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.”

Early readers

Tennessee wants to boost third-grade literacy. Here’s why it’s looking to early childhood education as the answer.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen speaks at the University of Memphis about reading and early childhood education.

Calling reading the “equity issue of our time,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Thursday that Tennessee will increase its literacy rates when it improves the quality of its early education programs.

The state has been waging war on illiteracy for years but is zeroing in on pre-K and other early education programs as the best vehicles to get 75 percent its third-graders reading on grade level by 2025. Currently less than half of its students are there.

Beginning this year, the state attached more strings for local districts to receive pre-K funding, tying the amount received to the quality of programming instead of the volume of students.

But McQueen said the state still has a lot to learn about developing young readers, and data is key.

“Before kids get to third grade, we have very little information statewide with whether or not those students are on track,” McQueen said. “We have very little data statewide to know where we should be putting investments.”

The state is seeking to fill that void by working with local leaders to better track its youngest students to determine what’s working best. In Memphis, Porter-Leath is taking the lead in that effort. The nonprofit organization opened a major pre-K center this year to serve as a teacher training hub to bolster the quality of all of the city’s pre-K classrooms.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
From left: Sandra Allen of LeBonheur Center for Children and Parents, Rafel Hart of Porter-Leath, Sharon Griffin of Shelby County Schools, and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

McQueen was part of an early reading panel discussion hosted in Memphis by Tennesseans for Quality Early Education and the PeopleFirst Partnership. The event featured Shelby County Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin, state Rep. Mark White, Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell and Tennessee first lady Crissy Haslam, who has championed literacy during her husband’s administration.

Since launching its Read to be Ready initiative last year, Tennessee has invested $30 million in summer reading camps and another $4.2 million in a coaching network to support teachers with literacy instruction.

The stakes are high because reading is foundational to lifelong learning — and is critical to closing the achievement gap.

“When kids are not reading on grade level by third grade, they are four times less likely graduate high school,” McQueen said. “Kids scoring in the lowest proficiency level on literacy almost never catch up. Guess who is in that bottom level? Students who are African American. Students who are Latino. Students with disabilities. Students who are English language learners.”

(Very) early education

Bank Street heads to East New York to help child care providers play to their strengths

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Sherease Alston sings along with children at her child care center, Little Minds at Work.

One little girl would simply repeat anything that was said to her, rather than answer basic questions like, “How are you?” Another toddler seemed more active than the other children — maybe too active. But Sherease Alston, who has run a child care center from her living room for the past six years, was often met with skepticism when she would share her observations with parents.

The hard part isn’t noticing when a child may have a developmental issue, she explained. It’s getting the child’s parents to recognize it, too.

“It’s hard for parents to see sometimes because they’re in denial,” she said.

A cold call from a leading education school helped change that. With the help of the new Guttman Center for Early Care and Education at the Bank Street College of Education, Alston came up with a strategy to help parents see what she sees. Now, she asks them to log their children’s behavior at home, so those logs can be compared against ones kept by the daycare, Little Minds at Work.

“It was easy to see once it was all documented,” Alston said. “It was an easy tool to use to open that door for our parents.”

New York City is in the midst of a massive push to expand access to early childhood education — and to make sure quality keeps up. Site evaluations and teacher training have been a centerpiece of the city’s free pre-K program, which now serves 70,000 4-year-olds and is expanding to enroll 3-year-olds, too.

The city is slated to bring its pre-K model to children as young as six weeks old, with plans to transfer responsibility for publicly funded childcare programs from the Administration for Children’s Services to the education department. Making that shift will require the city to turn its attention to a vast network of providers like Alston — those who are already working with infants and toddlers in their communities.

That’s where the Guttman Center is focusing its attention. Working with providers on the ground in low-income neighborhoods, the Center wants to help them solve problems and improve their care.

“We really wanted … to have the input of the community, acknowledge the exceptional range of abilities that already exists, and partner with them,” said Director Robin Hancock. “The beauty of having all these perspectives in the classroom is people are constantly hearing from other corners in the field.”

Across the country, early childhood advocates have taken a similar approach, working to meet providers where they are — and build on their strengths. In Colorado, for example, community organizations have trained the aunts, neighbors and other caregivers who form an often invisible network of care. The state has also paid special attention to helping Spanish-speaking providers earn early childhood credentials.

In New York City, the scale of the challenge is huge. ACS currently oversees programs that serve about 20,000 children ages 3 or younger. A recent report by the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs found that home-based providers especially struggle with a labyrinth of safety and compliance requirements, understanding what is developmentally appropriate for very young children, and enduring long hours for low pay.

Guttman’s work represents one step in helping child care workers navigate those issues. The first cohort of providers was drawn from East New York — one of two neighborhoods (along with the South Bronx) where the city is launching its pilot for free pre-K for 3-year-olds this fall. The Guttman program was created for even younger children, from infants to 2-year-olds.

Providers meet on Saturdays every other week for a semester, and coursework centers on topics like building partnerships with families and caring relationships with students. Group discussions are paired with on-site coaching.

“The goal really is for them to be able to look at their own practice and to understand what’s working and what is not,” said Margie Brickley, a program director for the Bank Street Graduate School of Education, who helped develop the Guttman curriculum.

Ultimately, the program hopes to create a community of support for providers who often find themselves working in isolation. Already, some have opened up their sites to visits from other providers to observe good practices in action and share ideas.

“The first 36 months of life are critical for cognitive development and we’re building the foundation for learning,” said Johannah Chase, then an associate dean at Bank Street. “It’s part of the reason why we’re putting so much of our energy into child caregivers.”

Kiara Dash, an assistant at Little Minds at Work, reads to Thravis Ealey. (Photo: Christina Veiga)

On a recent morning at Little Minds at Work, five squirmy toddlers and an infant gathered on a rug made of giant foam puzzle pieces. Sunlight streamed in through two windows facing a quiet residential street. The group sang about their feelings and assistant Vanesha Mayers playfully wiggled one boy’s fingers and toes as they counted to 20.

Before joining the Guttman program, Alston said she took a more academic approach to working with the very young children in her care — which often led to frustration for both her and the kids. Guttman helped her refocus her curriculum around play and building relationships.

“That was an eye-opener,” she said. “They helped me understand their needs.”

Brickley said Alston’s struggle is common. Often, providers simply “water down” programs meant for older children even though infants and toddlers have very different needs.

On the other hand, Alston said she is adept at juggling the business and regulatory aspects of her business — something she can help other providers learn.

Hancock, the center’s director, said the program was built to recognize providers’ different abilities and fill gaps as needed. That tailored approach respects the knowledge providers already bring to the table, she said, and helps create a culture of trust.

“We really want to make sure to help providers build confidence that they are experts,” she said. “They know their environments and they know their children best.”

Correction: This post has been updated with the correct spelling of Johannah Chase’s name.