Beethoven Project, at 5, Still Seeks ‘Fighting Chance’ for Children

By Deborah L. Cohen — October 21, 1992 10 min read
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CHICAGO--Marshall Ray’s parents are proud that their 5-year-old son can spell his name, recite his telephone number and address, and has a big vocabulary for his age. And they beam when they tell how Marshall scored higher than most of his classmates on a test he took before entering kindergarten.

But it is not these traditional measures of readiness that they first mention when asked to gauge how well equipped their son was for school.

Instead, they brag that he works well with others, that he understands his place in the family, and that he discerns what it means “to have trust and distrust.’'

“He knows what it is to walk in strength, to walk in self-esteem,’' his father and namesake, Marshall Ray, says. “There are certain things we can’t get away with because he picks it up right away.’'

Mr. Ray; his wife, Paulette Blackshire; and Marshall are participants in the Center for Successful Child Development here.

Launched five years ago at Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes, one of the world’s largest public-housing projects, the center’s goal was to help a cadre of children overcome the handicaps of their hostile living space and enter school ready to learn. Because it serves the attendance area for Beethoven Elementary School, the center is commonly known as the Beethoven Project. (See Education Week, Feb. 1, 1989.)

Marshall’s parents said in interviews last month that the project’s comprehensive social, educational, and health interventions have bolstered their son’s intellectual and social growth, improved their own parenting, and helped further their education and job goals.

Ms. Blackshire, a participant since the program’s inception, when she was pregnant with Marshall, now works as a teacher’s assistant at the center while attending college to study early-childhood education.

The project has also provided the family with food, clothing, and other necessities in hard times, Ms. Blackshire said, and the solace of “someone just to talk to and to listen.’'

Descriptions of the family’s living conditions make it clear, however, that the center has not insulated them from the hazards of deteriorating housing or the impact of drugs, gangs, and violence.

“Drug dealers flashing money’’ are the only role models for many youths, Ms. Blackshire said, and even at the center, children must duck and clear windows to avoid gunfire, and safety concerns keep tricycles confined to fenced-in balconies and an outdoor playground off limits.

“In general, children should feel a little safe in their environment,’' she said. “We’re not even giving [them] a fighting chance.’'

Moments after the interview, Ms. Blackshire shrieks a warning not to exit the building: A man has been caught out front with a rifle.

These conditions, project staff members say, define the reality that confronts and complicates their mission every day.

‘Constant Adaptation’

When it was launched jointly by the Ounce of Prevention Fund, a public-private partnership founded by the Chicago businessman Irving B. Harris, and the Chicago Urban League, the Beethoven Project drew national media attention and was hailed by some observers as a promising step toward combating urban poverty.

But the fanfare faded as it became clear that even laying the groundwork necessary to support families in such a distressed community would be a long, painstaking process.

Nonetheless, the project continues to serve as a national model, and experts in early-childhood education and social services say its experiences could offer insights to policymakers pursuing the national education goal of insuring that all children enter school ready to learn by 2000.

To mark its fifth anniversary this fall--when the first babies involved in the program reached school age--the center is preparing a “retrospective analysis’’ of its progress.

The report, based on interviews with families and staff, is expected by early 1993.

According to Rebecca Stone, the director of communications for the Ounce of Prevention Fund, the report will show how the effort has enhanced parents’ and children’s lives and their relationships.

It will also chronicle the project’s “more or less constant adaptation as we learn more about working within that community,’' she said.

That community is concentrated in a two-mile stretch of 28 high-rise apartment buildings isolated by a bordering expressway. Most of its 13,000 residents are poor, black, and on some form of public aid; 75 percent of the households are headed by women. The median family income is less than $5,000.

Infant-mortality and -morbidity rates are among the city’s highest, and many children start school with health and developmental problems that inhibit learning. Nearby DuSable High School has a dropout rate of 50 percent to 75 percent.

In 1990, the Robert Taylor Homes had the highest overall crime rate in Chicago and the highest rates of murder, robbery, and aggravated assault. Authorities also cite a dramatic rise in drug-related gang activity in the past five years.

Fears for the safety of participants have led officials to install security personnel in the project’s main building and to build a new exit at the infant-toddler center to permit escape under gunfire.

Taps Community Resources

Designed to expand, link, and strengthen services for families in the community, the Beethoven Project offers home- and center-based services, maternal and child health care, and early-childhood education.

“Parent-child advocates’'--women from the community hired and trained by the project to work under the supervision of a case manager--play a key role in recruiting participants, conducting home visits, offering support, and referring families to other sources of aid.

Center-based services include:

  • Developmental child care for children ages 3 months to 5 years whose parents are in school, training, or working full time.
  • A full-day infant-toddler and Head Start program staffed by child-development specialists.
  • A family-enrichment center that offers parenting classes, support groups, developmental assessments, and informal interaction with staff members.
  • A primary health-care center that provides parents and children basic and preventive health services; prenatal, postpartum, and family-planning care; well-child care; and parent education. Classes and discussions are also held on such topics as childbirth and AIDS prevention.

