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Way to Grow prepares ‘fragile families’ and their kids for school right from birth

Which to address first — the poverty that underlies the achievement gap, or the educational inequities that make poverty so persistent? This program  says the right answer is: “Both.”

Way to Grow's preschool program gives kids the tools they need to start school ready to learn, and parents continue to get help knowing how to support them.
Courtesy of Way to Grow

There’s a circular argument in education circles: Which do you have to address first, the poverty that underlies the achievement gap, or the educational inequities that make poverty so persistent?

Suggestions that the right answer is “both” are often met with derision. Common wisdom is that doing both is too expensive and that there’s no proof it works.

Carolyn Smallwood

Try telling that to Carolyn Smallwood. The executive director of a 22-year-old Minneapolis effort to begin preparing the city’s most fragile families and their kids for school from birth, Smallwood believes her team is on the cusp of showing that “both” can be the right answer — and a cost-effective one.

Way to Grow (WTG) starts from the premise that a child’s first teachers are her parents, and that supporting them is the first step toward ensuring that student’s academic success. Using a combination of home visits and resource advocates, the nonprofit starts working with parents before birth and sticks with them until their children are school-ready.

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“It takes a family 10 to 12 years to move out of poverty,” said Smallwood. “Once parents see how well their children do [in school] they want to do better. Many go for their GED.”

The group’s efforts to date suggest that being kindergarten-ready is crucial, but also not enough. Starting this year, WTG will stay with its families through third grade — a crucial year in the cementing of literacy and other underpinnings of school success.

At the same time, Smallwood is working with Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) to collect as complete a portrait of the families served as possible in order to definitively say whether “both” is achievable and affordable. She expects the data to show that this “Great by Eight” approach merits sustainable funding.

WTG was launched in 1989 by former Minneapolis Mayor Don Fraser, Honeywell CEO Jim Renier and the United Way, who were alarmed by data showing half of Twin Cities kids were not ready for kindergarten. After 15 years as a Minneapolis Youth Coordinating Board program, it became a stand-alone nonprofit.

Last year, it served more than 2,000 children and parents. Smallwood would like to expand its reach. To that end, this fall the program began operating in 26 MPS schools. It is part of the Northside Achievement Zone’s Promise Neighborhood but is not included in the $28 million federal Race to the Top grant that organization won last December.

In 2006, when WTG began measuring participant outcomes, just 38 percent of children met or exceed its school-readiness benchmark, the Individual Growth and Development Indicators. The percentage has risen steadily every year since.

Beginning Kindergarten Assessment (BKA) and Individual Growth and Development Indicators (IGDI) Scores

chart of literacy development
Courtesy of Way to Grow
84 children tested in 2008, 98 in 2009, 134 in 2010, 115 in 2011

Participating families are among the most isolated. Last year, 60 percent of WTG parents lacked a high school diploma, 74 percent spoke a language other than English and 97 percent qualified for state Medical Assistance.

In 2011, 95 percent of babies born to WTG participants were born at a healthy birth weight and 95 percent of its teen mothers did not have a repeat pregnancy; 87 percent of its kindergarteners were ready for school and 78 percent were reading at or above grade level.

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These eye-popping results obscure painstaking efforts to make sure the smallest missteps are avoided. Family educators begin building a relationship with a family during the mother’s pregnancy. Teen mothers get two visits a month, academic tutoring and group events. All pregnant women get help finding health care and learning about infant care and child development.

Once the baby has arrived, the educators — who come from numerous cultures and speak seven languages — continue visiting. WTG tries to pair families with educators from the same culture and community; many are program alums. They gain entrée by “meeting families where they are,” Smallwood said.

home help
Courtesy of Way to Grow
WTG tries to pair families with educators from the same culture and community.

They bring toys and books and plop down on the floor to play, all the while talking to parents about literacy-building skills like vocabulary, rhyming and reciting the alphabet. While they are there, the educators are on the lookout for signs a family needs help with a job or housing search or could use a connection with a church or clinic.

When baby turns 3, there is Preschool Pals, a free early-ed program offered four days a week at the Center for Families in north Minneapolis. Kids get the tools they need to start school ready to learn, and parents continue to get help knowing how to support them. WTG family educators talk about the importance of showing up for conferences, watching for report cards, overseeing homework — things that may seem basic to others but aren’t in families with scant experience with schools.

Research shows the foundation for success in school — and college — isn’t fully laid until third grade. In 2011 WTG and district leaders extended the home visits and other family supports through age 8. In addition to coaching parents to be effective advocates, they help families find high-quality afterschool programs.  

Throughout, WTG and MPS’ Department of Research and Evaluation share data that should help each refine their approaches. One set of numbers in particular already speaks to Smallwood: Since 2005, the end of the program’s first full year, the number of referrals WTG has made for outside support has fallen from more than 5,700 to less than 2,200, despite an increase in the number of people served.

During that same time period, the number of home visits rose from 5,300 to more than 9,100. Smallwood is confident 85 percent of Great by Eight participants will perform at or above grade level, 85 percent of families will attend teacher conferences, 80 percent of kids will receive an annual physical and 75 percent will attend school 95 percent of the time.

With luck, these outcomes will be “scalable.” Last year, 75 kindergarteners and 49 first-graders got WTG services in 26 MPS schools and four local charters. It’s a fraction of the need. MPS enrolls almost 12,000 K-3 students, a majority of them impoverished.

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Right now, WTG’s overall budget is $2.5 million a year. By the 2013-2014 school year, when its first cohort hits third grade, WTG plans to have the capacity to serve 200 K-3 students and more families, requiring an additional $500,000.

Smallwood’s goal is to use the data that supports “both” as a cost-effective answer to fund a capital campaign currently underway and, in the long run, to diversity WTG’s funding sources.

“If we had 50 family educators, we could rock this thing,” said Smallwood. ““We have some resilient parents. They are trying to make it and they are doing a great job.”

But like those fragile families, WTG can’t do it alone. Funding a corps of home visitors that size would mean a budget of $9 million-$10 million, Smallwood said.

It’s a goal she sees as achievable, once the approach is proven: “A paradigm shift is coming. And one of those shifts has to be what we can do.”