HEAD START AND EARLY HEAD START PROVIDE COMPREHENSIVE, HIGH-QUALITY EARLY CARE AND EDUCATION AND SUPPORT SERVICES TO VULNERABLE YOUNG CHILDREN FROM BIRTH TO KINDERGARTEN, PREGNANT WOMEN AND THEIR FAMILIES.
29% OF ALL HEAD START PARTICIPANTS (AGES 0-5 AND PREGNANT WOMEN) ARE BLACK
Smart from the Start (“Smart”) is a family support, community engagement and school readiness initiative whose mission is to prevent the achievement gap among children living in Boston’s lowest income, most underserved communities. Smart from the Start expands and strengthens early learning opportunities for children birth to age five, promotes parents’ role as their children’s first teachers, and builds neighborhood will, understanding, and capacity to support school readiness. Smart from the Start’s strengths-based approach reaches out to the city’s most vulnerable families and empowers them with the tools, resources and support they need to break cycles of generational poverty and chronic school underachievement.
WHAT MAKES THIS PROJECT A “POINT OF PROOF?”
Smart from the Start is an innovative, evidence-based program that’s a model for preventing the achievement gap. Our work is informed and driven by the latest research and data outlining and highlighting racial, economic and cultural inequities in education, social services, income, access and health care. Our team members have lived, studied and understand the inequities in the educational systems that lead to and perpetuate school underachievement and dropout, and the flaws in the social service systems that often result in families being disrespected and mistreated by the very systems that are supposed to be there to help and support them. Many staff members, including the Executive Director, come from the communities and populations we are serving and have a deep and passionate understanding of, and commitment to, changing these systems. Having been in the same shoes as the “Smart” families, our team brings a unique perspective and unrivaled passion to the work, honoring and respecting the knowledge, strengths and expertise of the diverse communities we serve. We have developed our programming to create strong, powerful and informed families and communities to engage in a new, more empowered way forward that will help to level the playing field for our children. “Smart’s” strengths-based empowerment approach enables staff to connect on a deep level with children and families, and inspires them to set and achieve goals never imagined.
WHO PARTICIPATES IN THIS PROJECT?
Smart from the Start targets, exclusively, the lowest income families with children ages birth to five, who are living in the most underserved communities in the city. The overwhelming majority of the children and families living in the neighborhoods targeted by Smart from the Start are facing seemingly insurmountable challenges. At the time of enrollment, most live in public or subsidized housing, or are homeless and their average family income is approximately $7,000 annually. Seventy-seven percent of our families are unemployed; at least half do not have a high school diploma. The overwhelming majority of Smart families are from minority and new immigrant populations—primarily of African American, Caribbean and Latino decent. Despite incredible strengths and resiliencies, many of them struggle with issues such as extreme poverty, depression, substance abuse, immigration and legal issues, domestic and community violence, teen parenthood and more.
Also, based on our independent evaluation, many of our parents and caregivers have experienced tragedy and trauma throughout their lifespan, beginning in their childhoods, and as a result, are now parenting while dealing with multiple challenges, in addition to trying to make due with inadequate resources.
25% OF ALL EARLY HEAD START PARTICIPANTS ARE BLACK
24% OF BLACK CHILDREN AT AGE 2 ARE ENROLLED IN CENTER-BASED CARE, COMPARED TO 16% OF ALL CHILDREN
CHILD CARE SUBSIDIES MAKE QUALITY CHILD CARE MORE AFFORDABLE, SUPPORT THE HEALTHY DEVELOPMENT OF CHILDREN, AND HELP LOW-INCOME PARENTS ACCESS THE CHILD CARE THEY NEED TO GO TO WORK OR TO SCHOOL TO SUPPORT THEIR FAMILIES.
44% OF ALL CHILD CARE SUBSIDY RECIPIENTS ARE BLACK
62% OF BLACK CHILDREN AT AGE 4 ARE ENROLLED IN CENTER-BASED CARE, COMPARED TO 57% OF ALL CHILDREN
HOW DOES THIS PROJECT DEFINE SUCCESS?
Smart envisions a world where every young child feels safe, secure and loved, and has his or her basic needs for healthy food, warm clothing, secure housing and safe neighborhoods met. We work toward a day where all children, regardless of who their parents are or where they live, have access to high quality, fun, enriching education that honors and celebrates their diversity, and prepares them to fulfill their greatest potential and to realize their dreams. To bring our vision into fruition, we have established the following outcomes:
- All “Smart” children entering kindergarten are assessed and determined to be “school-ready” with all services and supports in place;
- Parents and caregivers gain a deeper understanding of child development and use what they have learned to create better relationships with their children and positive home learning environments;
- A greater number of parents and caregivers earn their ged and enroll in higher education or training;
- Parents and caregivers are able to increase their income and self-sufficiency;
- Families seek mental and physical health services, achieving reduced health disparities in the community;
- Families gain and use advocacy skills to better support their children and to take leadership roles in their communities to support others;
- Communities come together, committed to improving conditions for young children and finding new ways to encourage and support them.
HOW DO YOU KNOW WHEN THIS PROJECT IS SUCCESSFUL?
After just five years, Smart from the Start has experienced rapid growth with qualitative and quantitative evidence demonstrating remarkable outcomes; indeed, we have earned the Boston-based Root Cause’s “2011 Social Innovator of the Year” Award. We have consistently invested in high quality, independent evaluation of our programs and their impacts on the children, families and communities we serve. The studies included quantitative and qualitative assessments focused on Smart’s impact on children’s development, as well as our impact on parenting and on family and caregiver functioning. We also collected data on the level of stress and trauma our families have experienced, all in an effort to gauge our efficacy as well as to inform programming and planning. On the ASQ school readiness assessment, for example, our five year olds scored: 100% in Communication, 100% on Problem Solving, 100% on Personal and Social Skills, 94% on Gross Motor, 74% on Fine Motor.
