hey, I just had a teacher left, I'm getting a new teacher. Depending on when that observation is scheduled, if that observation is scheduled for next week, we need to have that teacher in the classroom for two weeks prior to being eligible to be observed. However, when it's a new teacher, I always do what I can to work with directors and work with sites when it comes to observations.

When it's earlier in the observation period, it's a lot easier to kind of, okay, well, I can definitely move this much further out. Closer to the end of the observation period, it gets a little trickier. I always try to push that observation a little bit further so the coach can have time to get in there and work with that teacher as well, just so she can at least get that first observation.

Something I always tell directors and teachers is, think of this as your starting point. Until you have that first observation, you don't know where you are and you don't know where you want to go. I just try to put that silver lining in there. It's my first one, you can only go up.

Marnetta: I love that. We talked about implementation from the base, everyone getting reliable, building a system so that you can train observers and build capacity. We talked about the observation. We've done this, and now we have to observe the classroom. Let's talk a little bit about data. Who is responsible for planning how you collect the CLASS data?

Aven: That would be me. One thing that does make me very good at my role is I do have that type A personality, where I want to be very organized and everything like that. Along with my class knowledge is that type A personality.

Before we start observations for the fall and the spring, I always send out a form to sites to just let me know. Give me the names of your classrooms with the teachers, as well as those age groups. That way I can ensure that the correct tool is getting used.

Sometimes when it's a toddler, pre-K mixed classroom, I might be asking for those birth dates just to make sure the classroom might not have changed tools between fall and spring. Occasionally, that does happen in childcare because enrollment can constantly change. Also, we had to close this classroom because we didn't have enough children, or we opened a new classroom.

I collect all that information along with, do you know of any days or dates that would not be ideal for an observation? You might have a site that says, well, Wednesdays really aren't the best because we have chapel on Wednesdays, or we've got a field trip planned on this day.

Once I take that information, I collect all that data, and then I have a big beautiful desk calendar, where I have all of my observers placed on the days that they like to observe color coded. For me, it helps to see that layout on a calendar on the days of the week. That way I know, oh, the 15th is a Wednesday, I need to avoid this day.

I collect all of that data and I put it into the early childhood portal, which also does allow us to run reports so I know what observations are being put into the portal in that timely manner, which ones do I need to follow-up on if I have one that's planned to be a double code. I can make sure that that's being tracked as well because I have to have a certain percentage of those. If one's showing up that should have been a double code, I could contact that observer like, hey, did you forget to mark it, or did something just happen where it didn't take place? I'm doing a lot of work with that data.

Marnetta: You are excited about it too.

Aven: Yes, I do strangely get excited about data these days.

Marnetta: There's nothing wrong with that. What decisions have been influenced by your CLASS data?

Aven: A lot. So many decisions are based on the CLASS data. Our childcare specialist teams, those coaches, use that data to know which dimensions they really need to focus on when working with those coaches. It also helps influence what training we need to offer. Sometimes I'm able to break down the data geographically as well to know, maybe this area looks like they need more help with quality feedback in that toddler tool, so let's see what kind of toddler quality feedback training we can provide for this area specifically or even this site.

Our data definitely drives how we coach and train our teachers. We also use that data, like I said, it goes towards the performance profiles. That data can also go towards helping with some of those school readiness tax credit grants that we're also able to offer the childcare centers as well. It influences quite a bit. What materials could we put into some of these classrooms to help further support these interactions as well?

Marnetta: Lots of things really are informed from that data. You talked some about professional development. Can you elaborate on that? How does it inform professional development? You talked about some of the coaching, but what does that look like?

Aven: Professional development for our teachers?

Marnetta: In any capacity. The listeners want to know about all the pieces of your implementation in all the spaces, so whatever you can say.

Aven: Like I said, our professional development that we offer teachers comes through the training that we provide. We'll also have people from the various curricula that's out there come and do training on how to utilize that curriculum that they have in their classroom to be able to use it even further. That's always great when we can bring an outside person in because it's a fresh voice.

