‘We Became the Hopes and Dreams’ of All

By Deborah L. Cohen — February 01, 1989 19 min read

Officials at Chicago’s Center for Successful Child Development have reluctantly decided to stop giving press tours.

The widely praised early-intervention effort--known more commonly as the “Beethoven Project"--had been scruti nized so intensively during its first year of operation, they say, that the attention became “a double-edged sword.” Not only did the center’s constant flow of visitors interrupt work and anger some program participants, but the3p6news coverage itself, the officials suggest, created a problem.

It raised unrealistic expectations.

“We became the hopes and dreams of all policymakers, all disciplines,” said Gina Barclay-McLaughlin, the program’s executive director. “We have isolated ourselves recently so we can do what we want to do.”

What the project administrators want to do has proved to be a more formidable undertaking than even they had imagined, they freely admit.

It is to improve--by means of a range of social, medical, and educational services--the life chances of children born into the nation’s largest public-housing project, Chicago’s aging village of 16-story concrete buildings known as the Robert Taylor Homes.

“We knew generally what the problems were, but we didn’t know their depth and pervasiveness and the kinds of resources and energy it would take to overcome them,” said Gwen D. Larouche, director of education for the Chicago Urban League, which is jointly sponsoring the program with the city’s Ounce of Prevention Fund.

“We will reach our goals,” Ms. Larouche said, “but it will take longer than we anticipated.”

One of those goals--to ensure that the project’s kindergartners of 1993 would be ready to enter nearby Beethoven Elementary School primed for success--was a dream that “everyone wanted to latch onto,” said Judith Langford Carter, the Ounce of Prevention Fund’s executive director.

But the project’s first-year encounters have provided a lesson on the complexity of that mission.

“You cannot in five years undo all the damage that poverty and a lack of adequate housing have done,” Ms. Carter observed.

A National Model

When the Chicago businessman and philantropist Irving B. Harris launched the Beethoven Project in late 1987, it was hailed nationwide as a model for improving the educational landscape of at-risk children.

Targeted at what was, by all estimates, one of the nation’s poorest communities, the project combined prenatal care and support programs for parents with a range of child-development and health services for children from birth to age 5.

Its aim was to give children from birth the vital underpinnings of school success. And newspapers praised it editorially as a major step forward in efforts to break the cycle of poverty.

Visitors flocked to the center to observe its operations firsthand. And the Congress last year passed a $20-million program to fund “Comprehensive Child Development Projects” based on the Beethoven model.

Just over a year after the c.s.c.d. opened its doors, however, program administrators say they have learned as much about the overwhelming obstacles they must confront as they have about their program’s potential for success.

The physical and emotional stresses faced by residents of the community--and the impediments to earning their trust--have proved staggering, program officials maintain.

In addition to deteriorating housing, these obstacles include, they say, widespread drug and alcohol abuse, the threat of violent crime, and motivational problems that can be traced, in part, to a history of ''broken promises.”

“We have a long way to go before we know what success means in a community like that,” Ms. Carter concluded.

Nevertheless, she and other center officials remain firm in their belief that healthy child development can and must be promoted in such adverse circumstances.

They are encouraged, they say, by a participation rate in the program’s first year that is beyond what they had hoped for--204 families and an estimated 90 percent of the babies born in the target population.

All the media attention, said Linda K. Bowen, the center’s associate director of special programs, has created an impression “that we have been in operation a lot longer than we have. People begin to expect results that you can’t deliver in a year’s time.”

“To the extent that people think this is a program that is going to cure poverty,” she said, “the expectations have been raised” unduly.

Environmental Stresses

The Robert Taylor Homes is a massive high-rise development where 20,000 people live within a two-mile area bordered by an expressway and railroad tracks. It was built in the early 1960’s, when urban planners gave little credence to the need for open vistas and varied lifespace. And, say center administrators, building maintenance is minimal at best.

The Center for Successful Child Development, located in 10 renovated apartments on the second floor of one of the buildings, serves six of the development’s 28 buildings. Center services are also provided at two satellite locations in other buildings.

It is this physically oppressive setting, the project’s officials have noted in conference presentations and in interviews, that provides a constant source of stress.

Locating the center within the development, Ms. Larouche said, has been “a plus in the sense that it has helped establish trust.” But the “minus,” she added, has been “a kind of drain on the staff in terms of a level of anxiety that anybody who is realistic would have to have.”

“You cannot isolate one floor” from the problems of a whole housing complex, the Urban League official said.

The stairwell of the building that houses the c.s.c.d., Ms. Bowen observed, is littered with obscene graffiti and often smells of urine, vomit, and alcohol.

