Alanna Rivera’s daughter, Damara, knew about Carson Elementary School’s “babies club” before she did and kept nagging her to get involved. The only problem was that Rivera didn’t have a baby. Damara, who is now finishing 1st grade at the Pennsauken, N.J. school, was an only child.
But then Rivera learned she was expecting her second child, so when she attended back-to-school night last fall, she made sure to visit the information table about the Carson Baby Initiative.
She began attending the once-a-month gatherings of parents, babies and older siblings while she was still pregnant and says the program has provided a welcome break from balancing the needs of both children.
“We get to just relieve our concerns,” Rivera said in an interview. “We’re all dealing with the same things.”
And now Damara — proud that she’s part of the club — sets her small desk up in her younger sister Arianna’s room and teaches her what she’s learning in school, Rivera said.
“They show the kids how to read to the baby,” Rivera said. “Now she’s practicing for her and for me.”
Elementary school leaders and educators have increasingly recognized that the environments in which young children in their communities are growing up have an effect on whether children enter school prepared for a classroom setting, and organizations such as the National Association of Elementary School Principals and the National Association for the Education of Young Children have provided multiple resources and professional learning opportunities over the years focusing on making schools "ready for children." But while a significant proportion of preschool programs are located in elementary schools, schools are less likely to offer anything for infants and toddlers.
Tara Barnstead, a reading specialist at the school, however, began to recognize that when she had a struggling reader in the early grades, the younger sibling tended to have the same issues when he or she entered school.
“We thought if we could get to them sooner, we could avoid that,” Principal Diane Joyce said in an interview. Parent involvement nights tend to be a “one-shot deal,” she said, so the goal was to create a program in which the teachers and the parents with babies could get to know each other better.
‘A unique population’
On the six afternoons during the school year that the program is held, the older siblings involved in the “club” report to the library after school and the parents arrive with their babies. Teachers, who are volunteering their time for the program, lead a learning activity for the older children, which often includes making a toy they can share with the baby. The others, meanwhile, lead the parents — in both Spanish and English — in related activities, songs or other games with the babies. At the end of the session, they come together, the older children share what they’ve made with the babies, and everyone eats dinner.
Barnstead added in the interview that older children can display behavior issues when a baby enters the family. The sessions focus on helping the students “recognize their potential as a family asset.”
“We’re sort of serving a unique population — families with a school age child and an infant,” she said, adding that she and Joyce also noticed that parents’ participation in school events tends to taper off when they have a new baby because they often don’t feel comfortable bringing the infant to school. Now, that is changing.
Rivera said she has met teachers from other grade levels, and the parents who regularly attend have started to set up play dates with their children.
“We all know each other,” she said. “We have this connection.”
'Not a foreign feeling'
The community schools model is another approach that allows schools to form relationships with families in their neighborhood that have very young children. At Earl Boyles Elementary School in Portland, Ore. — part of the Schools Uniting Neighborhoods system — an infant/toddler space in an early-childhood wing of the building hosts "play-and-learn" groups and early intervention programs operated by several partner organizations.
"It's a great opportunity to get to know the child at a very young age," Principal Ericka Guynes said in an interview. Then when they register their children for preschool or kindergarten, "it's not a foreign feeling." Developmental screenings are also conducted when the children participate, meaning that if delays or other concerns are noticed, they can be referred for services sooner. On a weekly basis, about 85 children from birth through age 3 are in the building.
Guynes added that to make the partnerships successful, however, a structure is needed in order to determine if the community organization's vision and mission is in line with that of the school. The partners can also share lessons learned with each other, she said.
Schools and districts running home-visiting programs also consider ways to include young children in the home, even if the visit is focused on a school-age child. In the Parent-Teacher Home Visits (PTHV) model, now in 23 states and the District of Columbia, a student's primary teacher and a "second visitor" from the school participate in each visit, which helps to ensure safety. The second person might be someone who can translate, if needed, and having two visitors allows them to share observations after the visit, Gina Martinez-Keddy, the executive director of PTHV, said in an email.
But another benefit of having two staff members visit the family is that the second visitor often plays with or reads to the younger siblings in the family, Martinez-Keddy said. The younger child might also take the visitor on a tour of the house or to meet the family pet.
"We believe that these interactions support the deep relationship-building between educators and families, demonstrate the care that school staff have for the entire family, and contribute to the younger sibling’s sense of connection and belonging to the school community," she said.
Multiple links to federal policy
Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), there is a greater emphasis on schools receiving Title I funds to create “meaningful parent and family involvement” programs in “consultation” with parents. With some states now reporting school climate data — including assessments from parents — as part of their ESSA accountability plans, those that “engage the whole family” are likely to have higher scores on those measures, Danielle Ewen, a senior policy adviser at EducationCounsel, a D.C.-based consulting organization, suggested in an interview.
The connections with teachers that Rivera described also help to prevent future chronic absenteeism because teachers can learn about possible barriers in the family that might keep students out of school, Ewen said.
While schools have long been able to use Title I funds for early-childhood programs, ESSA now strongly encourages strategies related to early learning, including working with community providers to focus on children’s transition into school, as well as providing joint professional development for elementary teachers and early-childhood education providers.
“We really hope that schools and communities will adopt a birth-to-third grade approach,” Ewen said, adding that when schools identified as needing improvement conduct needs assessments, they have to consider the demographics of children that will enter their schools. “The more that schools and district recognize the kids in the community are part of the school community, the better off those kids will be,” she said.
At Carson Elementary, those demographics also include many Spanish-speaking families and parents with limited English. Children who attend the babies club receive bilingual board books to take home — provided through donations — and Joyce adds that the program has increased parents’ comfort level with coming into the school because of its bilingual focus. Grandparents also beginning to attend, which Barnstead sees as a positive development.
"Several of our children are at home with a grandparent," she said. "That is who is sitting at home on the carpet talking to the baby."
Joyce and Barnstead have been giving presentations at local workshops and are seeing interest from other schools. The gatherings, they said, are also a vehicle for connecting families to other community organizations serving new mothers.
“It’s even bigger than preventing reading difficulties,” Barnstead said. “Family life is challenging anyway.”