What makes this data even more impressive are the results of the trauma study administered on Smart families in 2012. This data shows that the families we serve are not only living in extreme poverty and lack educational opportunities, but that they are also living with staggering levels of trauma and toxic stress. The average number of lifetime traumatic events experienced by surveyed parents was 9.6 events per caregiver. Events included childhood sexual abuse, partner violence, and witnessing a shooting or stabbing, among others. These caregivers are crediting Smart from the Start with helping them address their painful past issues, and with giving them the support and encouragement they need to do better by their young children, as well as hope for their futures.
A HIGHER PERCENTAGE OF BLACK CHILDREN AGES 3-6 ARE ABLE TO READ WORDS IN A BOOK, COMPARED TO CHILDREN OF ALL OTHER RACES (16% OF BLACK CHILDREN, COMPARED TO 8% OF WHITE CHILDREN, 3% OF HISPANIC CHILDREN AND 8% OF ASIAN OR PACIFIC ISLANDER CHILDREN)
38% OF BLACK CHILDREN AGES 3-6 RECOGNIZE ALL LETTERS OF THE ALPHABET, COMPARED TO 36% OF WHITE CHILDREN, 15% OF HISPANIC CHILDREN AND 43% OF ASIAN OR PACIFIC ISLANDER CHILDREN
69% OF BLACK CHILDREN AGES 3-6 CAN COUNT TO 20 OR HIGHER, COMPARED TO 69% OF WHITE CHILDREN, 42% OF HISPANIC CHILDREN, AND 76% OF ASIAN OR PACIFIC ISLANDER CHILDREN
WHAT MAKES IT SUCCESSFUL?
The same issues have plagued Boston’s low-income neighborhoods for generations. If we continue to do what we have always done, we will continue to get what we have always gotten—the same communities, with the same problems and children robbed of an opportunity to reach their greatest potential. This is why Smart has adopted an innovative, grassroots approach to improving educational outcomes. Smart from the Start hires from the communities we serve. The staff of Smart from the Start has the unique perspective of having shared many of the struggles of the children and families we serve. We know that in order to effectively engage vulnerable communities and families you must first build relationships that reflect genuine honor, trust and respect.
We believe that we cannot address the needs of children in isolation from their families, and in turn cannot address the needs of families in isolation from their communities. If children are living in toxic homes and community environments with multiple stressors, they struggle to thrive. We have designed a unique, strengths-based model, informed by families and communities, which is based on developing and strengthening relationships. Our model is unique because it meets families where they are, and celebrates and builds upon their strengths, regardless of their challenges. Programming is family and community driven, ecological and holistic, and respects and celebrates the cultural diversity of our families. We recognize that in order to ensure long lasting and sustainable change for our children, we must address issues and invest in communities and families, in addition to promoting the healthy development of young children.
We know that in order to effectively engage vulnerable communities and families you must first build relationships that reflect genuine honor, trust and respect.
WHAT CHALLENGES HAS IT FACED?
Smart from the Start has experienced a period of rapid expansion and growth over the past five years. As we gain credibility on the ground, and earn the trust of families and communities, more and more families are seeking us out for programs, services and support. We are meeting new children every day. We have a “no waiting list” policy, and therefore the biggest challenge is meeting our commitment to serve every single child and family who comes through our door. In order to keep that promise, we must streamline systems, learn to be more efficient, increase our capacity and diversify our funding in order to expand services to meet the great demand.
HOW IS THIS PROJECT REPLICABLE?
Smart has been working effectively in inner city Boston for five years. We began with three program sites, in three low-income neighborhoods. We now are serving families in seven neighborhoods and 17 program sites. The issues we address are not exclusive to Boston; cities struggle with achievement gaps greater than ours, and higher percentages of families struggling with the same challenges. Smart aims to inspire change on a broader level—we have learned many lessons and have built an evidence-based model that can be replicated to achieve that goal. Like Boston, there are many cities, some with considerable resources, some without, with populations of children and families struggling with chronic poverty, school underachievement, and their resulting challenges. Smart from the Start has developed a plan for the pilot replication of the Smart program model in urban communities, using the same grassroots, family and community process that begins with developing relationships and assessing the strengths and challenges of communities. Programming must be customized to meet the unique circumstances of each neighborhood, and be developed in partnership with those with whom we will serve and potential partners. Replication will only be successful after establishing partnerships with institutions, organizations, and individuals to inform our work, ensuring that we have a deep understanding of the unique needs of the communities. To that end, Smart develops local advisory committees comprised of families and partners. Together, we plan, problem-solve and seek the necessary in-kind support in the form of physical space for programming and funding to sustain programming. We hire staff from the communities and train them to facilitate programs and support other families.
WHAT IS THE SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT THING PEOPLE SHOULD KNOW ABOUT THIS PROJECT?
Smart from the Start’s innovative model provides a unique opportunity to break cycles that have led to limited horizons and tragic outcomes for children in our communities. Frederick Douglas once said, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Smart from the Start not only emphatically agrees, but has developed a unique, evidence-based model of outreach, collaboration, early education, and family and community support that helps build those strong children. We provide young children the opportunity to reach their greatest potential, while restoring the village it takes to raise them.