CINCINNATI - Jaiel Alexander learned to blow bubbles Friday in the living room of his Walnut Hills home.
His mother, Natasha Ray, was ecstatic.
“I never knew he could do that,” she said.
“Good job,” gushed Arista Warren Huffman of Every Child Succeeds. She was seated a few feet away watching the young mother interact with her son and chase the bubbles that he helped form.
On the surface it may not seem like a big deal, but Jaiel is a month shy of turning 2 years old. The bubble-blowing was another milestone in helping to develop his speech.
Warren Huffman regularly travels to Ray’s home to help her improve her interaction and communication with her son through reading, singing and creative play.
“They’re very helpful,” Ray said of the sessions. “She’s taught me a lot like reading and showing my child how to cooperate and understand a few things.”
Home visits for children in the first three years of life and quality child care from ages three to six form the nucleus of Success By Six, a community-wide effort to get at-risk, low-income children in the City of Cincinnati ready for kindergarten.
The program has produced gains in the number of children prepared to start school, but a great deal of work remains. One of every two children in the City of Cincinnati still isn’t ready. Funding remains a constant challenge.
The education makeover is under the umbrella of the Strive Partnership in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. The organization’s credo is helping every child every step of the way from cradle to career.
It’s a steep slope to climb. Census data from 2009 indicates 23,542 Cincinnati children under age five with 42.1 percent of them living at or below poverty level. The poverty rate for all individuals is 25.3 percent.
Strive Executive Director Greg Landsman said improving the entire education process has enormous implications for the city.
“You’ll grow your economy, your middle class, you’ll lift incomes, you’ll reduce poverty if you can be focused like a laser beam on investing in education and improving student achievement from start to finish,” he said.
Strive’s goals are to make sure that children are:
--Prepared for school
--Supported in and out of school
--Enrolled in college
--Able to graduate and enter a career
That’s accomplished through:
--Early childhood education
--Teacher and principal excellence
--Linking community supports to student achievement
--Post-secondary enrollment, retention and completion
--Advocacy and funding alignment to support innovation
--Promote data-driven decision making
The importance of early childhood education has been well known for decades. Research shows 90 percent of the brain develops by age five and most of the social and emotional growth occurs during that same period.
However, it took the Cincinnati’s civil unrest in 2001 to create the partnerships that redirected resources to tackle and solve the kindergarten readiness problem.
“That was a catalytic moment that got everyone focused on the things we needed to do to turn our community around,” Landsman said. “Let’s start organizing and investing in a more strategic and intentional way around those things that are having the greatest impact on improving kindergarten preparedness rates.”
When the CAN (Cincinnati Action Now) Commission released its recommendations on how to improve the city in February, 2003, one of the top priorities was improving educational achievement by preparing infants and children to be successful.
CAN Co-Chairs Ross Love and Tom Cody didn’t want to reinvent the wheel. Instead, the commission’s members identified successful programs that were already working in communities across the country. Success By Six, fit the bill because it was successfully operating in 300 U.S. locations.
The CAN report read:
Key business, education, civic and government leaders have launched a
comprehensive program (“Success By Six”) -- which will upgrade and
expand the capacity of the area’s existing early child development programs
(providing an expert resource/coach for every parent of an at-risk child) and
establish full-time pre-school for the at-risk children in this area. By
substantially improving the quality of care, parenting and educational groundwork
received by our at-risk children, during infancy through their pre-school years,
our youth will enter the school system prepared to succeed.
Former Federated (now Macy’s) CEO James Zimmerman was asked to assemble a team to put the program in place.
“I’m convinced this is the number one issue in our community,” he said. “It solves social, racial and police issues. This gets to the heart of it.”
The Zimmerman team defined the problem and developed solutions.
“The good news in a bad subject is that the community knows what to do,” he said. “The return on investment is tremendous. It’s much more expensive to clean up this problem later than it is to intervene and get it on the front end.”
Macy’s provided funds to hire Stephanie Byrd as Success By Six Executive Director. She left a 20 year career in health care to take the position.
“Back in 2001, I was a fence-sitter in this community,” she said. “I looked at things and said, ‘The city will get better,’ but I realized that I needed to really jump in and help make a difference myself.”
Byrd’s role is to coordinate early childhood programs in the community by using data and training to help improve performance of parents, children, and teachers.
“There’s data both locally and across the country that shows when a child is prepared for kindergarten, they’re more likely to have success in high school, graduate from school, go to college, have higher earning potential and be less likely to be involved in criminal activity,” she said. “All of those things benefit the community in terms of reduced costs for human services and incarceration as well as improving the overall income of the community.”
The home visits are the first step from birth through age three.
“Parents are their child’s first and best teacher,” Byrd said. “We need to give them access to resources that help them do the best job they can.”
Landsman said one of the key measures of success is the number of words a child knows by age three.
“We know that middle class kids know anywhere between 1,500, 1,600 and 1,700 words. The average low income child knows between 700 and 800 words,” he said. “That’s the foundational gap and it will persist throughout the rest of the education pipeline unless we get that right.”
