This article appeared in the Winter 2012–13 issue of Erikson on Children under the headline “Expanding success.”
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Bright and early each school day, some 90 preschoolers and their parents arrive at the Child-Parent Center at Dewey Elementary Academy of Fine Arts on Chicago’s South Side.

The children scamper to their classrooms after all-school opening exercises. Parents gather in the parent resource room for workshops and resources. The workshop topics range widely: nutrition, parenting skills, how to earn a GED, résumé writing and job searching, and even knitting, a skill the parents were interested in learning together.

“Child-Parent Centers forge a strong connection between home and school,” says Jessica Smith, M.Ed. ’88, the head teacher at Dewey, a Chicago Public School housing one of the original Child-Parent Centers in the nation. “We welcome parents into the classroom as active participants in their children’s education. It’s an opportunity for parents to grow right here in school and support their children.”

Over the last 30 years, the centers have proven to be one of the nation’s most effective prekindergarten to third grade educational reform strategies.

Research shows that children who attend Child-Parent Center programs have greater success in school and beyond, including significantly lower high school dropout rates, fewer arrests and convictions, and higher income following high school. Comparing the costs of the program to its impacts, the centers show an impressive long-term return on investment: $8 to $11 per dollar invested.

Recently, the Child-Parent Centers received a big vote of confidence: a five-year $15 million Investing in Innovation (i3) grant from the U.S. Department of Education to expand and evaluate the program beyond the Chicago Public Schools.

The project, directed by Arthur Reynolds of the Human Capital Research Collaborative at the University of Minnesota, added six centers in the Chicago Public Schools for a total of 16, and established programs in two Illinois districts — Evanston/Skokie District 65 and Normal School District 5 — and two Minnesota districts — St. Paul Public Schools and Virginia Public Schools with Arrowhead Head Start.

Erikson, in partnership with the University of Minnesota, began creating and delivering innovative online and in-person professional development to 33 preschool sites and elementary schools in summer 2012. In addition, Professor Barbara Bowman serves as curriculum coordinator on the expansion project. President Samuel J. Meisels sits on the advisory committee.

“This project scales up and expands what we know works in education,” says Reynolds. “It is a seismic opportunity to increase access to and improve the quality of preschool through third grade education, while at the same time gathering the data we need to replicate the model around the country.”

Child-Parent Center program, preschool to third grade

The first Child-Parent Centers opened their doors on Chicago’s West Side in 1967 to provide comprehensive educational and family support services to children in low-income neighborhoods from preschool through third grade. Unique features of Child-Parent Centers include:

  • Connection to an elementary school. Each Child-Parent Center preschool is affiliated with an elementary school and housed within the school or in a neighboring building, which promotes continuity in children’s educational experiences.
  • Parent involvement and engagement. Strong parent-school relationships help ensure that children thrive. Each Child-Parent Center has a parent resource teacher to run a parent resource room and workshops tailored to parents’ interests. It also has a school-community representative to connect families with needed services in the community, and teachers regularly involve parents in the classroom.
  • Aligned curriculum. Under the collaborative leadership of the principal and a head teacher, classroom teachers work together to ensure that curricula and instructional practice are aligned from prekindergarten through third grade and focus on 21st-century skills like communication, problem solving, and critical thinking.
  • Effective learning experiences. To promote children’s academic success, Child-Parent Centers require small classes and teacher aides for each class.

“In sum, Child-Parent Centers offer a comprehensive approach to combating the achievement gap by bringing families, teachers, and school administrators together and offering the educational and other support services they need,” says Chris Maxwell, director of Erikson’s New Schools Project, which oversees Erikson’s work with the Child-Parent Centers.

21st-century professional development

To support the Child-Parent Center expansion, Erikson is creating a unique model for professional development that blends online and on-site support. Over the course of the project, Maxwell and her team will develop 20 online professional development modules focusing on high-impact teaching strategies for literacy, math, science, the arts, and other content areas.

At each school, the teachers and Child-Parent Center leadership team complete the online modules together, with built-in “pause points” when the group works together to determine how to implement the strategies into their Child-Parent Center. The modules are flexible and responsive: Head teachers can dedicate 30 minutes at a time to the professional development or three hours to complete the entire module, and they can choose what concepts to emphasize with their staff. The modules also include a host of online supporting materials that teachers and staff can access at any time.

Each of the 33 sites is assigned an Erikson facilitator who helps the head teacher structure the professional development and coaches the head teacher and classroom teachers as the concepts are applied throughout the year.

“This is a totally new way of receiving professional development, but we have high expectations given Erikson’s early childhood expertise,” says Smith, the Dewey head teacher. “Over the next several years, Erikson will be a driving force for our content- and curriculum-based training.”

As the Child-Parent Center expansion progresses, Erikson will continue to work with the sites to ensure that they are receiving the training they need.

Challenge of sustainability

An estimated 9,000 children ages 3 to 9 will be served through the Child-Parent Center expansion project. Funds from the i3 grant, private matching contributions, and related school supports will follow this year’s preschoolers as they progress to third grade.

“We’re working with the schools on sustainability plans to ensure that the centers become permanent and each succeeding class receives the same supports,” says Reynolds, the project director. “To make this happen, we need the long-term commitment of schools, districts, community partners, and others to an educational model that works.”

Smith has seen firsthand how effective Child-Parent Centers are during her 18 years at Dewey.

“We hope that Child-Parent Centers won’t remain unique to us and to Chicago,” she says. “With the data that the expansion project collects, people will see that Child-Parent Centers need to be expanded to wherever children and families need support.”