YMCA preschools fill a need by trying to close education gap

McClatchy Washington BureauOctober 23, 2013 

Sally Cicotte leads circle time at a YMCA early learning readiness program in Federalsburg, Md., on Oct. 10, 2013. Thirty YMCAs nationwide are helping parents and others who take care of children during the day teach some of the skills they'll need in kindergarten.

RENEE SCHOOF — MCT

— Research is in on the importance of early childhood education, but it remains out of reach for many. Good preschool isn’t cheap. Federally supported Head Start has waiting lists.

So people such as Sally Cicotte and YMCAs in low-income communities across the country are doing what they can, with the collaboration of the mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunts, uncles and neighbors who take care of babies and preschoolers all day.

In a spare room at the library in the small rural town of Federalsburg, Cicotte sat smiling before a small circle of 2- to 4-year-olds and their mothers and other caregivers. Laminated cards with pictures and words served as prompts for questions:

What’s the weather today?

The name of the month?

The color of the week?

“Pink again!” declared Kayleigh Williamson, nearly 3, who minutes later quickly crouched down, eager to be a little pumpkin seed in a song about growing.

“She’s the only one I have and I stay home with her, so this is great for her to get the socialization with other children,” said Kayleigh’s mother, Becca Williamson.

She and other participants said they also liked picking up tips on songs, finger games and other activities at the 13 “interest centers” in what the YMCA calls its Early Learning Readiness Program for Informal Family, Friend and Neighbor Caregivers. The centers include some suggestions for adults about how to engage children with stories, puzzles, Play-Doh, counting objects and other things that are easy to do at home.

The goal is to help the children develop the skills they’ll need for a good start at school – knowing their letters and numbers – but also some ease with how to sit in a group, answer questions and use their imagination. The adults sit with the children and talk to them as they play together.

YMCA of the USA started a few of the programs in a test run two years ago. With a $1 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, it’s now available through 36 YMCAs nationwide, including ones in the Florida Suncoast, Washington state’s Grays Harbor and Kansas City, Mo. In some places, school districts helped the Y’s find neighborhoods where children needed the extra support.

Barb Roth, national director for youth and family programs for the YMCA USA, said her organization decided to reach out to children who didn’t go to preschool, and it chose a program modeled on one developed in Hawaii that encouraged the caregivers to teach. It’s had good results, she said.

“We’re intentionally starting very early because we believe it’s more cost-effective than remediation when a child has been behind for years,” she said.

A former day care provider and avid volunteer in her children’s schools, Cicotte, who leads the program in eastern Maryland, works hard to get the word out. She handed out fliers at a Walmart health fair and at churches and public school events, and she posted about it on Facebook. The twice-weekly classes are offered free of charge.

“I think there’s a high need for it, and I wish we could get more people to attend," she said, even though on a recent day a class of 16 children – all below the age of 5 – kept her enormously busy.

Helen Blank, the director of child care and early education at the National Women’s Law Center, said the YMCA’s approach “makes a lot of sense, because so many caregivers at home with infants and children are not getting the kind of support they need.” And, she added, “We know the first five years are critical.”

“As long as we have waiting lists both for child care and pre-kindergarten, it’s important to develop innovative ways of reaching those children,” she said.

“Our support for children from birth to age 5 is generally one big gaping hole.”

Kris Perry, the executive director of the First Five Years Fund, a group that advocates for high-quality early childhood education for disadvantaged children, said the program was another example of recognition that children in low-income neighborhoods weren’t getting the help they needed.

“I don’t know it gets quite as high up the ladder as getting rid of the achievement gap, but it has so many other good ones, it’s really positive,” Perry said.

Daniel Domenech, the executive director of the School Superintendents Association, told a briefing in Washington recently that studies showed that the achievement gap “begins before a child gets to school, and it’s very much based on poverty.”

Last year, 22 percent of U.S. children lived in poverty. A recent report by the Southern Education Foundation, an education advocacy group, showed that low-income children are now a majority in public schools in some Western states and in most of the South, representing a large increase over the past decade.

Meanwhile, state support for pre-kindergarten programs has declined. The most recent figures show that state funding for the programs decreased by $548,000 in 2011-12 across the 40 states that offer public preschool, according to a report by the National Institute for Early Education Research.

President Barack Obama earlier this year proposed expanding pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families, and paying for it by raising the federal tax on cigarettes and other tobacco products.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said it’s one of his highest priorities, and he frequently notes examples of bipartisan support on the state level for early education.

The chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., has said that there’s agreement on the importance of a good early education foundation, but that Republicans have questions about the effectiveness of Head Start and the costs of the president’s preschool expansion plan.

Kimberly Brenneman, assistant research professor at the National Institute for Early Education Research, said some of the information for caregivers wasn’t necessarily self-evident for someone without a background in child development. For example, she said, when reading a story, it’s important to ask questions to get the child talking and thinking about how the story connects to the child’s world.

“These children will be going to school, where they’re expected to answer questions,” she said.

The report by the National Institute for Early Education Research found that 41 percent of the nation’s 4-year-olds are in state- or federally funded preschools, including Head Start. It also said that many of these programs weren’t adequate in quality.

W. Steven Barnett, the director of the institute, and Cynthia E. Lamy, a senior fellow, wrote in “Closing the Opportunity Gap,” a recent book on education policy, that children in poverty can be 12 to 18 months behind the average child by the time they enter kindergarten. The authors argue that preschool must be high quality, with high standards and good teachers, to have lasting impacts.

Blank, of the National Women’s Law Center, said expanding early learning would have benefits for all.

“If half the class has not had any early learning and half has had high-quality preschool,” she said, “the teacher has to spend time on catching up and not helping the kids who have been in more enriched experiences move forward.”

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YMCAs with Early Learning Readiness programs:

1. Decatur Family YMCA, Ga.

2. Austin Metropolitan YMCA, Texas

3. Merrimack Valley YMCA, Mass.

4. Greater Burlington YMCA , Vt.

5. Newark YMCA, N.J.

6. Tampa Metropolitan YMCA, Fla.

7. Treasure Valley YMCA, Idaho

8. YMCA of Anaheim, Calif.

9. Oklahoma City YMCA

10. YMCA of the Chesapeake, Md.

11. Wabash County YMCA, Ind.

12. YMCA of Eastern Union County, N.J.

13. West Broad Street YMCA, Ga.

14. YMCA of Greater Louisville, Ky.

15. YMCA of Brandywine Valley, Pa.

16. YMCA of Greater Tulsa, Okla.

17. YMCA of Cass and Clay Counties, N.D.

18. YMCA of Honolulu

19. YMCA of Dubuque, Iowa

20. YMCA of Metropolitan Los Angeles

21. YMCA of Grays Harbor, Wash.

22. YMCA of Silicon Valley, San Jose, Calif.

23. YMCA of Greater Indianapolis

24. YMCA of Southwest Illinois

25. YMCA of Greater Kansas City, Mo.

26. YMCA of Greater Omaha, Neb.

27. YMCA of Marquette County, Mich.

28. YMCA of the Suncoast, Fla.

29. YMCA of the Twin Cities, Minn.

30. YMCA of Wichita, Kan.

31. Metropolitan Augusta YMCA , Ga.

32. Dryades YMCA, New Orleans

33. Moultrie YMCA, Ga.

34. Rome-Floyd YMCA, Ga.

35. YMCA of Coastal Georgia

36. Metropolitan Atlanta YMCA

Email: rschoof@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @reneeschoof

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