OKC education center focuses on low-income families to help young children succeed

A high number of dropouts, students reading below grade level, teenagers turning to crime and gangs " these are trends seen not only in Oklahoma but also around the country. Teachers and administrators at Oklahoma City's newest early education center, however, hope they can intervene early enough to help students stay on track.


"Investing in early childhood intervention and prevention is the best thing Oklahoma City can do," said Paula Gates, director at Educare, which opened in July. "The research is showing that preventing and intervening at an early age, 0 to 5, helps reduce the risks of that child failing in school, dropping out in ninth grade, going into crime, gangs, not being hireable, going to prison and, even on a smaller scale, building good relationships."

Oklahoma City's Educare, open only to low-income families, is part of a nationwide network of Educare centers, including one in Tulsa. OKC's center, which serves 200 students, is already fully enrolled, but does have a waiting list.

Educare uses a holistic approach, Gates said, addressing not just education, but also mental and emotional health, and even the family environment. Several family advocates, which Gates compares to caseworkers, work with families and help them set goals.

"You can serve a child in the facility all day long, every day, but if you don't work with the family in the home environment, sometimes your work isn't as successful," she said.

Educare is also unique in that it has a lower student-teacher ratio than average " three teachers to eight 2-year-olds, for example. In addition, these teachers all have bachelor's or associate degrees, or certification in early childhood development. Educare also has counselors who can help students cope with emotional trauma they may encounter outside of school.

"Dad left, or there were gunshots in their neighborhood last night, and so today they won't take a nap, because they're afraid that when they go to sleep, that the gunshots will come back," Gates said. "Those kinds of issues."

Supporting this emotional and mental component is a vital part of preparing students for further education, she said.

"Research is showing that the social-emotional continuum needs to be stable for children to be ready to learn, and be successful in school when they reach kindergarten age," she said.

Parental involvement is encouraged, and parents can serve on a policy council, which helps determine eligibility criteria. OKC's council has established that some children " such as those from homes with substance abuse, those with teen mothers or those with special needs " have a higher point total.

Several local organizations partner with OKC's Educare, including Oklahoma City Community Action Head Start, Oklahoma City Public Schools Pre-K, Sunbeam Family Services Early Head Start and United Way.

"When you have so many people from so many different organizations invested in the success of a project like this, you have so much more energy and momentum around the facility," Gates said.

The Inasmuch Foundation provided funding to build the facility, and Bob Ross from Inasmuch serves as board chair of Educare.

"Our founder, Edith Gaylord, was very interested in children and families, particularly moms and their babies, making sure they're healthy and safe. And so, I knew that was a desire and goal of our founder, and so it was a great fit for the foundation," Ross said.

Educare is a great model for anyone else in the metro interested in creating an early education program, Ross said. It's also an example of how it's possible to intervene early enough to change the trajectory of students' and families' lives, he added. It's an idea embraced by the local business community.

"If you want a workforce that's well-educated and strong, and a nice base for our companies, you've gotta have kids that are graduating college," he said. "If you start early, particularly with these poor, disadvantaged families, you have a better chance of intervening, making sure they have the tools and skills necessary to be successful in school."

The Educare model helps show just how this works, Gates said. Educare centers participate in a research project conducted by the University of North Carolina, which is similar to a pretest and post-test, she added.

"We are assessing those outcomes to show, to provide concrete data that investing at this level does produce results later on," she said. "Lea Terry

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