Equity & Diversity

Multigenerational Programs Aim to Break Poverty Cycle

By Sarah D. Sparks — August 05, 2014 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 7 min read
Rebecca Goodman folds clothes at home in Tulsa, Okla., as her daughter Madelynn and son Cooper look on.
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Corrected: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported the number of parents participating in CareerAdvance Tulsa. The correct number is 200. The article also included an incorrect name for the Community Action Project of Tulsa County and misspelled the name of Monica Barczak, the director of the project’s Innovation Lab.

Not much about public education has gone as advertised for Rebecca Goodman or her family.

The Tulsa, Okla., mother graduated second in her small-town high school class of 16, but got no academic counseling and saw little use for college. “I considered nursing, but they said I’d have to take anatomy and physiology and microbiology, and I said uh-uh. I just wanted to get the easiest two-year degree I could,” she said. “I had no desire to go to school at all; I just wanted to be a mom.”

Seven years of Ms. Goodman working part-time as a secretary for her church while juggling care of her four children wasn’t enough to keep her family financially afloat—especially after her husband had to take a job out of his own field of training. That’s why she’s become one of more than 200 parents in CareerAdvance Tulsa, an initiative of Community Action Project of Tulsa County, or CAP Tulsa, connected with the city’s Head Start and state early-child-care systems that is intended to help parents improve their own educations while also supporting their children’s.

About This Series

War on Poverty: Progress & Persistent Inequity
This package of stories is the second in a series of articles in Education Week over the next 18 months to reflect on the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty and its impact on the lives of children, especially those living in poverty. Read more.

It’s part of rising national interest in multigenerational approaches to reduce poverty and improve student achievement, based on mounting evidence that parents’ and children’s educational and life trajectories are inextricably linked. More than 60 percent of American children live in families whose highest educational degree is a high school diploma or less, according to a new report by the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation. While that is an improvement over 2008 levels, parents are often not advancing their education fast enough to keep up with rapidly growing job requirements.

“When we can educate mothers, you get double and triple benefit from that,” said Gail O. Mellow, the president of LaGuardia Community College in New York. “As we get serious about the relationship between education and societal well-being, we need to change our thinking about education in all of its forms.”

Trying to Keep Up

Across 13 indicators of education, health, and economic outcomes, gaps yawn among the children of mothers of different education levels, find new reports by the New York City-based Foundation for Child Development and the Washington-based Center for Law and Social Policy.

Even among parents with some college, like the Goodmans, 18 percent live in poverty and 43 percent have low incomes: That’s more than triple and quadruple the rates, respectively, for those with at least bachelor’s degrees. Family income for those with a four-year degree was more than $100,000—nearly double the $57,000 for those with some college, and more than four times the annual income for those without a high school diploma.

Parental Legacies

Donald J. Hernandez, a sociology professor at the City University of New York and his co-authors at the Foundation for Child Development reported similar disparities in academic access and achievement throughout the school years. Students’ 8th grade proficiency in mathematics and reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress tracks closely with their mothers’ education levels. Children of parents with bachelor’s degrees are 14 percentage points more likely to read proficiently and 19 percentage points more likely to perform proficiently in math than children of parents with some college.

At the Oklahoma State University Medical Center, Ms. Goodman talks with patient Larry Fortenberry during her overnight shift at the hospital.

But once families have children—and their accompanying child-care costs, homework, illnesses, and so on—it becomes exponentially more difficult to go back to school.

“We have young parents and more-mature parents, but they all are struggling with this balance of college and work and child care,” Ms. Mellow said. “College is perfectly set up if you are 18, childless, and living with your mom and dad. We need to think differently about student support—not student unions, not the basketball team. There are mothers and fathers who need our help to connect with their children.”

LaGuardia, for example, has two high schools on its community college campus, Middle College High School and International High School, both catering to low-income families. The college and high schools integrate child care for parents taking classes, and try to frame instruction in ways relating to parents’ career goals and parenting issues. “We find we are able to make a solid educational connection with them by talking about their kids,” Ms. Mellow said.

But an effective dual-generational program must juggle many different services—child care, parenting classes, educational tutoring, academic counseling, career training, and so on—often supported by a variety of different agencies, groups, and funding streams, according to Juan Salgado, the president and chief executive officer of Instituto del Progreso Latino, which coordinates education, welfare, and support services for families in the Chicago area. At Mr. Salgado’s Instituto Justice Leadership Academy, a charter that serves returning dropouts, about half the students have children of their own. It’s “a policy operations and an accounting nightmare,” he said, that few community groups feel capable of taking on: “It does not get done very often, and it does not get done very well.”

Ms. Goodman certainly did not expect much from the Tulsa Head Start program when she was forced to enroll her second child, Noah, after her husband lost his job in 2010.

“Everything I had ever heard about government-funded, low-income Head Start centers, I thought, great, he’s going to learn what a fireman does and how to brush his teeth. ... Is it really going to be worth it?” she said. “I was quickly surprised that it was superb.” Then she met Megan Oelke, a career coach with CareerAdvance Tulsa, who convinced her to get a fresh start on her own education.

Advancing Families

Steven Dow, the director of CareerAdvance and CAP Tulsa, said the initiative grew out of the project’s partnership by Tulsa’s federal, state, and locally funded early-childhood programs. “These early years are really critical in kids’ lives,” he said, “but the paradox for us is much of the benefit of what we do depends largely on the success and involvement of the adults.”

The program, launched in 2009, creates cohorts of parents with children in Early Head Start, Head Start, and state early-childhood-education programs. The parents work their way through different career-based academic tracks: from a certified nurse aide, making $8 to $11 an hour, up to a registered nurse at $16 to $34 an hour, for example. The project contracts with a local school district to catch student-parents up with remedial courses, and schedules classes while the children are in school. It provides stipends to offset lost work and child care for night classes.

“Each parent has a career coach, and they have a conversation of, ‘Let’s walk through your budget; what will this do to you? You’re going back to school, you are trying to raise your kid, you have to put food on the table.’ ... They are often intimidated by going to work and school at the same time,” said Monica Barczak, the director of the Community Action Project’s Innovation Lab, which developed the CareerAdvance program.

The project’s wraparound support does make it possible to attempt school again, Ms. Goodman said—but not easy. Her three oldest children, ages 11 to 7, now attend school on the other side of the city, and during the school year she has to drop them off, and then run back to take her youngest son, Cooper, 3, to Head Start before heading to class. She picks him up at 2:30 p.m., crosses town to get the rest, then hurries home to pack her husband’s lunch before he heads out for the night shift as a mechanic. Between feeding the children and helping with homework, Ms. Goodman said she typically starts her own schoolwork around 8:30 p.m. and works on it until 11 p.m.

“The academic part of it, it’s hard, it’s very hard, but I can do it,” she said. “But just to get everything ready every day ... it’s overwhelming.”

So far, Ms. Goodman has earned her medical assistant certificate and has moved from part-time work at a church to full-time hospital work, nearly doubling her wages. Her children—three of whom went through the early-childhood programs—thrived and were reading by preschool. And working weekends means she can still be home with her children.

Ms. Goodman said she is also starting to learn more about what she can be good at. For example, she was worried about whether she was capable of helping the many homeless and chronically ill paraplegic patients who come to the hospital. Now, they are her favorites. “They are so grateful for a little bit of help,” she said.

The Goodmans, too, are grateful for the opportunity to move beyond financial paralysis.

“I don’t want a free ride to anything,” Ms. Goodman said. “I just need a little help to get to where I need to go for my family.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 06, 2014 edition of Education Week as Anti-Poverty Programs Target Both Children and Parents

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