Educare Preschools Aim to Close Academic Gaps
Public-private model generates interest
As teachers rock babies in their arms, a sense of calm settles over a classroom in a bright, modern building on a side street in the northeastern quadrant of this city, in one of its poorest neighborhoods.
Here at Educare, a $16 million early-childhood school that opened in July with the goal of closing the achievement gap for local children living in poverty, building that sense of security and familiarity is a major component of the program. These infants will spend three years with the same teachers. At age 3, they'll move to a new teacher who will stay with them for two more years.
Funded by Head Start and public and private partnerships, this school is the newest addition to the growing Educare Learning Network's 17 schools in communities across the country, a program that its proponents hope will become a national model for comprehensive early-childhood education. Since 2000, the Chicago-based nonprofit has been combining public and private money to provide early intervention for children deemed educationally and socially at risk and to help build strong bonds between the children, their parents, and teachers. The goal is to ensure that the children start school ready to learn, on par with peers from more-advantaged families.
Research has long shown that children from disadvantaged backgrounds enter kindergarten far behind their more-advantaged peers, and often face continued hardship in achieving success in school and life.
Continuity of Care
That's why Educare promotes a comprehensive approach to high-quality child care and early learning through the critical years from birth to age 5, according to top officials. In the District of Columbia, in fact, the program anchors the city's Promise Neighborhoods initiative, an effort to provide a web of social services to disadvantaged children and their families, much as the Harlem Children's Zone does in New York.
The Educare program stresses the importance of continuity of care—keeping children together with the same teachers from birth to age 3—and strong parent engagement.
"Our major strategy is to promote the centrality of relationships as the cornerstone of learning for all human beings," said Portia Kennel, the founder and executive director of the Educare Learning Network. "All learning happens in the context of relationships with caring adults."
Low teacher-to-student ratios—three teachers serve a maximum of eight infants or toddlers— and a requirement that all teachers have a least a bachelor's degree contribute to a high-quality experience, officials said.
It's a model that's achieving results, according to recent research. A study released in August by the FPG Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that Educare was succeeding at preparing at-risk children for later achievement.
The institute has been conducting an implementation study of the Educare model since 2005. Now including 12 Educare schools serving about 1,800 children, study data show that "more years of Educare attendance are associated with better school readiness and vocabulary skills."
Children who enter Educare before age 2 score close to the national average on school readiness assessments when entering kindergarten and exceed the typical scores for at-risk children, the study found.
Researchers also found that children who attended Educare entered kindergarten exhibiting average or above-average social-emotional skills.
Educare "has been a model for the country. It certainly shows what high-quality education can produce," said Hannah Matthews, the director of child care and early education for the Center for Law and Social Policy here.
Educare also is conducting its own longitudinal study of children who attended its Chicago schools. Its first cohort is now in 7th grade. Based on the findings so far, the nonprofit has made changes, including creating a math initiative in its schools, officials said. In addition, every site contracts with a local evaluator; here in Washington, it's a researcher from George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.
Educare partners with Head Start and other funders in the public and private sectors to operate its schools, which serve between 150 and 200 children each. In addition to the District of Columbia school, there are Educare schools in 11 states, and several more are in development, including sites in New York City and in San Jose and Los Angeles in California, according to the Educare website.
Major philanthropic funders include: the Ounce of Prevention Fund of Chicago, the Irving Harris Foundation, and the Pritzker Children's Initiative, all in Chicago; the Buffett Early-Childhood Fund, in Omaha, Neb.; the W.K. Kellogg Foundation of Battle Creek, Mich.; the George Kaiser Family Foundation of Tulsa, Okla., and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, in Seattle. (The Gates Foundation also helps support Education Week's coverage of the education industry and K-12 innovation.)
In the District of Columbia, partners include the city government and school system and a mix of foundations, including Pritzker, W.K. Kellogg, Kaiser, and Buffett, and the United Planning Organization, a local nonprofit.
Educare is an expensive model, said Matthews, adding that research has shown the benefits of investing early in child development. "High quality costs, but it has significant returns," she said.
Still, she noted that Educare's success depends on a mix of private and public support, and that "public funds will remain extremely important to the organization."
"Educare is one more reason Congress can't go forward with sequestration," she said, referring to the massive federal budget cuts that will occur in January if Congress doesn't act.
Educare schools serve a wide range of children, from the mostly black students in Washington to the mostly white attendees of a school in rural Waterville, Maine. About 35 percent of the children served by Educare schools are English-language learners; about 25 percent are Spanish-speakers, according to Diana M. Rauner, the president of the Ounce of Prevention Fund.
"People don't think there's poverty in the suburbs. But, as we know, there is," said Ms. Rauner, who conducted a tour last month of the Washington school for officials from local education and children's-advocacy organizations.
Sooner Than Later
The importance of early intervention for children who are considered at risk is not lost on communities that have welcomed Educare schools. That was the message delivered by District of Columbia Mayor Vincent C. Gray at the March 2011 groundbreaking for the Washington school.
"Frankly, if I were in a position to have a fetus in a program, I would do that," he said, as captured in a YouTube video of the event. "If we wait until kindergarten, the 1st grade, the 2nd grade, for many of our children, the battle is already lost."
At the school, which is located in the Parkside-Kenilworth neighborhood, staff members slowly are increasing enrollment, which now stands at 73 children. School officials expect to reach their goal of 157 children in coming months.
The open floor plan fits the Educare model: Half the space is devoted to infants and toddlers, and there are several indoor and outdoor play areas with minimal transitions between spaces. Halls of classrooms, with observation rooms attached, form a square around a large, plant-filled center courtyard.
Ms. Rauner stressed that Educare is committed to teaching parents how to parent and to become advocates for their children. While Educare staff members conduct home visits with families, most engagement occurs at school, where parents are encouraged to stay during the day and work with their children in classrooms.
Parents sign an enrollment agreement that requires them, among other things, to send their children to school daily; to regularly volunteer and participate in school activities; to develop goals for their child and family and follow through on meeting them; to participate in home visits and parent-staff conferences each year; and to spend time at home on parent-and-child activities that promote development.
"We really do see this as a two-generation model, and the effects we are having on parents are very significant," Ms. Rauner said. "Most of our parents had less than a satisfactory experience with schools. So we're really asking parents to do something for their children that they couldn't do for themselves."
Nastassia Jackson, 26, of Chicago, said that participating in her children's Educare school has taught her how to be a better parent. Though her involvement was limited when her daughter, now 8, was enrolled, Ms. Jackson said she has stepped up her commitment during the years that her twin boys, now 4, have attended.
"I wanted my parenting this time to be better than it was with my daughter," she said. "I learned how to be actively involved, to sit down and to read to them and have that one-on-one time, to actually interact with them and know that every day can be a learning experience."
That's the key to the Educare mission, Ms. Kennel said.
"We are about the business of building competent parents so they can continue to be learning assets to their children," she said. "They are the critical missing link in school achievement."
Vol. 32, Issue 11, Pages 14-15Published in Print: November 7, 2012, as Educare Preschools Set Out to Erase Achievement Gaps