It's never too early for a good start in education

Barbara Smith visits 14-year-old Rayana Anderson and her two-year-old daughter Aaliyah Fairbanks twice a month, for the Cincinnati program Every Child Succeeds.

Rayana helps Aaliyah match shapes in a puzzle, an activity that helps prepare toddlers to learn reading and math later on.

Rayana's aunt Blanche Thompson takes care of Aaliyah during the day so Rayana can stay in school.

Stephanie Byrd is executive director of Success By Six, at the United Way of Greater Cincinnati. The program aims to get all children to kindergarten ready to learn.

Kai Ryssdal: Money is one of the biggest things that decide how well kids do in school -- socioeconomic status, to be clinical about it. If you want poor kids to succeed in school, the theory goes, you've got to do something about poverty.

In Cincinnati, Ohio, more than 70 percent of the kids in public schools there are considered poor. The city is trying to help them do better in school by taking on what happens out of school. And that means starting young. Really, really young.

From the Education Desk at WYPR, Marketplace's Amy Scott has the first of two stories on poverty and education.

Amy Scott: Twice a month, Barbara Smith comes to this modest beige house in Cincinnati’s Price Hill. It’s a neighborhood known for crime and years of neglect. Smith is here to visit Rayana Anderson and her 2-year-old daughter Aaliyah.

Barbara Smith: Hi, Blanche. How are you? Hi, Rayana, how are you? Hi, baby girl.

They live with Rayana’s aunt, Blanche Thompson. Inside, the couches are covered with plastic. Smith spreads a sheet on the carpet and sits down.

Smith: Come on over here. See me please.

She takes out a foam puzzle with a star and circle and triangle cut out.

Smith: We’re going to do some more matching today.

Rayana Anderson: OK.

Smith: I brought it in two different forms.

Rayana: OK.

Barbara Smith does home visits for a program called Every Child Succeeds. The group works with low-income, often teenage moms to try to break the cycle of poverty by getting their kids off to a good start. Rayana is just 14 years old. Smith has been visiting since Rayana was pregnant at age 11. The father was a boy not much older.

Smith: When we first met, they were quiet visits. She was very afraid. She was, I think just angry and uncertain about what was happening to her world.

Smith began by helping Rayana with prenatal care.

Smith: Fetal development, what’s happening with her body, what’s happening with her feelings. I just tried to meet her where she was on any given day.

After Aaliyah was born, Smith coached Rayana on how to talk to her baby in a positive way. How to build her confidence with eye contact and cuddling. Why yelling and hitting don’t work. She brought books like "The Carrot Seed" and "Good Night Moon."

Today, Aaliyah -- in braids and pink hair ties -- goes to work on the puzzle. Smith shows Rayana how to encourage her.

Smith: You can even tell her the names of the shapes, and then give her the color of it.

Rayana: Where does the star go, Liyah?

Aaliyah Fairbanks: Ar go.

Rayana: I don’t think the star goes there.

Aaliyah: (Grunts.)

Liyah struggles for a minute, before finally pushing the star into its rightful place.

Smith: Good job!

Rayana: Yea!

Rayana, every bit the teenager in her cute leather jacket and skinny jeans, beams like any proud parent.

Rayana: When Barbara comes and brings the things that she’s supposed to do, it really kind of helps me see what she knows how to do -- stuff that I didn’t even know she could do.

Stuff that will prepare her for preschool, which will prepare her for kindergarten. Smith’s home visits are part of a larger program called Success By Six at the United Way of Greater Cincinnati. Its aim is to get all children to kindergarten ready to learn.

Stephanie Byrd is executive director.

Stephanie Byrd: When they arrive at kindergarten ready, they are more likely to graduate from high school, go on to more productive careers, and be less reliant on public assistance.

When they’re not ready.

Byrd: The gap that they start with widens, and often times that leads to the child not being able to connect well in the classroom, and then actually deciding not to stay in school, dropping out, and all the social issues that come with not completing high school. 

So what does it mean to be ready for kindergarten? Knowing your letters and vowel sounds, being able to make a rhyme. Byrd says since the program started, more children pass early literacy tests when they start school, but nearly half still don’t. Helping those kids succeed sometimes means helping their parents. So home visitors like Barbara Smith connect moms with housing and transportation or child care, so they can work or finish school.

Smith: So if we can address those basic issues and needs, it opens the door, to be able to focus more on your child’s development.

Since it started 13 years ago, Every Child Succeeds has helped 18,000 families in the Cincinnati area. Smith left a career in the health insurance industry to work with teenage moms. Today, she gets the kind of news that makes that switch worthwhile. Rayana’s been accepted to a competitive Cincinnati high school.

Smith: Yea! Congratulations.

Rayana: (Laughs.)

Smith: Is your mama going to a really good high school? She’s so smart. She’s so smart.

Smith gives Rayana and her aunt, Blanche Thompson, most of the credit. Last summer, Thompson took custody of both girls when Rayana’s mom was having trouble. Thomspon takes care of the baby during the week so Rayana can focus on school.

Thompson: You know, Rayana was doing kind of bad in school when she first came and stayed with me. And now she’s on the honor roll, and the baby’s doing fine.  

Smith will keep visiting once or twice a month until Aaliyah turns three.

Scott: And then what happens?

Rayana: I’ll try my best to keep doing what Barbara taught us.

Smith: (Laughs.)

Smith will help Aaliyah make the transition to preschool or another early childhood program. Today’s visit lasts about 45 minutes. As Smith heads out the door, Rayana switches from teen mom to eighth-grader. She flips open her laptop to get on the internet. She has an appointment with a tutor to go over her math homework.

In Cincinnati, I’m Amy Scott for Marketplace.

Ryssdal: Tomorrow in part two, Amy takes us to a school in one of Cincinnati's toughest neighborhoods that's become a one-stop shop to fight the effects of poverty.

About the author

Amy Scott is Marketplace’s education correspondent covering the K-12 and higher education beats, as well as general business and economic stories.

Rayana helps Aaliyah match shapes in a puzzle, an activity that helps prepare toddlers to learn reading and math later on.

Rayana's aunt Blanche Thompson takes care of Aaliyah during the day so Rayana can stay in school.

Stephanie Byrd is executive director of Success By Six, at the United Way of Greater Cincinnati. The program aims to get all children to kindergarten ready to learn.

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I wish that a 12 year old having a baby was an exception, but unfortunately it is a growing trend. How young is to young to have a baby? As a former teacher in the inner city of Chicago, I witnessed first hand the affect of teens having babies. While some are still able to escape the cycle of poverty, it is nearly impossible, the odds are simply too high . As a culture, perhaps we need to start condoning teens having babies, rather than trying to support them. This is a great program, but we need to invest in the teens before they start having babies. We need to provide the support and guidance to encourage them to finish high school and then college. Shifting money away from the programs that support young mothers is not ideal, but, we need to start somewhere. There is a limited pie of money, and it should focus on helping kids to avoid being 12 and having a child themselves. In the long term- it would be interesting for a follow up story every 5 years to see how this young mother and baby are doing. I only wish them the best.

One of the vital aspects of Every Child Succeeds is that it is based on the science of brain development. The traditional start of schooling begins well after the crucial window for learning opens. This program helps bring vital stimulation when children really need it -- not just when society is ready to provide schooling. I'm very glad to see this program getting the national attention it has long deserved!

I wish the participants in this program well and a future of success. However, I couldn't help but notice that this program is nearly as old as the participant who was interviewed. Instead of "Every Child Succeeds" how bout a program that emphasizes abstinence. I feel by enabling these pregnancies we're not fixing the heart of the problem.

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