UMBC’s Sherman Center for Early Learning in Urban Communities is transforming early childhood education in Maryland

Published: Oct 27, 2020

A group of woman of different races and ages stand next to eachother smiling at the camera while holding hard cover picture books in their hands. They are standing in between one white and one yellow standup banner with the words Sherman Center written on them.
Sherman Center for Early Childhood Learning in Urban Communities at one of their Families, Libraries, and Early Literacy Project events at Lakeland in Feb. 2019.

UMBC’s Sherman Center for Early Learning in Urban Communities is now in its third year of strengthening and expanding early childhood education in Maryland. The center was founded with the support of a $6 million grant from the George and Betsy Sherman Family Foundation in 2017. It has developed a series of research-based initiatives to address the needs of children from birth to eight years old in Maryland, and the workforce dedicated to educating them.

A group of four women stand with a standup banner in between them. The banner reads
(L to R) Betsy Sherman, Mavis Sanders, Louise Corwin, and Meredith Callanan. Photo by Chris Ferenzi for UMBC.

The initial grant founding the center helped establish the Maryland Early Childhood Leadership Program (MECLP), a faculty research fellowship, and an innovative literacy program. All three elements create a body of work that is transforming early childhood education—on campus, in Baltimore City, and across the state.

Strong partnerships with researchers, schools, and families are the foundation of this work. “We never say, ‘This is what we are going to do.’ We engage our partners in conversation about what they need,” shares Mavis Sanders, professor of education and director of the Sherman Center. 

“We try not to be reactive or directive, but responsive,” she says. “It is about listening. We can’t do our work without our partnerships.”

Two black women, one wearing a red dress and the other a beige shirt with a grey dress jacket, talk to each other while holding children's books. The woman with the grey jacket is holding a toddler. There is a column of balloons behind them.
Sanders (on the right) speaking with a parent at one of the Sherman Center’s Families, Libraries, and Early Literacy Project events at Lakeland.

Investing in early childhood research

The Sherman Center’s faculty research fellowships support faculty and their doctoral students. The funding helps them undertake research that expands knowledge about policies and practices related to early childhood education. The program encourages collaborations within and across departments, fields, and institutions. Awards range from $50,000 to $100,000. 

Kindel Nash and language, literacy, and culture (LLC) doctoral student Josh Michael ‘10, political science and education, were the inaugural research fellows in 2017-2018. Nash is an associate professor of education and Michael is the assistant director of UMBC’s Sherman STEM Teachers Scholars Program. Their multi-year study, in collaboration with Maree G. Farring Elementary/Middle School, examines the effects of using the Read Two Impress intervention with struggling third-grade readers. 

Three people stand, talking to one another, inside a meeting space, in office attire.
(L to R) Josh Michael, Kindel Nash, and Olivia Grimes’s ‘19, individualized study, discuss Grimes’s science lesson guide at the 2019 Summer Teacher Institute.

Nash explains this intervention in “Parents can help kids catch up in reading with a 10-minute daily routine” for The Conversation. Their research found that having bilingual books with culturally authentic content led to increased engagement among Latinx children and their families. Nash’s new book, Toward Culturally Sustaining Teaching, further explores this topic.

Evaluating the literacy fellows program

Two additional faculty received the award in 2018 – 2019. Susan Sonnenschein, professor of psychology, and Claudia Galindo, associate professor of education policy, University of Maryland, and former associate professor of LLC at UMBC. The team is working with Bay-Brook Elementary/Middle School and Curtis Bay Elementary/Middle School. They are studying the outcomes of the Sherman Center’s Literacy Fellows program, a collaboration with UMBC’s Shriver Center. 

The program provides teachers additional classroom support from UMBC student volunteers from all majors. Sherman Center Literacy fellows volunteered for nearly 300 hours in 2018 – 2019 and more than 500 hours in 2019 – 2020.

An adult works with three elementary school children at a table in a classroom with other  students in the background.
Nihira Mugamba ‘21, political science and Africana studies at Bay-Brook Elementary/Middle School as Shriver Literacy Fellow. Photo courtesy of Mugamba.

“Dr. Sonneschein and I have been working collaboratively for ten years. We take an interdisciplinary approach to examine family and school mechanisms. This helps to improve the educational experiences and outcomes of Black and Brown students,” explains Galindo. “We have witnessed the potential and impact of the Literacy Fellows program on students and teachers in Baltimore City.” 

Latest research awards focus on Judy Centers

Research awards for 2020 – 2021 were given to two research teams. The first team includes Patricia A. Young, associate professor of education, and Deborah Kabura Kariuki, clinical instructor of computer science education. Young and Kariuki are working on a year-long study, “Infusing a Culture-based Computational Thinking Curriculum in Urban Preschools.” They will partner with the Judith P. Hoyer Center Early Learning Hub at Lakeland Elementary/Middle School. Judy Centers help prepare children from age birth through kindergarten for school readiness.

A Black woman with shoulder length black hair wearing a white long sleeve shirt smiles at camera. Green trees are in the background.
Patricia Young. Photo courtesy of Young.