Sometimes we can say the same thing over and over, but then somebody else comes and says that it can sometimes be a new idea to them. We'll have outside entities come in from time to time to do training for these teachers as well.

Every late summer, fall time, right before schools really get going into gear, we always put together what we call a mini conference, our early childhood refresher, to get teachers ready for the next year of observations and implementing TS Gold, which is what the teachers use in the classrooms for that child assessment piece within Louisiana.

In this early childhood refresher, we always like to have a keynote speaker come and just really feed into the teachers. We offer topics. We do fun stuff during this time that they can take and learn, and then that Monday start doing it in the classrooms. That's some of the professional development that we offer for our teachers.

For our coaches, we're always looking for opportunities to further our knowledge bases. Some of those opportunities in professional development, as I mentioned, is having other people on the staff trained to deliver the observer training, to be able to deliver the MMCI coaching sessions as well.

For me, that MMCI is the gold for the teachers right there. If a teacher really wants to further their knowledge and their practices, it's an MMCI. To get our coaches trained to be able to deliver that can be able to get that out to them even further.

Having our teachers, our coaches get trained in how to train teachers in the various curricula that get used, as well as being trained to train teachers how to use ages and stages. The parent questionnaire can sometimes and most definitely help possibly increase referrals to early steps or other services because the sooner we can possibly catch something, the easier it is to be able to have that child get ready and successful for later on. We're always looking for ways to help our coaches and our teachers.

Marnetta: I hear a lot of things. As you're talking about curriculum, ages and stages, and things, I'm curious, is there intention to align that with CLASS, and how does it enhance the interactions in the classroom? Is that happening alongside that?

Aven: With ages and stages, that's a parent developmental screener. It's a little bit different, but even the curricula that are used in our region do support those teacher-child interactions that support those class interactions as well, because they're already that high quality curriculum as well. We do look at how can this help those best practices

Marnetta: Most definitely. Ages and stages is a parent questionnaire, but there's so much to gain from that. We think about teaching sensitivity and really getting our students where they are. Even though it lives as an important questionnaire, it does lean into this work you're doing with CLASS.

Aven: Absolutely because it helps that teacher know like, oh, I need to provide a few more fine motor activities. How can I help scaffold that fine motor development as well?

Marnetta: Absolutely. All the things, all the data helps to really inform and transform what's happening in that classroom. It sounds like a lot of that is happening where you are.

Aven: We definitely try our best to make sure.

Marnetta: What are some of the strategies that the coaches use to help educators adopt new practices?

Aven: I know some of the coaches like to double code and shadow those observations so they have that direct knowledge of what truly took place during that observation in order to build on that teacher's current base as it is. Like I said, they're always meeting the teachers where they're at. Some teachers might be further down the road than others. Some might be just a little bit more hesitant.

Some of the strategies may be, well, we're just not going to worry about language modeling right now. Let's just look at how we can make this a more child-centered classroom and build on that regard, just baby step them along the way to build upon their knowledge base.

Marnetta. You talked about modeling earlier. I was just wondering what other tools in the belt you may have to share with the listeners.

Aven: I know some of the coaches will go into the classroom and videotape a one 20-minute cycle. A lot of the more in-depth coaching sometimes takes place during that time because that's when the teacher can sit and speak with you.

During that time, they'll sit down and watch the video together. That really does allow the teacher to see, oh, I am using self and parallel talk. I didn't think that I was. I see where I'm doing self and parallel talk. Let them see some of those areas where they think, well, I'm not very strong here when it's like, no, you are. We've been trying to tell you, now you can see it, as well as help them see, oh, yeah, I could work on that a bit more.

Marnetta: Sometimes seeing it in action, being able to reflect in that way, and those video clips are beautiful to see what is happening more objectively.

