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.
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.
Liyah struggles for a minute, before finally pushing the star into its rightful place.
Smith: Good job!
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.
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 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.