“It is imperative that disenfranchised students and communities have opportunities to explore computational thinking, to be active participants in this technological revolution,” shares Young. “Our research provides an introduction into the practices of computational thinking for preschoolers and the pedagogy for preschool teachers.” 

The team will create an e-learning module and computational thinking instructional materials to help children at the Judy Center learn these concepts.

A group of women of different ages and races wearing dark blue t-shirts stand around a table with children's books while two young girls wearing blue shirts stand in front of the table.
Judy Center staff members provide free books to early readers at a 2019 Sherman Center Families, Libraries, and Early Literacy Project event at Lakeland.

The second team includes Jane Lincove, associate professor of public policy; Lieny Jeon, assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Education; and Sarah Bollard, citywide coordinator for Judy Centers. They are working on a three-year study, “Judy Centers in Baltimore: Improving Data-Informed Decisions.” 

Diverse books anchor literacy 

The cornerstone of the Sherman Center is its focus on improving literacy experiences and outcomes for young learners in Baltimore City. “Literacy is a gateway to knowledge across all curriculum areas,” says Sanders. The Sherman Center has implemented four literacy interventions: the Diverse Books Project; Teacher Summer Institute; Literacy Fellows; and Families, Libraries, and Early Literacy Project. 

Two children's books about Black boys. are on a Black table cloth next to a brochure about the Sherman Center. One book is titled
The “Integrated Learning: Science Through Diverse Books” unit developed by UMBC alumna Olivia Grimes.

The Center implements these literacy programs through close partnerships with five Baltimore City Public Schools and 50 early childhood educators. Together, they reach about 1,250 children. They also work with approximately 30 families annually who have children ages birth to three, through the Judy Centers at Lakeland Elementary/Middle School and Curtis Bay Elementary/Middle School. 

A woman wearing jeans and a blue t-shirt kneels on a blue and red mat and points to a hard cover children's book on the mat. A toddler bends over to look at the book.
A parent reads to her toddler at a 2019 Sherman Center event.

The Diverse Books Project is a growing library of books housed at the Sherman Center. It reflects the lives and cultures of children and families of color. The books are used by UMBC teaching interns, graduate students, volunteers, and faculty, and by early childhood educators. They use the books to introduce and reinforce literacy across all subjects. 

Two adults and two children stand on a porch. All wear masks.
Lakeland teachers deliver school supplies to a student’s home in summer 2020.
Photo courtesy of Sanders.

Teaching with diverse books

During the Sherman Center’s Teacher Summer Institute teachers partner schools learn to use these books as tools to support literacy. They also explore how research-based strategies like translanguaging can support more inclusive, high-achieving classrooms.

Four women of mixed races and ages have a discussion while seated around a table with books in front of them.
Jennifer McMahon, associate professor of education, working with early childhood educators from Baltimore City Public Schools during the 2019 Teacher Summer Institute.

In 2019, 49 educators across the state requested 250 diverse books after working with the Sherman Center. The Institute went virtual this summer. It provided 50 early childhood educators from partner schools with nearly $15,000 worth of supplies for their students and to set up virtual classrooms. 

A Black child with braids smiles at the camera while holding up a paper with the alphabet. School supplies are laid out in front of her on a table with a pink table cloth.
A student from one of the Sherman Center’s partner schools unpacks new supplies for the 2020 – 2021 school year. Photo courtesy of Sanders.

Working directly with families

In addition to working with teachers, the Sherman Center also works directly with families. They are invited to attend quarterly Families, Libraries, and Early Literacy Project events at Lakeland and Curtis Bay Elementary/Middle Schools. The events provide families a safe space in their neighborhoods to meet other families. They also learn strategies to promote their children’s kindergarten readiness, and create materials to support learning at home. 

In addition to these activities, a librarian from the Enoch Pratt Free Library leads a story time session for the families at the events. Families also have a chance to select and take home diverse books for their children. In 2019, UMBC distributed 178 multicultural books to families at Curtis Bay and Lakeland Judy Centers.

A woman sits and holds up a children's book and faces a group of young children and their parents who are sitting on a red and blue mat.
An Enoch Pratt librarian leads a story time at the 2019 Sherman Center’s Families, Libraries, and Early Literacy Project event at Lakeland.

Creating a new system

As the world copes with COVID-19, the Sherman Center’s literacy, professional development, and research programs will continue to adapt. The center will support the literacy needs of children throughout Maryland in the current virtual environment.

“We are not preparing teachers, administrators, public servants, and students to adapt strategies to work within the status quo of early childhood,” notes Sanders. Instead, the Sherman Center is preparing education professionals to be innovators. She says, “We will create a new early childhood education system that reflects and serves the diversity of today and tomorrow.”

Banner image: Sanders (in the middle, in red) surrounded by Sherman Center, Judy Center, and Enoch Pratt Free Library staff at the Families, Libraries, and Early Literacy Project event at Lakeland in February 2019. All photos by Marlayna Demond ’11 for UMBC unless otherwise noted.

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