family ties

When high schoolers are parents, parent-teacher conferences are a three-generation affair

PHOTO: Courtesy of NYC Department of Education
Jainellah and Avery at a LYFE center in the Bronx.

When Jainellah Henry found out she was pregnant at 14 years old, she felt like any other teenager might — distraught and scared about her future.

“When I found out, I was crying,” said the sophomore at Bronx Collaborative High School. “I wanted to finish school and I wanted to make my parents proud.”

Recalling that time now, more than a year later, the emotions are still raw. As Jainellah shared her story, she started to cry a little, and reached over to hug the woman sitting next to her – her one-year-old daughter’s teacher at an early childhood center inside the DeWitt Clinton High School building, which also houses Jainellah’s school.

Janiellah sat at a small table — covered with childcare books and surrounded by photographs of toddlers painting — with her child’s teacher, her own father and her social worker. The whole group was assembled for an unconventional parent-teacher conference at one of the city’s more than 30 LYFE centers, which provide early education for infants and toddlers inside the schools their parents attend.

At a time when some schools in New York City are rethinking parent engagement and the chancellor has made it clear she thinks family involvement is central to improving schools, this program addresses a puzzling question: What does parent engagement look like when high school students are already parents themselves? The answer for the LYFE program is that it becomes a whole family affair.

During Jainellah’s parent-teacher conference, the sophomore sat at one end of the table, discussing her own child’s development with a LYFE center teacher. They talked about how Avery, Jainellah’s one-year-old, looked like she wanted to join the toddlers even when she was still an infant. They passed around pictures of Avery receiving a perfect attendance award, a proud moment for Jainellah as a mom.

Jainellah’s father, George Henry, sat at the other end of the table with Jainellah’s social worker, Susan Farrell-Laplante. She filled him in on Jainellah’s progress, much like a teacher would in a typical parent-teacher conference. They discussed Jainellah’s good grades, but also George’s worry that his daughter uses her phone too much and often shows up late to school.

At one point, Avery, wearing pants covered in multicolored flowers and a gray shirt, ran over to her mother and grandfather, making it a true three-generation meeting. The only clue that the group was inside a high school was that every so often the loudspeaker announced there was only “one minute to get to class” and students could be heard shuffling around the hallways.

The idea of supporting the entire family is embedded in every aspect of the LYFE program. Those who work at LYFE do not think of themselves simply as daycare providers; they see an opportunity to take a family in need and put all three generations on a better path.

“We meet families at very different points in their lives,” said Kara Ahmed, the citywide principal of LYFE since 2008. “It’s our job to work through the process and the journey with them.”

Jainellah was born on the island of Jamaica, where she lived with her mother. When her father, who lives in the Wakefield section of the Bronx, found out she was pregnant, he said he was “so mad” that he “didn’t know what to do.” Eventually, the family decided it was best for Jainellah to live with her father in New York.

She moved in with the 62-year-old, who is now on disability, and enrolled in school while George took care of Avery, either by himself or with the help of an older daughter. But he started to worry that he would have to hire a babysitter. Meanwhile, Jainellah, who had just moved to a new country and was a new mother, was attending a high school without a LYFE center — and it wasn’t going very well, her father said.

“At that tender age, having a baby and school, it was rough,” George said.

It wasn’t until they managed to switch Jainellah to Bronx Collaborative High School, enroll Avery in the LYFE program in the same building, and give George a break from babysitting, that everything started clicking for the family, her father said.

Now Jainellah is on a path to finish school, Farrell-Laplante says. She has gone to college fairs, the social worker said, and wants to become a nurse. The LYFE program will watch Avery for a little longer each day so Jainellah can get extra help in math and be fully prepared for college-level courses, she said.

During the school day, Jainellah said, she wanders the hallways and goes to class just like her classmates. The only difference is that sometimes, during lunch, she sneaks down to the LYFE center to peek at her daughter.

Life is “better now,” she said. “It’s OK.”

Hope Starts Here

Two foundations announced ‘Hope Starts Here’ to improve the lives of Detroit’s young children. Here’s how they’re spending their money

PHOTO: Nick Hagen

When the ambitious Hope Starts Here initiative kicked off a year ago with the news that two major foundations would spend $50 million to improve the lives of Detroit’s youngest children, much of the coverage focused on what would be shiny and new.

The 10-year early childhood “framework” put forward by the Kresge and W.K. Kellogg foundations called for a significant effort to expand preschool offerings, including new schools and funding streams that would make it possible to create more programs for kids.

The effort called for major policy initiatives, such as a universal screening program that would identify young children with disabilities or developmental delays. It called for a citywide testing program that would measure how ready children are to start kindergarten.

But as the two foundations (which also fund Chalkbeat) have begun to dig in over the last year, their early investments have focused primarily on improving existing programs, rather than just creating new ones.  

“We’ve learned we have to be able walk and chew gum at the same time,” said Khalilah Burt Gaston, the Michigan program officer for Kellogg, which spent more than half of its $25 million commitment in the last year. “While you’re planning and while you’re listening, you have to be able to think about ongoing community engagement.”