The project has had contact with some 700 families during the past five years, and, in 1990-91, an annual report of the Ounce of Prevention Fund says, it provided some form of service to 230 families, including 185 pregnant women and new mothers.

The project places a high priority on involving and employing community members; 18 of 35 staff positions are filled by current or former housing-project residents.

Family Dynamics Stressed

Project officals say their central focus has held constant: to help parents build their skills as individuals and parents and promote the healthy development of children.

But early on, they say, they abandoned their goal of insuring the school readiness of a specific cohort of 5-year-olds entering Beethoven Elementary School.

That goal, they say, proved unrealistic.

The problem, project officials say, is that families in the community move frequently, enter and exit the project at different points in their children’s lives, and use the available services to varying degrees.

The project would not hold up as a formal research model, Ms. Stone of the Ounce of Prevention Fund said, because it “didn’t turn anybody away,’' exact any promises from families on how long they would stay, or “hold anyone to paper-and-pencil measures.’'

“It became clear that an entire class was not an appropriate thing to be going after; families needed to be treated more individually and to express success in different ways,’' Ms. Stone said.

The most critical indicators, she added, are the children’s social and emotional growth and “what family dynamics look like before and after.’'

‘Something Positive’

Lula M. Ford, the principal of the Beethoven Elementary School, and Deborah Simpson, a kindergarten teacher there, said children who have been project participants for some time generally seem to grasp concepts more quickly and have stronger language skills, more confidence, and better self-control than youngsters with no preschool experience.

“I can tell from the work they are doing that the parents are involved,’' Ms. Simpson said.

A summary of the upcoming retrospective also cites improvements in family relationships and interaction, Ms. Stone noted.

For Mr. Ray, the change has meant recognizing the importance of his role and “learning how to be a dad and raise and nurture a child in a way that’s right.’'

For Ms. Blackshire, it is a series of parenting pointers: “Instead of hollering across a room to a child, go to the child. Give them options, don’t be so authoritarian. Avoid the tendency of doing everything for the child. Talk with the child, allow him to problem-solve. Learn how to not just hear what he is saying but to really listen.’'

While she once did not concern herself with schools because “I didn’t have anyone to be concerned about me in school,’' she said, “I now see that it’s very important to be involved in all aspects of your child’s life.’'

Project interventions have also helped spur Rachquel Billups, a 21-year-old single mother who dropped out of school when she gave birth to her second child, to pursue a high school equivalency certificate, become active on a Beethoven Project committee that plans trips and other activities, and co-edit its newspaper.

The center has also helped her tap into various forms of aid, and, Ms. Billups said, her children have learned “things I couldn’t teach them or wouldn’t have thought about.’'

Larry and Jacquelyn Moore describe skills their two daughters are learning, from songs and counting to knowledge about their African-American heritage.

Beethoven Project activities, including museum and zoo trips and African naming ceremonies for newborns, expose children to “something positive’’ outside their immediate surroundings and help buffer them from “what’s in this neighborhood, which is mostly violence,’' Mr. Moore added.

‘Anything Can Happen’

While ticking off the project positives, however, these parents also detailed a litany of housing woes that the Beethoven Project has a limited capacity to address, and they have limited recourse to escape. The hazards range from inadequate building security to rodent infestation to falling plaster, broken glass, damaged appliances, backed-up plumbing, and unsafe elevators left unrepaired.

Because residents have been “virtually deserted’’ by other projects, Ms. Stone said, it takes an “enormous amount of time’’ to engage them and gain their trust.

The ominous physical setting has also made it difficult to recruit and retain qualified staff members, project officials said.

For parents, the overriding concern is whether their children will fall prey to violence, drugs, or crime.

“You have to think about what they will or won’t do when they grow up,’' Ms. Billups said.

Mr. Moore, who has lived in the Robert Taylor projects for 19 years, has seen friends die, 9-year-olds carrying guns, and children “getting in the middle’’ of rival gang shootings.

Everyday decisions like when to go out or how to dress are carefully calculated to avoid gang attention, he noted, adding, “I want to live to be at least 65--or 30.’'

“My own family doesn’t even visit me here, and I don’t invite them,’' Ms. Moore said.

In addition to arguing for tighter housing security to protect residents, Mr. Ray said the kind of support provided by parent-child advocates should be extended and offered “on a continual and constant basis’’ to draw parents--especially fathers--away from the kinds of “instant gratification [that] keeps them from focusing on the child.’'

Ms. Blackshire said she believes the project has made a “very positive impact’’ in breaking that cycle--at least with mothers--and that, with enough “repetition,’' the message will reach more parents.

While she had hoped to “stay and be an asset to the community,’' however, Ms. Blackshire now admits that she would leave if she could.

“I just pray for a way to get my child away from here,’' she said after walking her son the short distance from Beethoven Elementary back to the center at Robert Taylor. “Anything can happen on the way from Beethoven to here.’'

A version of this article appeared in the October 21, 1992 edition of Education Week as Beethoven Project, at 5, Still Seeks ‘Fighting Chance’ for Children

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