Close your eyes and picture a preschool classroom. What do you see? Chances are what you envision is probably pretty close to what you’ll find in an Educare classroom.
Educare is an early childhood program that targets children aged 6 weeks to 5 years, who come from low-income families. It’s an offshoot of Head Start, one of the most prominent, publicly-funded early childhood programs in the country.
Nationally, 21 Educare programs exist in 18 states – spread across urban, suburban and rural communities. Milwaukee’s Educare program operates out of the Next Door Foundation, an early education center on the city’s northwest side.
The program looks and sounds similar to other early childhood programs – and Milwaukee has many. But a national team of researchers recently singled out Educare initiatives in this city -- along with Chicago, Omaha and Tulsa -- for their effectiveness in serving low-income kids.
What sets this program apart is what happens outside the classroom. Educare partners work to help the children they serve get ahead by focusing on the adults in their lives.
The state of Wisconsin doesn’t require children to start their education until age five. But plenty of parents want their young ones to be exposed to learning earlier than that.
Yet not all families can afford preschool – particularly those in the lower income brackets, who are the target demographic for Educare.
“One of the things that we know is poverty is hard on children and it’s hard on families,” says Dr. Nancy File, an early childhood professor at UW-Milwaukee. “The more that we can support families and children to navigate those difficulties, the better off everyone is.”
Dr. File, one of the researchers who reviewed Educare programs in Milwaukee as well as three other cities, was particularly struck by a few key elements of Educare programs that she says would be considered best practice in any early childhood setting. In particular, File says, Educare employs a staff of high-quality teachers – those with bachelor’s, and in many cases master’s degrees – and devotes a significant amount of classroom time to literacy activities.
File says the subject matter is similar across early education, but the delivery of instruction can vary widely. That’s why, she adds, quality must be a primary focus for providers.
"Early childhood is a patchwork of programs,” File explains. “The experiences that kids can have are so varied -- it can be public school, it can be HeadStart, it can be childcare. And so we accept in our society that it’s okay to have a range of quality for our children.”
According to a 2012 report from the Public Policy Forum, more than 66 percent of low-income children in Milwaukee County attend low-quality child care centers.
File says one of the most critical components of any child’s education is parental involvement. But family engagement can make all the difference when a child comes from a low-income background. And engagement is one of the main tenets of the Educare model.
Every family who qualifies and enrolls in Educare is assigned a family advocate – someone who connects the family to the resources it needs - whether that’s housing, medical care or adult educational services if the parents need their GED.
File notes this is one reason why organizations like the Next Door Foundation work well as Educare providers. The missions of both initiatives align to support the whole family.
“In early childhood, one of our hallmarks is that we do think about serving kids and their families – not just kids,” she says.
Parent Lisa Garlie says she appreciates the holistic scheme. Garlie has sent three of her kids through Educare, including her 20-month-old son, Christian, who is enrolled right now.
“I love how it’s the whole approach,” Garlie remarks. “They’re working with us -- working with all families -- to make sure we have the best interest of the child as well as the family, because we all need to be healthy.”
Garlie’s son Christian has some physical limitations; his mom says the program helped her figure out how to make him comfortable in the classroom. One of Garlie’s older sons had behavior issues when he started here; teachers worked with mom to find a solution.
Garlie says the help from her family advocate along with regular interaction with her kids’ teachers make her feel supported as a parent.
“You feel that home-like feeling -- it’s like sending them to your uncle or your aunt’s house,” she says. “You feel comfortable, it kind of just feels right.”
Lead teacher Opal Dennis agrees. Dennis heads one of Educare Milwaukee’s birth-to-three classrooms, and says a big part of her job is getting together with parents to talk about their kids.
And they have plenty of time to get to know each other. The program “loops” teachers with their students, meaning they remain together as a group, as they move up in age. Educare refers to this as “continuity of care.”
Dennis says those practices help her and her students and their families develop deeper connections than typical pre-school relationships.
“Because we’re more collaborative with the parents, you do become like their second mom!” Dennis giggles, recounting the number of times students have called her ‘auntie’ or ‘mama.’
“We get them goals based upon interactions with the parents, and then also ask teachers what do we see in the classroom? So it’s very detailed,” she adds.
The Educare classrooms at Next Door are currently the only ones of their kind in Milwaukee. The researchers who examined them say the only way such programs can expand is with more funding – public or private.
This year marked the first in a five-year study. So while the researchers have seen gains in behavior and literacy among the kids at Educare, what they don’t yet know is how they’ll fare once they leave the program.