Bringing early education to urban students

When it comes to early education, urban children face barriers that make enrollment harder than it is for their suburban peers. These issues may be as simple as a scheduling conflict for the family car or a lack of public transportation that prevents parents from dropping off or picking up their child from preschool.  Or they can be as personal as a cultural choice to keep children at home until they are required to attend school. 

Barriers to preschool access are as diverse as urban communities themselves, meaning there is no silver bullet that can remove all the roadblocks these families face. The key is to meet every family where they are with a willingness to help them overcome these barriers while respecting their choices. That way, we can give every child access to programs that prepare them for lifelong achievement.

Connectivity and mobility

My organization offers an online kindergarten readiness curriculum covering early literacy, numeracy and science concepts. Each of the families we serve is provided a coach who monitors their student’s progress through the program. We also provide hardware and internet to families without them.  We can serve any family, but we focus on the most vulnerable populations: immigrant, refugee, ELL, low-income and other groups that may have few or no options for site-based preschool.

One interesting problem we have encountered while working with urban families, particularly low-income families, is they tend to be very mobile. They move frequently to find a home or apartment with cheaper rent or a better location, and all that movement can be a challenge when ensuring that their child has access to the resources they need for our curriculum. The onus is on us to navigate these potential disruptions in their child’s learning by ensuring they have these resources wherever they live.

A large part of our work often focuses on helping these families create routines around their child’s learning. If a family is moving soon, our coaches get the details about where and when so that we can make arrangements for internet service if needed. We don't want to interrupt the child's education because it’s important for them and their family to continue their learning routines. If they work the same time every day, they’re more likely to regularly use the program and reap the benefits. This is no different than making sure a student of any age isn’t missing too much class time.

But it’s not always as easy as calling an internet service provider and having them update the family’s home address. ISP coverage maps can be surprisingly irregular, with services provided on one side of the street and not the other. We may have to go through a different company, even if the family is only moving a short distance.

We’ve also found that offering internet access is sometimes hard to arrange. You would think that urban centers have great internet access, but so many families live in older buildings that often aren’t wired for it. Providing internet access in cities can be as challenging as it is in rural areas.

As a result, we have to be agile. We may be able to partner with a big provider like CenturyLink or Comcast, or we may team up with a mom-and-pop ISP. In some situations, we give the family a wireless card to access the internet.

That kind of patchwork, “anything-to-get-the-job-done” approach is a lot of work, but it’s worth the effort. Internet access not only makes it possible for the student to use the curriculum, but it’s a huge boon to the entire family, too. It opens all kinds of doors for them, from accessing online job applications to streamlining DMV visits.

Responding to diverse challenges of diverse populations

These issues surrounding how to best provide these resources illustrates the challenges in offering early education to urban populations in general.

Take our home base in Salt Lake City, for example. We have a large refugee population who face many challenges that other families may not, from language barriers to cultural differences to no experience with computers.  While our curriculum is in English, we now support families in 21 different languages to help them overcome these barriers.

Among Hispanic families, we have also seen hesitancy to enroll in a free program because they worry that accepting federal aid will jeopardize their immigration status. It won’t -- and our program isn’t federal aid to begin with --  but that fear is real and a major impediment to enrolling their kids into early education programs.

Engaging the entire family

To fully address all the challenges, we have to help parents understand how important early childhood education is for academic success. We don’t need to overwhelm them with dry information from the Harvard Medical Journal, but we shouldn’t be afraid to share data and statistics in concise and understandable terms about the outcomes for kids who were ready for kindergarten versus peers who don’t develop kindergarten readiness.

Getting the parents committed and involved is so important. The kids are overly eager to use the program at the beginning, but as it becomes part of their routine, they may lose interest. If the parents are involved, however, we don’t see a drop-off in student participation in the program.

But the parents are not just important during the year their children use our program. They really are key to long-term academic achievement. They’re going to be the ones pushing their students and supporting them materially and emotionally so that they can focus on school. One of the things we’re proudest of is that when we ask our parents if they plan on being more engaged in their child’s education, 96% say yes. No matter where they live, engaged parents make all the difference in education.

Claudia Miner is executive director and cofounder of the UPSTART project at Waterford.org.

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