However, Landsman added the home visits are only reaching about 30 percent of families who really need it.
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In addition to bubble blowing, Warren Huffman’s visit with Ray and her son included reading, singing and creative play.
Ray read “Brown Bear, Brown Bear” to Jaiel as he pointed to pictures of animals and helped make their sounds.
“She’s been reading to her child since he was four months old and he loves books,” Warren Huffman said. “He’s turning pages. He’s responding. He’s not really asking questions, but he’s involved and he loves his books.”
One thing that makes it easy for Ray and Jaiel to read together is the fact that she’s studying for her diploma and wants to go to college.
“It’s very tough,” she said. “Sometimes I struggle, but I’m making it.”
Quality child care for age three to six is the next step in the Success By Six process.
“That comes best by having a quality teacher, being in classrooms that have low teacher-to-child ratios, having a curriculum that helps them learn the things they need to know for kindergarten and having access to those experiences that help them learn,” Byrd added.
The State of Ohio has developed a rating chart to help parents determine where they should send their child. The system begins at one star and goes to three stars, the highest rating.
CINCINNATI CHILD CARE CENTERS
RATED – 34
CHILDREN SERVED – 2,868
NON-RATED – 75
NUMBER OF CHILDREN SERVED – 4,838
ONE STAR RATING – 10
TWO STAR RATING – 8
THREE STAR RATING – 16
The Cincinnati/Hamilton County Community Action Agency runs the Head Start program at the Ted Berry Center on Court Street in the West End. It currently has a one star rating.
Principal Mary Reed said the center subscribes to the Success By Six guidelines. That includes using data to track student performance and designing individualized programs to help every child succeed.
The classrooms are bright, airy and filled with different learning stations.
In one area, two young boys work on computers. Nearby, three children are picking brightly colored plastic letters from a box and placing them on forms to spell simple words. Others play together with Legos.
“We do all those things, but we also help them learn socially and emotionally to get along with each other so that they can be successful in the classroom when they get to kindergarten,” Reed said.
Reed knows the benefits of the center’s efforts.
“Long-term, we’re going to have people that are going to be ready to work. We’re going to have people that are going to be able to use computers,” she said. “We’re going to have people that are going to be able to take care of each other. We’re going to have someone that will be able to do every job that society needs to move forward.”
However, she also knows that much work remains.
“We still need early childhood centers and that means some of it has to be with vouchers,” Reed said. “Some of our parents need help with paying for child care. We might have quality child care, but if we can’t get the people to it, that’s going to be a problem.”
In Walnut Hills, the Cincinnati Early Learning Center on Beecher Avenue has a three star rating.
Its classrooms are similar to the Ted Berry Center – bright and cheery in a safe learning environment.
Children read, paint, play with toys and learn words.
“Each year we send anywhere from five to 15 children to transition to kindergarten,” said Director Deanna Lane. “We work with high-risk children and because of the qualities of the teachers and the environment, we have definitely succeeded with these children.”
According to the data, Success By Six is making progress in the City of Cincinnati. In 2005, when tracking began, about 44 percent of children were deemed prepared for kindergarten. The figure now is 53 percent. However, the United Way’s goal is 85 percent by 2020.
“The fact of the matter is it’s woefully inadequate. The funding is woefully inadequate,” Landsman said of the numbers. “We have a long way to go and it’s going to take people being a little outraged and saying we’ve got to do more.”
Zimmerman agreed that the numbers are unacceptable.
“Fifty percent of the kids are not ready to start kindergarten,” he said. “However, 90 percent of the money spent on education is after age five, yet we know that 90 percent of the brain develops between birth and the fifth birthday.”
He added current funding is around $70 million, but much more is needed.
“The pie of public money is not going to get bigger, so we need to reallocate what’s available,” he said. “For example, a modest reduction in higher education funding would double or triple the monies available for this much higher return on investment. I’m convinced of it.”
Landsman put it another way.
“We’re spending about $1.6 billion in Ohio on some 50,000 prisoners, which is about $30,000 per prisoner,” he said. “Based on some estimates, we’re spending about $500 per child zero to five, which is insane. Absolutely insane.”
What needs to be done?
According to Byrd, it begins with parent education, community awareness and continued improvement in programs serving children from an at-risk background.
“We know that the children who benefit most are the ones who come from low-income families,” she said. “Getting them into services is our first priority.”
Byrd added she talked with one teacher who was moved to tears because of an increase in student performance.
“It made her feel like she was making a difference,” Byrd said.
The same story came from parents.
“I’ve talked to a number of them who said that their child being in a program was the difference for that child,” she said. “They were able to compare that child’s performance to another one of their children’s performance who had not had that experience. It made them more committed to make sure their child stayed in the program where they were well served.”
Lobbying legislators for more funding is one of Landsman’s suggestions, adding the future of the city is at stake.
“Education, education and education are the keys to a better city,” he said. “People will want to live here, stay here and raise a family here if there are good schools. Businesses will want to locate here if we have a highly trained work force.”
“This is what it’s all about,” Landsman stated.
Copyright 2011 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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