“This is what greets everybody every day when they walk in,” she said. Before its renovation, the floor was “a home for rats and roaches.”

“We experience the problems of the community,” said Ms. Carter. “Rats do chew phone lines. Electricity does go off.”

“The buildings were designed over 25 years ago,” added Ms. Barclay-McLaughlin, “and there has been a minimum amount of maintenance.” She noted, for example, that when the center first opened, it had to operate without heat--even as Chicago was weathering temperatures of 15 degrees below zero, with a wind chill in the minus-60 range.

“There is a whole group of children born into communities like this who see this as a way of life,” Ms. Barclay-McLaughlin said. “I can’t help but think about the impact it must have on their attitudes and feelings about life.”

She added that the threat of violence also looms over residents. “We hear gunshots on a daily basis. We know that people get killed here quite frequently.”

While security measures have prevented any violent incidents from occurring at the c.s.c.d., there have been thefts, she said, adding, “To know that you may be a victim is not a very comfortable feeling.”

Socioeconomic Barriers

Added to the inherent bleakness of the setting are socioeconomic barriers.

All of the mothers in the program are black, and almost all are single. About half of the single mothers are also heads of households. And at least 90 percent of the participants are receiving some form of public assistance.

About two-thirds of the parents have not completed high school, and about half have been Robert Taylor residents for more than five years.

Children entering the Beethoven Elementary School generally score well below national averages on standardized tests, and display a broad range of abilities.

Clara M. McWhorter, a kindergarten teacher at Beethoven who will soon be assuming a teaching post in a state-funded preschool program for 3- and 4-year-olds, noted that she had seen many children enter school lacking the “standards to be successful kindergarten students.”

Such children, she said, may lack fine- and gross-motor skills, knowledge of letters and sounds, or the ability to tie shoes or use scissors.

They also “lack exposure,” Ms. McWhorter said, to concepts beyond their range of experience in the immediate community.

Comprehensive Services

Against these obstacles, the cscd, which costs approximately $1.4 million a year to operate, pits one of the most comprehensive range of services for mothers and children offered under one program.

It receives support from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Harris Foundation, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, as well as from a variety of state and local sources.

At the core of the project’s recruitment and family-support services is a team of 10 “family advocates"--generally women from the community who receive special training at the center.

The advocates regularly canvass the six buildings for new recruits, attempting to identify pregnant women in their first trimester. They make home visits to participants twice a month on average, offering support, information on child development, and referrals to other community services. Each advocate has a caseload of about 15.

Parents also learn about child development at a drop-in center equipped with toys and a sleeping area for infants and toddlers.

“Parents, when they come in here, are astonished because they’ve never seen equipment like this before,” Ms. Bowen noted. “They are as excited about the toys as the kids are.”

The center offers an opportunity, Ms. Carter said, for “intensive interaction between families and children and center staff.”

Parents also may participate in additional classes--such as preparation courses for the General Educational Development test, crafts and health classes, and peer “rap” groups--while drop-in center staff members supervise their children. The center is equipped with a kitchen and provides lunch for participants.

A primary-care center staffed by medical professionals provides prenatal care for mothers, health care for participating children and their siblings, and health education for participants and staff members.

The project also operates a Head Start program in a church building about two blocks from the center.

Other services incorporated into the c.s.c.d. in collaboration with other community programs include:

Parents Too Soon--a state-funded program for pregnant teens and teen parents;

“Families With a Future"--a state-funded effort to reduce infant mortality;

Project Chance--a job training program for public-aid recipients that trains some of the community residents on the c.s.c.d. staff;

Family Options--a substance-abuse prevention program for 4- and 5-year olds and their families; and

Innovative Ideas--a grant program offering teachers at the Beethoven Elementary School a chance to experiment with innovative classroom activities.

The c.s.c.d. also has instituted its own cultural festivals and traditions, such as a public naming ceremony for new infants that is based on an African ritual.

‘Nothing Short of a Miracle’

Although recruiting participants has been a slow and painstaking process, administrators say, the results have been impressive.

About 155 of the families recruited remain on the case rolls and receive regular home visits. Virtually all of those no longer involved are participants who have left the community, said Sydney L. Hans, associate research director of the cscd and co-director of child-psychiatry research at the University of Chicago.

The project, she said, has had “a phenomenal record of keeping family cooperation.”

Ms. Larouche added that the cooperation developed despite the fact that “there is so much to overcome in terms of suspiciousness, hesitancy, and wariness of people coming into community to do things.”

“To see the percentage of women targeted who are actively involved in c.s.c.d. is nothing short of a miracle,” she said.

Just over half of the children participating have received pediatric services at the center, according to Ms. Hans, and family advocates are working to ensure that the rest are served at other clinics or are continuing to see their own doctors.

