In an age when education policy has principally focused on test scores and teacher evaluations, Educare’s 12-year-old model concerns itself with the needs of its students and their families — potentially altering the trajectories of entire urban neighborhoods in the process. In Forefront this week, Sarah Carr sets out to see what it will take to bring Educare’s approach to scale.
One rainy morning in Milwaukee, several preschoolers file back into their classroom after an unexpected fire drill. A teacher works to reanimate them through group dances and sing-a-longs to such songs as “If You’re Happy and You Know It.” Then it’s back to business. One cluster of students spells out words that start with ‘W’: Walrus, winter and window. Their less advanced classmates have a somewhat easier task: Identifying images of butterflies, rabbits and other animals during a spirited game of word bingo. “I’m going to have to start making harder words for you, because you are just too smart,” the classroom aide, Janelle Beckmann-Rudolph, tells them. The children have a full schedule that day: Breakfast, teeth brushing, greeting, large group literacy, music and movement, small group literacy, toilet and hand washing, outdoor gross motor, small group math, hand washing again. And that’s all before lunch.
This cheery classroom sits in the middle of Milwaukee’s Metcalfe Park, one of the most economically depressed areas in one of the nation’s most segregated cities. More than 90 percent of the neighborhood’s residents are African American, compared to 39 percent of the city as a whole. The poverty rate is nearly double that of the city (49 percent compared to 27 percent) and the educational attainment is significantly lower (about 55 percent of Metcalfe Park residents haven’t finished high school, compared to 20 percent of Milwaukeeans). Some 60 percent of the toddlers happily singing in the early childhood center, called Educare, live in the neighborhood.
If you are not an expert on early childhood education, you may never have heard of Educare, but in the next five years that is likely to change. Though early childhood centers aren’t typically considered powerful players on the national stage, Educare is steadily becoming a respected name nationwide in both urban and education policy. Over the last decade, a network of 18 Educare centers across the country has changed the lives of hundreds of low-income families in cities including Milwaukee, Omaha, Seattle and Atlanta. Many of the families had little idea what they were getting into when they signed their children up for the program, which enrolls infants as young as six weeks and keeps them through the age of five.
Educare’s approach combines several different strategies for combating urban poverty: Get the neediest children into high-quality educational settings as early as possible. Provide struggling families with a buffet of social supports that address their educational, health and economic needs. Focus on improving the quality of life and services for those living in a targeted geographic area.
These strategies have attracted fervent and powerful admirers in recent years, including President Obama, who has pushed for universal preschool for low- and middle-income 4-year-olds and whose administration in 2011 provided federal support to expand the concept behind the wrap-around model that underpins Educare, as well as the perhaps better-known Harlem Children’s Zone model. That children’s zone offers health, education, parenting and other programs to low-income families within an established geographic area.
Despite their popularity, these approaches have failed to gain widespread traction as policy solutions, at least partly because of their cost and complexity. Educare centers spend about $21,000 per child on average, although that figure can vary considerably depending on the center’s location and available funding sources. So while the Harlem Children’s Zone and Milwaukee’s Educare Center have attracted influential supporters, comparable models have only been tried in a handful of isolated communities, with varying degrees of fidelity and financial backing.
In many respects, Educare’s holistic emphasis and focus on the littlest of learners represents the antithesis of the nation’s current approach to poverty alleviation and urban school reform, epitomized by the welfare-to-work push of 1990s and the standards-based school accountability movement. Like these latter initiatives, America’s most popular and far-reaching social reforms tend to be rooted in a single principle, whether that’s getting welfare recipients into jobs, requiring everyone to have health insurance or evaluating teachers based on their students’ results.
For better or for worse, Educare’s aim cannot so easily be distilled into a lone principle or goal. As families quickly learn, even explaining what Educare has to offer can take some time. The centers might be built on the premise that getting a city’s most vulnerable infants into stable, educationally rich learning environments is the best means of ending intergenerational poverty in the long run. But in the short run they also aim to transform the lives of those children’s parents, the trajectory of entire neighborhoods and the approach to child care in the communities where they operate.
Educare’s story over the last decade speaks to the promise multipronged efforts hold for turning around struggling city neighborhoods and the paths of some of their most vulnerable residents. It also speaks to the challenges in bringing this kind of complicated approach to scale.