“Many low-income children have stable and enriching homes, where parents provide ample early learning opportunities and are hopeful about their children’s future. Nevertheless, too many low-income parents, along with the early learning providers and agencies aiming to help them, face daunting challenges and potential barriers for achieving school readiness.” In a nutshell, that was the conclusion of a Wilder research study focusing on school readiness of low-income children. The study suggests that access to high-quality early care and education should be provided to low-income families.
Researchers also found that race and ethnicity play a part in the early learning conditions of low-income, urban families. “Overall, White families fare the best; African-American families fare a little better than Latino and Somali families, and Hmong families experience the most challenges to school readiness.”
The 2008 Wilder Research Early Learning Conditions summary reports:
“Overall, the findings suggest that early learning and kindergarten readiness efforts in North Minneapolis and St. Paul should focus on improving the economic and social conditions and well-being of families on supporting providers within various cultural communities, and on ensuring the competence of teachers and providers to nurture and teach children from families in poverty and from diverse cultural and immigrant communities as much as on ensuring access to high-quality early care and education….’
“Accordingly, to resolve [some of the challenges faced by these families] and to advance the health and development of all children require tailored, comprehensive, culture-specific approaches to strengthening families and communities.”
Two existing programs address the recommendations of this study: the St. Paul Early Childhood Scholarship Program and the Network for the Development of Children of African Descent (NdCAD).
The Scholarship Program is one of the initiatives of St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman’s education team strategic plan, formulated in conjunction with the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation (MELF), to ensure that all children are ready for school. NdCAD was founded by Gevonee Ford to meet the cultural-specific educational needs of African-American youths.
The St. Paul Early Childhood Scholarship Program
The St. Paul Early Childhood Scholarship Program is a four-year pilot proposed by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, funded by MELF, and coordinated by Saint Paul Mayor Chris Coleman’s office.
Launched in January 2008, this scholarship program gives families in the Frogtown and North End neighborhoods information and scholarships to help them choose, pay for, and stay in high-quality childcare and early childhood education programs.
“It’s going really well. We’re in process of getting word to families,” said Lisa Cariveau, Early Education Project Coordinator in the mayor’s office. As of the end of May, 315 children from 201 families were participating in the program. The City’s goal is to reach 1100 children by the end of the year, and there’s no waiting list at this time.
Cariveau reports that she is pleased that the program is reaching out to new immigrants such as the Karen and Somalis, and those who speak a language other than English at home. Over 50% of the families who have applied thus far speak a language other than English at home.
“The overall goal of the education team is that all children are ready for school and ready for life so that every child has the opportunity to reach his or her fullest potential. So far, we’ve seen a really strong community interest in this goal and we’re very hopeful about this community coming together to make this happen.”
Christa, a North End resident and parent of a four-year-old boy, is a recipient of the St Paul Scholarship Program. Her child receives quality childcare at Wilder Child Development at no cost to her since April.
“The program is fantastic,” she said. “It’s a great program, but there needs to be a greater initiative to get more people who don’t qualify for other funding involved.” She found out about the program from another parent who works for the city. “There also needs to be more childcare facilities in the Frogtown and North End neighborhoods approved and rated on the parent aware program,” added Christa.
Christa points out that it is important to note that after receiving the scholarship, in order for the family to qualify to use the funds, the child must be registered in a childcare facility that is approved and rated by the parent aware program. When Christa was approved for the scholarship in January, she was not aware of the facility rating criteria. At that time, she had the option of transferring her child to another facility or waiting for the facility where her child had been registered for more than two years to get approval, which it did in April. Christa’s scholarship funds were not retroactive to the date of her approval.
Network for the Development of Children of African Descent (NdCAD)
NdCAD is a ten-year old non-profit organization that serves families throughout St. Paul and Minneapolis metropolitan areas, offering a variety of literacy and cultural enrichment programs and services for children, youth and adults. Gevonee Ford, founder and Executive Director of NdCAD, who has been in the field of education for over twenty years, described its work:
“Our work is not just about teaching kids how to read. It’s not just about teaching parents how to become their children’s teachers. We are not just about organizing in the community. We are not just about teaching teachers and early childhood providers how to better work with African American children.”
“It’s all about those strategies. It’s a whole comprehensive nature. Our goal is to positively impact the cultural, spiritual, and academic development of children by working holistically with young people, parents, educators and the community.”
NdCAD has an in-house and outreach reading program, parent power literacy workshops, and parent support groups. In 2001, they implemented a Book Giving Program whereby free books are given to children weekly.
Ford revels in going out to the community with his literacy program. For example, at the Juneeteenth celebration in Minneapolis on June 21, NdCAD hosted a Reading Tent, in which adults read aloud continuously throughout the day. Chaim, a first-grader who sat attentively with his grandmother, was delighted when one of his favorite books, Green Eggs and Ham, was read.
NdCAD’s mission is “to strengthen the cultural connections within communities of African descent that promote, sustain, and enhance the healthy development of our children.” NdCAD fulfills its mission, said Ford, with the implementation of strategies which are based on strengthening cultural connection through: 1) identity; 2) family; 3) community; and 4) connection between community and early learning systems that have an impact on our children.
Jennifer Holder contributes regularly to the TC Daily Planet and the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.