The center’s developmental and behavioral screening programs also have helped to identify some children who need special care.

Attendance at the drop-in center has been more sporadic, with the majority of participants coming in once or twice or for special activities, Ms. Hans said.

‘All the Little Problems’

But in any given month, Ms. Hans added, between 10 and 20 different families will visit the center for a sustained period of time, often spending several hours a day in child-development activities, working with staff members, attending classes, and staying for lunch.

“That is where the most intensive intervention occurs,” Ms. Hans said. “A lot of modeling” takes place that enables parents to learn “how to handle all the little problems that come up in dealing with kids.”

But the most striking benefit of the program, observers say, has been its success in improving parents’ perceptions of themselves and raising their expectations about how they can positively influence their children’s development.

Many mothers in the program have become increasingly aware, said Choyce A. Brown, a family advocate, “of how things they do with their children will affect how they will be able to perform better in kindergarten.”

“We hadn’t been seeing that before,” Ms. Brown said.

Teen parents, she added, “are beginning to have goals and objectives for themselves and in whatever slight ways are beginning to address them.”

Grace G. Dawson, the principal of Beethoven Elementary School, agrees that the program’s impact has begun to show. “You just see a different look on the faces of the parents who are involved,” she said.

Drug Problem ‘Enormous’

But the life stresses that confront the urban poor make a daunting backdrop for such progress, say officials, who note that the incidence of some health and behavioral problems is much greater than anticipated.

Some environmental conditions have taken a heavy toll on participants’ health, according to medical reports. For example, officials say, the smoke from frequently clogged incinerator chutes has contributed to a high rate of respiratory problems among children in the project.

Ms. Hans noted also that several of the children have exhibited mild mental and growth retardation and other physical characteristics indicative of fetal-alcohol syndrome.

The drug problem, Ms. Carter says, has been “much more enormous than anyone had any idea.” She estimated that up to 85 percent of the program’s participants may be affected by drug abuse--either their own or that of someone in their household.

And although program personnel are trying to devise ways to cope with the problem, Ms. Carter said, they are not equipped or trained to address it.

Staff members note, however, that the high rate of drug usage may typify such pockets of urban poverty nationwide--and may amplify the developmental and school-related problems that already exist.

“We’re in a unique position of being able to understand that more,” Ms. Barclay-McLaughlin observed.

The Robert Taylor community--like the nation at large--lacks adequate programs for users who are “not terrible catatonic people all the time, but for whom it is a significant impairment to their functioning,’' said Ms. Carter.

Recognizing that drugs are a problem, she added, can take family advocates weeks or months.

“You don’t just go knocking on someone’s door and say, ‘Are you on cocaine?”’ Ms. Hans offered. She pointed out that people living under stressful life conditions are much more likely to fall victim to substance abuse.

An estimated three-quarters of the adult participants in the Beethoven Project smoke cigarettes, a fact that has led the c.s.c.d.--for health reasons--to institute a ban on smoking in its facilities.

The policy has provoked some resistance from staff members and has caused a few participants to leave the program, Ms. Carter acknowledged. But it will remain in effect, she said, because “we can’t have people smoking around babies.”

Reducing the incidence of project babies’ low birthweight--a factor related to the mother’s general health--has been difficult, Ms. Larouche noted, because “you cannot change people’s habits in a one-year period of time. A lot of the change has to occur in the people involved.’'

A central challenge facing the project’s administrators, she said, is “how do you get people to internalize and to make those kinds of drastic personal changes?”

Broken Promises

That task is made more difficult, Ms. Bowen said, by participants’ wariness of outsiders offering help. They are hesitant to form relationships of trust with project personnel, she said, because in the past “services have come in and out; promises have been broken.”

A more general demoralization also can hamper efforts to identify those who need services, according to Ms. Bowen. It is often difficult to identify young women in the first trimester of pregnancy, she said, because they may have problems coming to grips with the fact that they are pregnant.

“There is so much else to deal with that they can’t accept it,” she said.

Once such participants are persuaded to join the program, officials say, factors outside their control may still derail the delivery of services.

When the nurse-midwife who had been providing prenatal and postpartum care decided to take another job, for example, administrators viewed the loss as a setback for the program.

Hiring a replacement, Ms. Hans explained, has been complicated not only by the difficult conditions under which the nurse-midwife must work, but also by hospital policies. Many obstetric departments, she said, are reluctant to provide the necessary supervision and support, and hospitals often do not feel that public-aid payments adequately cover costs.

Another persistent problem has been finding adequate child care. A large number of teenage mothers in the project are not in school or employed, Ms. Carter said, “because they don’t have any place to leave their children.”

