The room is baby friendly. It has carpeted ramps for babies to crawl on and explore. It has lots of toys and a small pit filled with soft, brightly colored balls to roll in. The lower walls are lined with mirrors to gaze at; the upper walls have murals of birds and stars. Most important, there are plenty of adults playing at kid level. On this morning, there were three babies and three adults. (More babies were expected to arrive, but the ratio doesn’t go above three to one.)
This is the infant room at Baby’s Space, an early childhood program supporting success for some of the community’s most vulnerable children and families. Started in 2000 as an infant and toddler program at the Little Earth Neighborhood Early Learning Center, 2438 18th Ave. S., Baby’s Space has developed a track record and a model that is taking off.
Last fall, Baby’s Space added Tatanka Academy, a contract alternative school for Minneapolis Public Schools. It will offer preschool to grade three. (It began this year with kindergarten and first grade and will add a grade a year for the next two years.)
Terrie Rose, Baby Space’s founder, said other organizations have approached her asking how they could duplicate the program. The organization has received legal and marketing help to create what amounts to a Baby’s Space franchise. Expansion plans are still in the works.
“We are developing an urban initiative that will work in urban centers of poverty and an American Indian reservation initiative,” she said. “We hope by September we will be pick and shovel ready,” with a clear sense of how the partnerships would work.
Rose is talking with leaders on the White Earth Indian Reservation about how a Baby’s Space program could be duplicated there, she said.
Early childhood mental health
Many of the Baby’s Space children live with what Rose calls “toxic levels of stress.” That could include domestic violence, community violence, drug use or gang violence. Some families have had open child protection cases.
“Every one of our kindergarten children has seen somebody shot,” Rose said at a recent public presentation. “All of our kindergartners are academically on target at the same time. It is possible to build the opportunity, even thought the trauma keeps coming. “
Baby’s Space focuses on creating a program from the kid’s point of view. That means the adults get on the floor, too, said Ester, lead teacher in the infant room. “You give them your undivided attention.” In the toddler room (18-33 months), there is laughter, tears, quizzical looks and many other emotions. The adults are again on the floor, following the child’s interest.
Rose said there are three keys to supporting early childhood mental health and ultimately learning. Children need to be able to form and maintain relationships. They need to experience, express and regulate their emotions. And they need to explore and learn from their environment.
“Children need to learn to read, we all know the mantra,” Rose said. “How do children learn to be literate? By their ability to engage in relationships, their ability to manage their feelings and their ability to learn. If a child is confident in the relationship in which they are begin taught, those skills can develop.”
The preschool classrooms have one adult for five children, half the state-mandated level.
Baby’s Space’s work with parents includes a monthly feast. The children will read a book all week and get familiar with it. At the feast, the teachers and kids put on a play about the book, using props the children made. Every family goes home with the book.
Baby’s Space staff also does home visiting.
Lisa Vaupel, a child and family counselor, works with parents on healthy parenting strategies. She helps them understand their child’s social and emotional development. She also works individually with children, giving them coping strategies for feeling anxious. One concrete idea she gives them is to put their hands on their hearts.
“It helps them recognize when they get agitated,” she said. “They can feel it. They can pay attention to themselves and calm themselves down.”
Dollars and the disconnect
The center serves 65 children from infants to first grade. It has a budget of $850,000 or approximately $13,000 per child per year, Rose said.
The program gets much of its early childhood funding from childcare subsidies, but that is problematic. It’s part of a welfare-to-work program geared to keeping parents employed. It is not about creating predictable, consistent high-quality childcare, Rose said.
Working parents qualify for childcare, but they can lose eligibility by missing work or school. What happens to the children? Rose asks. They bounce from childcare to a friend, family or neighbor and back to a childcare. “How does an eight-month old understand that?” she asks. “What happens to his ability to form relationships?”
The center does its own fundraising for scholarships, so families can have full-day, full year care.
Going to scale
It’s no secret that quality early childhood programs makes a difference in how well children raised in poverty do later in life. Research on Perry Preschool and the Abecedarian Program are two well known examples. Locally, the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation continues new early childhood research, but it has faced recent funding challenges.
Can Baby’s Space get to scale?
Rose said Perry Preschool and Abecedarian were university-based research projects that never rolled out to full implementation in the community. Rose herself began the Baby’s Space work when she was a University of Minnesota professor. While appreciative of her time there, she left the University four years ago.
“It was a structure that worked really well for developing models but it was not set up for implementing community-based work,” she said.
Baby’s Space is one of the investees for Social Venture Partners Minnesota and Rose is a fellow for Ashoka, a group dedicated to supporting social entrepreneurs. Rose hopes such support will help bolster expansion.
Ashoka’s strategic partnership with McKinsey & Co connected Rose with McKinsey Associates in Minneapolis who were able to provide pro-bono support in creating a model to scale Baby’s Space. Ashoka offers additional support for Fellow-initiated collaborations, exchange visits, technical assistance grants, and marketing.
Scott Russell is a journalist. He wrote for the Southwest Journal and Skyway News (now the Downtown Journal) in Minneapolis from 1999-2005. He also wrote for The Capital Times, a Madison Wisconsin daily, from 1993-1999.
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