An explosion of brain research over the past 20 years has led to many exciting discoveries, and some have profound implications for community development. We have learned that 90% of a child’s brain develops in the first five years of life. Given that children literally constitute our future workforce, it can be said that child development is community development. “There is a revolution in knowledge afoot that demonstrates convincingly that investing in people, especially in children, is every bit as important as investing in markets and buildings,” states Nancy Andrews in Coming out as a Human Capitalist: Community Development at the Nexus of People and Place.
This is why Housing Partnership Inc (HPI) is promoting kindergarten readiness in the city of Lake Worth.
A small artistic city on Florida’s southeast Atlantic coast, Lake Worth is a diverse community. It features the 20th highest percentage of Guatemalan residents in the U.S., as well as the 21st highest Haitian population. Over a quarter of the city’s residents speak Spanish as their first language.
Despite the fact that Palm Beach is the state’s wealthiest county, almost a third (32.3%) of Lake Worth’s residents live below the poverty line. Multiple studies have shown that those raised in poverty are seven times more likely to drop out of school, and that this path starts with not being ready to learn in kindergarten.
"Almost half of our children in Lake Worth have not received the necessary pre-school or in-home support in order to pass the readiness assessment. A major contributing factor is that our schools have disproportionately high numbers of foreign born students,” said HPI Vice-President of Community Services Jaime-Lee Brown.
A six-year longitudinal study of Palm Beach County by the Migration Policy Institute showed strong advantages of the children of black immigrant mothers (families from Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Belize) over children of Latina immigrant mothers (families from Guatemala as well as other Central and South American nations). Parents’ encouragement of children’s literacy influences differential outcomes between these two groups and also suggests a need to better understand early parenting practices with respect to kindergarten readiness. This is particularly significant among mothers with lower educational backgrounds or literacy skills, and for whom English is a second language.
“These children may lack active support from their parents to continue their forward progress as they get older,” continued Brown. “Many foreign born children live in households where the parents don’t speak English and never had formal education. And as school demands increase, the amount of support available from parents waivers.”
HPI operates two neighborhood centers in Lake Worth called BRIDGES, which focus on increasing parent and community capacity for healthy child development. These centers have been strategically located in areas where less than 40% of children enter school “ready to learn.” So Lake Worth was the ideal location to launch an awareness campaign to promote kindergarten readiness.
“Lake Worth is an amazing community with a diverse cultural array of families,” said HPI’s Public Education Manager Kathy Wall. “Our two BRIDGES sites support families living along the Dixie Highway Corridor. Offering parent-child activities that support kindergarten readiness is the very backbone of BRIDGES.”
Mayi Friedlander is the Director of BRIDGES at Highland Elementary in Lake Worth, and she sees firsthand the challenges that families from that neighborhood face.
A 2013-2014 Florida Department of Education survey showed that while Highland is improving, their kindergarten readiness rates barely graze above the minimum.
“We see many obstacles, from language barriers to complicated immigration issues. Poverty to absentee parenting, teen pregnancy to drug abuse,” she said. “We need to invest in our little ones to provide them with a better future.”
To launch the initiative, HPI leveraged the support of a Catalytic Grant from NeighborWorks America to coordinate with the local Children’s Services Council, School District, city administration and the Lake Worth Community Redevelopment Agency.
“We understand that partnerships are our cornerstone,” said Jaime-Lee. “Our role was to serve as a leading convener and develop the awareness campaign.”
HPI assembled a team of staff from across the organization and worked with several experts to craft a toolkit of materials. Brightly colored and visually appealing, these materials were meant to be attractive to both adults and children and consisted of posters, t-shirts, window-clings and an interactive calendar. This toolkit is available to various members of the community ranging from schools and childcare providers to area businesses, local government and faith-based institutions.
“We hope that parents not only see this message when they go to pick up their child from their childcare center, but also when they go to their local bodega, when they open their electric bill,” said Brown.
By developing these materials, the initiative hopes to ensure that local stakeholders who are passionate about our children will spread the message that parents and residents play a critical role in creating nurturing, learning environments.
“Parents are their child’s first teacher. We want them to have simple but effective resources to prepare their child for elementary school,” said Brown.
The response thus far has been positive, and the momentum is growing. Parents are showing up at BRIDGES with the materials, asking questions. Residents are participating in “Strong Starts” study circles, learning more about early childhood development and their role in facilitating it. We will know that the campaign has succeeded when we see a “bend in the curve” of kindergarten readiness scores.