Zeroing in on Early Learning at The Children’s Aid Society

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Carmen Nazario, Assistant Secretary for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and Children’s Aid President and CEO Richard Buery, visit author Andrew Seltzer in an early childhood class at P.S. 5 in New York City.

Written by Andrew Seltzer, Ed.D., Deputy Director, Early Childhood

Local News The Children’s Aid Society’s early childhood initiative is located in two of our New York City Community Schools, P.S. 5 and P.S. 8, in the Washington Heights section of northern Manhattan. Designed as a partnership between the New York City Department of Education and Children’s Aid, this collaboration brings expectant families, newborns and families with children up to age five into the schools in which the children will complete fifth grade. The initiative began in 1994 and has been in full operation since 1996. Since then, the need for such an effort has been confirmed by research, and experience has provided insights into how a program for pregnant women and children through age five (often called a Zero to Five Program) can be effectively implemented within a public school. Our program connects two federally funded interventions – Early Head Start (expectant families to age three) and Head Start (ages three to five) – as well as privately funded initiatives to provide comprehensive educational and social services to low-income families and their children.

The program engages a primarily Latino population, confronting the obstacles of all new immigrant families living in poverty in an urban setting. Half of the families come from the Dominican Republic, 35% from Mexico, 10% from other Central and South American countries and another 5% from other areas. Language barriers and acculturation often result in social isolation. In addition, because many residents lack legal documentation, they are reluctant to access health and social services. The connection that develops between the family and the school, as a result of participation in the program, creates a sense of comfort for families who often are unfamiliar with or fearful of public institutions.

The Zero to Five Program has an extensive waiting list because there is a scarcity of early childhood programs in the neighborhood and because of the positive reputation of the program within the community. The families themselves have become the greatest source for recruitment.

Program Model

By linking Early Head Start and Head Start programs and integrating them into a Community School, The Children’s Aid Society’s Zero to Five Program provides children and families with quality educational, health, and social services, after which the children transition into regular school classes within the same building. The funding core is the link between Early Head Start and Head Start; however, Children’s Aid has combined federal and private funding to provide comprehensive services to pregnant women, to create an integrated approach to health education and on-site intensive intervention for children with special needs.

Parents entering Early Head Start during pregnancy know they are making a five-year commitment within a public school before their children enter Kindergarten. The transition from the Zero to Three Program to the Three to Five Program includes home visits, classroom visits, family orientations and individual teacher meetings. Because of the connection between the programs and the familiarity with the school, the families seamlessly transition from the Zero to Three Program to the Three to Five Program and from there to Kindergarten, which is right across the hallway.

The Early Head Start program is the entry point for the family. During the first three years families are required to participate in an intensive home-based intervention model that includes the entire family. Families receive a minimum of three, 90-minute home visits a month, and are required to attend weekly age-specific small groups lasting two hours within the school. The same teachers who conduct home visits lead their particular parent-child groups. There are a minimum of 32 home visits and 45 interactions within a year; thus, over the three years of Early Head Start, families participate in a minimum of 96 home visits and 135 parent-child group interactions.

Services to expectant families are a major component within Early Head Start. Pregnant women receive home visits and participate in parent-child interactions to expose them to best practices, child development and finding peer support. During the eighth month they are assigned a birth Doula, who is trained to provide continuous emotional support to the woman during labor and childbirth; doulas also conduct prenatal home visits during the eighth month, to help plan for the delivery and to schedule supportive post-partum visits.

The Children’s Aid program follows through on the procedures established by New York City to assess and provide services to special needs children and we have established our own intervention to ensure that children receive timely and ongoing services. All Head Start Performance Standards regarding special needs children are met. All children are assessed within 45 days of entering the program. Families feel supported and included throughout the process. The program provides Mental Health, Parent Involvement and Health Services. Over the last 10 years, Children’s Aid’s Early Childhood Department has conducted and been involved in multiple research studies to evaluate the influence of our programs. The following are some noteworthy findings:

  • The Children’s Aid Society’s relationship-based Early Head Start program improves children’s developmental outcomes, decreases maternal levels of depression and bolsters interactive mother-child play.
  • Talk & Play (a Children’s Aid Early Head Start enhancement program in which parent-child pairs in need of extra support meet individually with program instructors) has a positive impact on children’s language growth and parents’ confidence.
  • Parent involvement in a Head Start program located in a Children’s Aid Community School was positively associated with parents’ later involvement in their children’s learning in the elementary school years.
  • Children’s Aid’s Head Start programming that builds on parents’ strengths is associated with positive literacy outcomes for children.
  • Children’s Aid-designed family literacy activities support Latino parents’ ability to track their children’s learning and set the foundation for future home literacy routines.