The two foundations are talking with Mayor Mike Duggan as he explores the possibility of universal pre-K, meaning free preschool for all city 4-year-olds. An advocacy network of parents and providers is coming together to push for major policy changes at the city, state, and federal levels.  

And there is at least one new facility in the works — an early childhood center on the campus of Marygrove College that will be part of a new Kresge-funded “cradle to career” campus. Plans call for the center, expected to open in 2020, to also help preschools and childcare centers in the neighborhood.

But the first grants by the two foundations under Hope Starts Here have largely focused on schools and programs that already existed.

Tuesday, Kresge plans to announce $2.2 million in grants to nine organizations that are providing arts and cultural programing, mental health services, or fresh and healthy food to preschools around Detroit.

The money, the largest share of the $3.9 million Kresge has put toward Hope Starts Here so far, is to help preschool owners and people who operate child care programs offer better programming. Many providers, whether they charge tuition or get state or federal funding, often struggle to make enough money to provide much more than a basic curriculum, said Wendy Lewis Jackson, the managing director of Kresge’s Detroit program.

Kellogg has put the money it’s spent so far on Hope Starts Here into training preschool teachers, improving facilities, and helping low-income families pay for  high quality childcare.

That includes a program that works with preschools to help them improve their standing on a state quality rating system; a scholarship program that gives money to families that don’t meet state or federal requirements for free childcare but need help to afford private tuition; and, a program to renovate 12-14 preschools with what Gaston called “an HGTV-style remodel project.”

Another effort is focused on improving the quality of care offered by in-home providers and family members who are often unlicensed but do the bulk of early child care in communities across the country.

Gaston said the early focus on existing programs emerged from the yearlong listening sessions the two foundations held in 2016 and 2017.

“What we learned listening to parents, to politicians, listening to Lansing, is that people don’t know where quality currently exists in the city and two people may have a different perception about quality in Detroit so we want to make sure that what we currently have is moving the needle toward higher quality,” Gaston said.

Kellogg isn’t just backing preschools. The foundation also announced a $3 million Hope Starts Here grant for the Detroit Public Schools Community District that funds a parent academy, a kindergarten bootcamp and a home visit program that sends educators to children’s homes.

By early next year, the people behind Hope Starts Here plan to launch a website that will track progress on each of its 15 strategies and 26 policy priorities. The online “dashboard” will also track movement on some of the alarming statistics that led to Hope Starts Here in the first place. That includes the city’s alarmingly infant mortality high rate, its high rates of babies with low birth weights and the fact that almost 30,000 young Detroiters have no access to high-quality preschool or child care.

Statistics like that contribute to learning problems later on that partly explain why the vast majority of Detroit third-graders — more than 80 percent — aren’t reading at grade level.

At some point, Hope Starts Here could be managed by a centralized entity. Ideas have included an office connected with city government, or one that would be a freestanding non-profit.

“That’s part of the sorting that needs to occur on this so we get the right kind of structure going forward,” Jackson said, noting that Hope Starts Here is currently run by a “stewardship” board.

“The stewardship board is committed to making sure that there’s a comprehensive and sustainable solutions so they’re’ taking all of that into account,” Jackson said.  

As Hope Starts Here enters its next phase, the foundations behind it say the challenge has been staying focused while staring down a massive to-do list in a city where extreme poverty and intensive need makes the work seem urgent.

“The biggest challenge has been the vastness of what we’re trying to accomplish,” Gaston said. “System building work is not sexy. It’s just not but it’s vitally important for us to have a coordinated, high-quality effective system.”

farewell

Head of Denver Preschool Program resigning after more than five years

PHOTO: Eric Lutzens/Denver Post
Jennifer Landrum, president and CEO of the Denver Preschool Program

Jennifer Landrum, who oversaw the Denver Preschool Program for the last five and a half years, announced Friday that she’s leaving for personal reasons.

During Landrum’s tenure, Denver voters increased the sales tax that supports the program, allowing it to cover summer tuition costs and serve more children, and extended it through 2026. Landrum also oversaw the redesign of the tuition credit scale, expanded scholarships and awards for teachers and directors to better support quality improvement efforts, and developed a new strategic plan.

Landrum said she was leaving not for a new job but to take care of herself and her family after experiencing “extreme loss.”

“I need time to pause, reflect and recharge,” she wrote in an email to supporters of the program.

The Denver Preschool Program provides tuition subsidies that scale according to family income and preschool quality for students in the year before they enter kindergarten. The largest subsidies go to the poorest families enrolled in the best preschools. The program also supports quality improvement efforts, including for younger students, part of a broader shift in focus in the early childhood sector. It is funded by a voter-approved 0.15 percent sales tax and has become a model for communities around the state.

“Jennifer has served with vision, boldness, and a constant and deep commitment to improving the lives of Denver’s young children and supporting Denver families,” preschool program board chair Chris Watney wrote in an email. “The board, staff, and community are going to miss her in this role. The board of directors firmly supports Jennifer’s decision and wishes her all the best.”

Deputy Director Ellen Braun will serve as the interim director while the board conducts a search process for a new leader this spring.