A version of this article appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Erikson on Children under the headline "Investing in Child-Parent Centers." More from this issue

One of the most successful models for school reform — and one in which Erikson plays a critical role — is getting a boost from an innovative form of private investment.

Last fall, Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that the city would provide high-quality prekindergarten services to more than 2,600 children in high-need communities through a “pay-for-success” financing model for social services called social impact bonds.

Three Chicago organizations committed to investing a total of $16.9 million: the Goldman Sachs Social Impact Fund, Northern Trust, and the J.B. and M.K. Pritzker Family Foundation.

These funds support the expansion of the Child-Parent Centers (CPC) education program, a model for prekindergarten to third-grade education established in Chicago in the 1960s. Thirty years of research have shown that students in the centers are better prepared for kindergarten, perform better on standardized tests, are less likely to need special education services, and are more likely to graduate from high school.

Long-term, the return on investment for Child-Parent Centers is an impressive $8 to $11 per dollar invested.

Erikson’s involvement with Child-Parent Centers began in the 1970s, when faculty members served as advisors on the development of the national model. In 2012, Erikson started working again with the Child-Parent Centers when the University of Minnesota’s Human Capital Research Collaborative launched the Midwest Expansion of the Child-Parent Center Education Program with the support of a prestigious, five-year $15 million Investing in Innovation (i3) federal grant.

A key project partner, Erikson delivers innovative online and in-person professional development to Child-Parent Center teachers at 26 total sites in three Illinois districts — Chicago Public Schools, Evanston/Skokie District 65, and Normal School District 5 — and in St. Paul Public Schools in Minnesota.

In addition, professor Barbara Bowman serves as a co-principal investigator and curriculum coordinator, and president emeritus Samuel J. Meisels sits on the advisory committee.

Private investment in children

Social impact bonds are part of a rapidly growing field of innovative finance, which is fueled by decreasing government investment in social programs.

According to the mayor’s office, Chicago launched the fifth social impact bond program in the U.S. A similar program was created in 2013 by Utah’s Salt Lake County to finance public preschool education.

In Chicago, the social impact bonds cover the operational costs of six new Child-Parent Center classrooms in Chicago Public Schools, with the city and private partners funding other components of the expansion. The city will repay the loans to the three investing organizations only if the program improves student outcomes over the course of 18 years, as determined by an independent evaluation.

“We want to lead by example here in Chicago and encourage more investment nationally in high-quality early childhood education,” said J.B. Pritzker, one of the leaders of a national push for early childhood social impact bonds, in a City of Chicago press release. “Changing the lives of as many disadvantaged young children and their families as possible is our ultimate goal.”

As the bonds fund only preschool, the schools and other partners are discussing how to maintain Child-Parent Center services in kindergarten to third grade.

Academic success with family involvement

What makes the Child-Parent Center expansion unique — and effective — is its combination of intensive educational enrichment and family support services. Its six core principles are:

  • High-quality full-day preschool for up to two years in small classes taught by certified teachers.
  • Curricula and instructional practices that emphasize language, literacy, and math skills within a structured activity-based approach.
  • Comprehensive family services that include involving parents in the Child-Parent Center and connecting them to needed resources. The services are led by parent resource teachers and school-community representatives, critical positions that many schools don’t have.
  • A collaborative leadership team led by the principal and comprised of a head teacher, parent resource teacher, and school community representative.
  • Continuity and stability from preschool to third grade with curriculum alignment and parent involvement. Students are also assured continued enrollment in the Child-Parent Center, even if they move within the school district.
  • Ongoing professional development created and facilitated by Erikson and implemented by school-based Child-Parent Center staff.

Erikson brings directly to the schools its unique approach to preparing early childhood professionals, including a developmentally informed approach to children and families, research-proven teaching practices, cultural responsiveness, relationship-building, and ongoing critical self-reflection. All the content aligns with Common Core State Standards, state learning standards, and performance standards for educators.