Staff members have been working for several months to renovate space in a nearby building to comply with the city’s day-care licensing requirements. But the facility, scheduled to open this spring, will have room to provide care for only 14 children.

Mobility Hampers Goals

The high rate of mobility within the community is an additional complicating factor for project officials, particularly in assessing its impact over time.

After giving birth, mothers in the program may move in with relatives or friends who live elsewhere, Ms. Bowen said, and some who stay may choose schools other than Beethoven.

“It’s a very transient situation,” Ms. Carter admitted. “We may see the same kids over several years but not ever for a long and consistent period of time.”

Ms. Hans projected that about half of the children originally in the project will enter the Beethoven school, which would still provide a ''large nucleus” from which to draw comparisons.

The project’s researchers remain hopeful that funds will be found to allow them to track the progress of children who enter schools in other communities after having been served by the c.s.c.d. for at least two years.

Under grants from the Spencer Foundation and the Harris Foundation, the researchers have collected baseline data and conducted interviews with parents in the school system. They are also talking with foundations about their proposal for a longitudinal study of participants.

Links With School

The project’s relations with Beethoven Elementary School have been generally constructive, observers say, despite reservations among some over the tactics of the school’s principal.

Ms. Dawson’s controversial decision last year to demote 250 of the school’s 840 students because of poor test scores has drawn charges from some that the school’s policies may not always mesh with project goals.

Following a three-day boycott by Beethoven-school parents, the district superintendent agreed to allow demoted students to return to their original class if parents pledged to consult with the principal and teachers to plan a remediation strategy.

Project staff members want to work with the school, Ms. Barclay-McLaughlin said, to minimize the problems that are the source of such encounters.

“All of us recognize a serious need and want to do something about it,” she said. “I don’t think it ever helps to blame the victim. We want to share expectations with some kind of a unified approach on how to help children develop.”

“It is not just a matter of changing their scores,” she asserted, ''but of changing the quality of life so they can feel excited by learning.”

According to Ms. Dawson, school officials “feel very positive about the program, what they’re trying to do.”

“We need a Beethoven Project in every area of the city where we have a lot of at-risk children,” she said.

She noted that school staff members have toured the center and attended c.s.c.d. functions. In addition, the Urban League’s director of community linkages, Haroldine Bourelly, regularly meets with the school’s staff, she said, and a teacher at the school is on a council that provides guidance to the c.s.c.d.

Teachers at the school, Ms. Dawson affirmed, have “a feeling for the Beethoven project. It is not just something across the yard that someone else is doing.”

But the program’s administrators stress that it is a “misperception’’ to view how students fare in school as the only measure of its success.

“We talk about getting a kid ready to go to school, but the goal really is to have the kind of healthy development that not only creates success in school but a competent and fully functional person,” Ms. Carter maintained.

A child who emerges successfulIy from the project may still fail in school, she warned, “if the school is not ready for these kids or doesn’t continue to build on the strengths they had to begin with.”

Project officials say they are hopeful that there will be more opportunities for collaboration with local schools as a result of a comprehensive bill to reform Chicago schools recently signed by the governor.

Catalyst For Collaboration

Collaboration, in fact, is a frequently sounded theme as officials assess the program’s strengths and weaknesses at its first-year point.

Although they are encouraged by the impact the project has had, they say, the deep and complex needs of the community it serves cannot be met without an effort that involves--in Ms. Barclay-McLaughlin’s phrase--"every institution in this community.”

“We’ve gone through a period where we tried to be all things for all in need,” she said. “We’re able to say we can’t do that, but we can be a catalyst for collaboration among agencies each working at a segment of the problem.”

“Trying to fulfill everyone’s expectations in this process is one of the challenges,” Ms. Barclay-McLaughlin concluded.

“I don’t know whether we will deliver a full cadre of students on course when they are ready to enter kindergarten,” commented Ms. Larouche. “But I think we will have made significant strides in making children more intellectually curious, in helping parents feeling better about themselves and become more willing to participate in the school environment.”

“We aren’t a magical solution to all the problems anybody ever had,’' said Ms. Carter. “We aren’t rebuilding the economy. But we are giving children a much better chance than they had before in that community.”

The effort has also provided insights into the complex process of promoting healthy development under adverse conditions, the Beethoven officials say, insights that would not have been possible in another setting.

“One of the exciting things we’ve done,” concluded Ms. Barclay-McLaughlin, “is to have the opportunity to learn about the community: what is normal and natural to people living in these kinds of circumstances.”

“We’re here to really help tell the story of the kind of life some people are forced to live in our society,” she said, “and to help society really look at what can be done.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 1989 edition of Education Week as ‘We Became the Hopes and Dreams’ of All