When Just One Leg Up Isn’t Enough

Two-generation anti-poverty programs, which combine self-sufficiency initiatives for poor parents and early childhood education for their kids, have been around since the early 1990s but are recently making a comeback. These programs address a catch-22 that many struggling parents face: in order to build their careers, they must spend more time away from home, but they struggle to find and afford quality childcare, forcing them to stay home and stay poor. Alana Semuels profiles one two-generation program in Atlanta that has proven remarkably successful:

The Dunbar Learning Complex is a calm and bright space in the otherwise blighted streets of Mechanicsville. There, children receive free schooling, from infancy to pre-K, when their parents register with a career-development center to begin improving their job skills.

The complex is home to both a public elementary school and a pre-school, which accepts children beginning at six weeks of age. The pre-school, which opened five years ago, holds itself to high standards, and is part of Educare network, a national network of full-day, early-education schools. It has an entire art studio where children can experiment, part of a Reggio approach to learning, and its infant classrooms allow only eight students at once. …

The results at Dunbar have been impressive—after the first year alone, 55 percent of incoming kindergarten students at the elementary school were reading at or above grade level, up from 6 percent in 2010. The percentage of children below the thirtieth percentile on the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test dropped by 23 percentage points the first year alone, while the percentage of those scoring above the 50th percentile increased 12 points.

Parents at the Dunbar Learning Complex also get a handful of resources to help them in parenting: Counselors help them access special teachers if their child is lagging behind in development; health navigators help ensure children get necessary vaccinations and can inspect housing, with parents’ permission, to see if anything in a family’s home might be making a child sick. The complex has monthly meetings on issues like child development, literacy, and health, and helps teach parents how to read with their children at home.

The strategy has proven so successful that there’s now a waiting list of 400 children, double the preschool’s enrollment. And that, in turn, has driven parents to show up at the Center for Working Families, up the hill, to register for job training or a career counselor. Kids can’t get on the waiting list of the Educare site unless their parents are enrolled with the Center for Working Families.