In an effort to improve literacy rates among children from low-income families, public housing authorities across the state are piloting programs that help parents prepare their children for school and increase their access to books.
In Sacramento, children living in public housing will soon have access to a new library, designed especially for them. In Oceanside, north of San Diego, public housing officials now distribute books instead of toys at the annual holiday party. In Oakland, the housing authority is working with the school district to improve attendance and bring parents living in public housing into their children’s schools more often.
“We’re not just about bricks and mortar, a roof over a head,” said Preston Prince, the executive director of the Fresno Housing Authority and president of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials. “To be successful, children need additional help and the environment of where a child lives has a pretty major impact on how they do in school.”
Prince has led the effort to get more city and county housing authorities in California to provide on-site educational programs for children. Prince said he was convinced by research showing that children who are reading at grade level by 3rd grade are more likely to stay on track in middle school and graduate from high school on time. Prince credits Kendra Rogers, executive director of Fresno County’s First Five Commission and a housing authority board member, with helping him understand that children who are read to as infants and toddlers have stronger reading skills in elementary school.
Nearly every county in the state has a First Five Commission – funded by a statewide tobacco tax – that is focused on improving health care and education programs for infants, toddlers and young children. In Fresno County, the commission works closely with school districts, Head Start programs and other institutions, including the housing authority.
Rogers and Prince decided to work together to offer classes for parents of young children in public housing. Americorps members trained by First Five in the basics of early childhood education run weekly sessions that include picture book read-alouds and art projects. The teachers are paid through Americorps and the housing authority provides space for the classes.
At one session at Parc Grove Commons, a public housing complex in Fresno, Chia Vang and Reggie Brown, both 24, grouped half a dozen toddlers around a short table for a reading of “Chicka Chicka Boom Boom.” Laughter and clapping ensued as Brown made his way through the silly story about numbers climbing up a coconut tree, replete with repetition and rhyming, favorites among the under-5 set.
Laquisha Chatman had brought her daughter, Imani, who was 2 at the time, and her infant son, Joel, to the class. They’ve been attending the sessions together for several months. She’s been impressed by how much her daughter has learned.
“Two weeks ago, they did their numbers,” Chatman said, “I thought Imani couldn’t do it, but she caught on.”
Spending time with other children has been good for her daughter, Chatman said as she watched Imani finger-paint a coconut tree. Chatman hopes the classes will make Imani better prepared for preschool and kindergarten in a few years. In the meantime, she’s pleased with all the activities the free classes offer, such as reading books, counting, art projects and sing-a-longs.
“You can do all of them at home later, that’s a good thing about it,” Chatman said.
Vang said encouraging parents to talk and engage with their children creatively at home is her primary goal for the classes. She also connects new parents with nutrition and diaper services through the federal Women, Infants and Children program for low-income mothers, and distributes coats to needy families in the winter months.
Vang said she grew up in Fresno and her mother worked hard, but that things were always tight at home.
“Growing up in Section 8 (public housing), we didn’t have much,” Vang said, “but I knew that I wanted to help the community.”
In the city of Fresno, 20 percent of public school children live in public housing, according to Prince. Those families are likely to move more often than others as they search for the lowest rent, he said.
Moving often contributes to absenteeism from school and sometimes means changing schools altogether. Studies show that both can disrupt a child’s education and cause them to fall behind their peers.
Prince advocates changing public housing policies to encourage parents to stay in one home throughout the school year. He pointed to a program in Tacoma, Wash., that provided families with housing vouchers and other support services on the condition that they keep their children enrolled in the same school. Two years into the Tacoma program, student reading and math scores have climbed, absenteeism has decreased and fewer suspensions have been issued, according to an evaluation of the program by an independent research team, Geo Education & Research.
“As much as we believe in this country that people succeed based upon their own skills and knowledge and intellect, it isn’t an even playing field in my mind,” Prince said. “I think housing starts creating that even playing field.”
Margery Pierce, director of neighborhood services for the city of Oceanside, has worked in the public housing field since 1984. While there have been previous efforts to provide safe study spaces for children in public housing, Pierce said they haven’t been focused on direct delivery of education, like the new programs she’s hearing about now.
“It’s new to housing authorities having more responsibility than just owning or maintaining a building,” Pierce said. “We’re providing a home for children. I think what Preston is promoting is going to be very successful.”