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Right from the start

In two daily two-hour sessions, the toddlers in the Tot of Tomorrow program in the East Hillside community in Duluth have a place to play and learn. Their teachers are trained in early childhood education, and the time is organized around ways to help the kids build social, emotional and academic strengths to prepare for school.

TOT is run by Center City Housing, which operates more than 400 units of affordable housing in Duluth, including supportive housing programs that provide social services to people in special need, such as individuals with a history of substance abuse and families that have experienced homelessness.

For Center City Housing, TOT is a way to do more than give kids a place to play and their parents some time to get treatment or take a class—it’s a way to interrupt the cycle of poverty.

“We know that homelessness, in terms of chaos and the impact on the rest of life, is huge,” said Nancy Cashman, the supportive housing director for Center City Housing. “Our goal is to find ways to eliminate future episodes of homelessness.”

And the impact goes beyond the two hours the kids attend classes. “The programs also provide an opportunity to work directly with moms and dads on strategies to help kids more formally,” Cashman said. “If we have a kid two or four hours a day, and they have a developmental delay, we can work with them. And we can talk with mom about what they can do to help. It can make a big difference.”

A few miles west, in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, when Duluth Public Schools recently closed the local elementary school, programs in the community like Head Start were shuttered too.

So community partners formed the Lincoln Park Children and Families Collaborative in hopes of rebuilding neighborhood-based early childhood education for local families. The Lincoln Park collaborative was able to raise $30,000 in seed money, and this summer they’ve began offering programs in conjunction with the school district.

Next up are plans to work with the developer who’s converting the vacant elementary school to affordable housing, adding a community center they hope will provide a new Head Start program and educational support for new parents right in the building.

“There’s more understanding and knowledge that this is the cheapest way to support families and children’s success in school."

Marilyn Larson, a consultant to the Lincoln Park Children and Families Collaborative, says that she’s seen more interest in early childhood education over the last five years than in any time in her 30-year career in Duluth.

“There’s more understanding and knowledge that this is the cheapest way to support families and children’s success in school,” Larson said.

These local community organizations, along with Churches United in Ministry, are working together to improve early childhood education across three Duluth communities—Lincoln Park, East Hillside and Central Hillside—a collaborative effort that is embraced by Duluth LISC’s comprehensive community development initiative, “At Home." 

A must have

Repeated academic studies have shown that low-income, at-risk children who participate in high-quality early childhood education perform better in school and are more likely to graduate from high school, go to college and get a good job.

And so, as comprehensive community initiatives set their sights on what issues to take on in the neighborhood, early childhood education is increasingly being added to the menu of “must haves.”

“More colleagues who work with LISC are thinking about early childhood education as part of the puzzle,” said Amy Gillman, the director of LISC’s Community Investment Collaborative for Kids, which has also supported the efforts in Duluth.

For more than 16 years, CICK has helped design, develop and finance early childhood facilities in low-income and rural communities in 40 states. While that work continues, Gillman said that many community development corporations and other local partners are also working now to be directly involved in creating and implementing early childhood programming.

For example, one of the five themes in the “Community Contract” for the Constitution Hill, Fairmount and Main Street communities in Woonsocket, Rhode Island is to improve lifelong learning. One explicit strategy is to “provide support to help very young children learn and grow.”

To reach that goal, NeighborWorks Blackstone River Valley, a CDC in Constitution Hill, has incorporated space and programs for early childhood education in the redevelopment of their own empty former elementary school. The facility is run by Connecting for Children and Families, a seasoned child care agency that has worked in Woonsocket for years.

“We did a little market research, and there was a lot of sentiment in the neighborhood for an educational use for the building."

“We did a little market research, and there was a lot of sentiment in the neighborhood for an educational use for the building,” said Joe Garlick, NeighborWorks Blackstone River Valley’s executive director. “It’s what residents are interested in.”

Recognizing that many landlords make it difficult to run a child care facility in an apartment, NeighborWorks Blackstone River Valley launched another project. In four of the affordable housing buildings that they’ve developed, the CDC included units specifically designed for home child care, including a finished basement area to use that has a bathroom and kitchenette.

CCF then helped NeighborWorks Blackstone River Valley support local women who offered child care in their homes.

“CCF ran a support group for us for business development for home child care providers, with classes on topics like how to get a license and handle the financial issues,” Garlick said.

“In low-income communities, there’s typically a continuum of early childhood providers—from Boys and Girls Clubs, to a mom-and-pop storefront that’s been on the corner for 30 years, to home-based providers,” Gillman said.

“Any of them are potential partners to help build programs that are committed to quality.”

The potential of Promise Neighborhoods

With an emphasis on cradle-to-career support for local children, the federal Promise Neighborhoods program has been a catalyst for many organizations to look more closely at the early childhood education opportunities in their community.

In Buffalo, ideas about how to improve education in its Promise Neighborhood started with opening a new K-8 school.

“We did a fair amount of research and so we recognized how important it also is to establish a foundation of learning in early childhood.” said David Chamberlain, senior vice president at M&T Bank in Buffalo and vice chairman of the Westminster Foundation, the Buffalo Promise Neighborhood grantee.

Buffalo Promise Neighborhood has purchased property near the local school and is building a 10,000-square-foot facility dedicated to early childhood learning, which will serve 150 kids who live in the community when opened.

Like in Woonsocket, the organization has received advice and support around early childhood education from LISC and has found external partners experienced and successful in the field to provide expertise and to run programs: Read to Succeed is an early childhood literacy organization, and Bethel Head Start operates 10 urban early childhood centers in the city.

“If there’s only one thing I could do in the whole Buffalo Promise Neighborhood, it would be to educate children at the early childhood level,” Chamberlain said. “It really is hard to catch up for students who don’t have that foundation.”

A place for the community

Early childhood facilities are more than a place to give very young children a first step in life. They’re also often a community center, where young parents, especially single mothers, can meet with other families and build social capital 

Since the centers are a naturally occurring social center, organizations often use their capacity to support other programs. In Duluth’s Lincoln Park, the planned center will have space for mental health services and a computer room for parents to help them look for a job through a partnership with Community Action Duluth, the nonprofit that operates the local Financial Opportunity Center, which will also be in the building.

The same kind of advantages can be found in family child care homes, where the relationships formed between parents and providers can be an invaluable asset. In the Bronx, for instance, the Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation is helping local child care providers become a conduit between police and parents to improve public safety.

The centers can also be a resource for economic development by giving parents an affordable, high-quality place for child care during the day.

“There definitely was demand for a facility for early childhood education that was close by,” said Garlick of the new facility in Woonsocket. “Parents were looking for a place where they could drop of their kids on the way to work in the morning.”

Like his colleagues in other cities, Garlick is quick to point out the importance of the support—sometimes fiscal, sometimes in advice—provided by LISC. “We couldn’t have done it without them,” he said. “They’ve made a tremendous difference.”

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“The Promise Neighborhoods Initiative: Improving Developmental Outcomes Through Comprehensive Interventions,” which appeared in the December 2011 issue of the Institute Journal, gives more information on the importance of early childhood education.

Posted in Buffalo, Duluth, Education & Early Learning, Rhode Island

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