Aven: Also, I know a lot of coaches do private training for a center that may be on a very specific topic that that center as a whole may possibly need as well. It might be even with a select group of teachers within that site.

Marnetta: I love that. I guess it just depends on what the need is with that isolated. Very intentional-specific. I guess it just depends, but it can vary on what they would need. But I love that. It's almost like a PLC within the space.

Aven: Absolutely. That's what we refer to as well.

Marnetta: Wonderful. One of your strategies is also to create these professional learning communities where educators can support each other in moving forward in the work.

Aven: Absolutely.

Marnetta: Wonderful. When you first were introduced to CLASS, we got your response. Have your beliefs about CLASS changed since then?

Aven: Yes. At first it was like, oh, this is new. I will admit, I don't like change. Change is scary and that's why, but change can also be really good as well. It's something that I'm always learning professionally and at home. Change is good.

At first it was really scary, but the more I've learned about the tool and the more in-depth that I've read about the tool, it really does. You can see how it is developmentally appropriate to those ages. Even a lot of people were nervous when Louisiana was switching from 2008 pre-K CLASS to second edition.

We had a year before we fully did that. That whole year, I'm sitting here studying up on it, getting ready to be able to communicate. It has a new name, but it's still the same. If you're an observer, that field guide makes it a lot easier to understand these interactions that you are seeing in the classroom. It's just helping them understand it is developmentally appropriate. These are things that you do see in the classroom. It's change for the positive.

Marnetta: It's like, we've already got this. Why are we changing?

Aven: It's just a new name. The interactions have not changed, the name is just new. That's all.

Marnetta: Yeah, none of those things changed. But I think what's to be celebrated about the second edition is just all the things that you've observed in classrooms that you were just like, why is this not part of this? Second edition just captures all of those interactions that represent all the communities that we serve as we observe classrooms. That's the celebration of it. Yes, the interactions haven't changed, but we are more intentional about including all the children and all the communities in those observations.

Aven: And expressing that in the language as well of the main field guide.

Marnetta: Absolutely. Through all of this implementation, what lesson did you learn that you'd want to share with our listeners?

Aven: You can always improve. There are always ways and places where you can maybe do something a little bit better, maybe a way that makes it a little bit easier from scheduling and how you go about scheduling. There are ways that you can improve on that, ways that you communicate. Observations can also be improved.

I try not to get overly confident. Yours is that balance of confidence where you have the confidence that you know what you’re doing. But you don’t want to get overly confident because that’s when mistakes start to happen, so always just keeping open to possible improvements. And hearing what others are doing and think, what is something they’re doing that I’m not doing that could work for me?

Marnetta: I love that. Thanks for sharing some lessons that you’ve learned. My last question would be what recommendations do you have for other programs who are wanting to implement CLASS?

Aven: Lean on your resources because you never know who might have a knowledge base that could be very helpful for you. Like I said, one of my favorite things to hear is, I’m a retired pre-K teacher. You are. These retired pre-K teachers can be a wonderful resource because they know what it’s like to be observed. They understand the tool. Also, having a former teacher observing you can bring a sense of comfortability to a teacher who might be a little nervous as well. Lean on your resources, always be willing to learn from your mistakes as well.

Marnetta: Wonderful. Thank you so much, Aven, for joining us.

Aven: Thank you so much. This has been a wonderful opportunity. Thank you so very much. It’s been great.

Marnetta: Listener, we hope you enjoyed today’s conversation, and you follow along for another great season. You can find today’s episode and transcript on our website, teachstone.com/podcasts. We’d love to know what you think, so drop us a like and a comment on Apple Podcasts or any of your other favorite streaming services, so we can continue to make content that is for you.

You can also send us an email at podcast@teachstone.com, or you just want to say hello or have some thoughts or ideas about some episodes you’d like to see. And as always, behind great leading and teaching are powerful interactions. Let’s build that culture together.