“In collaboration with Erikson, we have created a comprehensive professional development system that has never existed in the Child-Parent Center program,” says expansion project director Arthur Reynolds of the Human Capital Research Collaborative at the University of Minnesota. “The best practices for online training and on-site facilitation we’ve created will live far beyond the life of the project.”

Motivated to learn

In Illinois’s Evanston/Skokie School District 65 — which launched its four Child-Parent Centers in 2012 as part of the i3-funded expansion — early childhood coaches Samantha Richardson and Charlise Berkel implement the Erikson professional development modules.

Each semester, they meet with Child-Parent Center teachers to present an online training session developed by Erikson and filled with content ideas, video examples from real classrooms, prompts for reflection on teaching practices, and links to a range of practical resources.

Richardson and Berkel select what in the 10 hours of available training is most relevant to their teachers. The teachers then set individual goals for their own classroom practice related to the training session.

Recently, Richardson and Berkel presented on creating learning centers, or classroom spaces that engage students in activities that enrich their learning. Successful learning centers promote interaction among students, active engagement with materials and ideas, differentiated instruction for students of different abilities, and options for students to represent their understanding, such as through writing, art, or dialog.

During the training session, the teachers decided to focus on creating learning centers for upcoming science and social studies units.

In a first-grade classroom at Washington Elementary School, the teacher set up learning centers reinforcing the properties of liquids and solids. One learning center had a variety of liquids — including water, barbecue sauce, and lotion — stored in plastic bags. The children examined the bags and wrote a description of the liquids using recently introduced vocabulary such as “transparent,” “viscous,” and “foamy.”

At another table, small groups of children matched pictures of liquids with a property, such as water with “transparent” and honey with “has color.” The children then had to explain their reasoning to other students at the center.

For a social studies lesson, the learning centers challenged the first graders to think actively about geography and geography terms. At one center in a Spanish-language immersion class, students discussed what direction they would go to travel between states. “Massachusetts es este de Illinois,” for example, which translates as “Massachusetts is east of Illinois.” Another center challenged students to work in pairs to complete a “semantic gradient” activity: placing cards with geographic terms such as “classroom,” “school,” “city,” “state,” and “country” in order of size, ending with “universe.”

“The students are asking more questions and building so much more content knowledge,” says Richardson. “Words like ‘compass rose,’ ‘symbol,’ and ‘opaque’ are now part of their vocabulary.”

The training’s built-in accountability is particularly valuable in Richardson’s eyes. Richardson monitors each of her teacher’s individual goals, and Richardson herself meets regularly with Erikson coach Anna Jerabek to discuss how to most effectively implement the trainings.

The three Child-Parent Center professional development facilitators at Erikson — Jerabek, coordinator Linda Hamburg, and Dot Lauer — also meet regularly to share best practices from across the entire expansion project. In this way, teachers learn across schools and districts.

“I’ve seen such immense growth in the teachers throughout the Child-Parent Center trainings,” says Richardson. “They were already amazing teachers, but they have taken their classrooms so much further with the support of Erikson’s professional development, which gives them the time, space, and support to improve.”

Documented progress

Now in its third year, the five-year Child-Parent Center Midwest Expansion project is already showing better student outcomes.

Last fall, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published a study showing that Chicago preschoolers who attended the full-day Child-Parent Center program were better prepared to start kindergarten compared to those who participated in traditional part-day programs.

Child-Parent Center students had the equivalent of a half-year gain in language, literacy, socio-emotional skills, math, and physical health, compared to students in part-day programs. They also missed fewer school days.

Additional data collected by the Child-Parent Center expansion project shows sizable increases in parent involvement across all four Midwest school districts.

“Principals, school districts, and private funders are seeing the great success of the Child-Parent Center model and are indicating that they want to sustain the centers beyond the life of the current grants,” says project director Arthur Reynolds. “Erikson’s partnership is a key part of that success.”