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An in-depth look at our region's emerging economic, social, political and cultural identity.

Charlotte Organizations Use Early Childhood Education To Help Break Poverty Cycle

A Charlotte study that came out last year identified access to quality pre-kindergarten education as a key factor in making sure that children who are born into poverty have a chance of rising out of it in their lifetimes.

North Carolina has a well-respected pre-kindergarten program that’s free for low-income families, and CMS offers its own program. But they don’t nearly meet the need, so some local organizations are trying to fill in the gap. They’re working to make early childhood education affordable for low-income families in an effort to break the poverty cycle.  

Credit Jessa O'Connor/ WFAE
Shade Joseph with her daughter Fola Shade

Shadé Joseph, 24, has a lot on her plate. She works full-time as a cook at Chipotle and is pursuing her dream of owning a catering company. She’s also a young mother of a 2-year-old girl, named Fola Sadé, which means “crowned with honor and wealth” in Yoruba - a common language used in Nigeria.

Joseph’s partner, Fola's father, goes to school full time at Johnson C. Smith University and studies criminology.

Joseph said she got lucky when the time came to find child care for Fola, so she could go back to work. Just a few blocks from her apartment, the new Howard Levine Child Development Center was being built.

“Once I saw [the center], I told my daughter ‘you’re gonna go there, you’re gonna go there,’ " Joseph said. “It’s right up the street, I live like right there.”

The Howard Levine Child Development Center, which started enrolling students in February, offers classes for infants to children the age of five. The center is run by the YMCA in partnership with the Renaissance West Community Initiative – a housing development that offers a range of services to low-income families that live there, including workforce development programs, educational opportunities and subsidized housing.

Credit Jessa O'Connor/ WFAE
Mack McDonald is the CEO of Renaissance West Community Initiative.

Mack McDonald, the Chief Executive Officer of Renaissance West, said a quality early education program is one of the most important components for the community.

“When we talk about the cradle to career education, this is what I call the ‘tip of the spear,’” McDonald said.

The center’s Director Nikki Hildebran said their mission is two-fold: to provide safe, high-quality care for children and to ensure school readiness.

Credit Jessa O'Connor/ WFAE
Howard Levine Child Development Center Director Nikki Hildebran.

“[We] make sure that the kids who are leaving us at the end of their pre-K year are school ready,” she said.

The teachers us­­e lesson plans from Creative Curriculum, a research-based curriculum that incorporates learning and play for preschool-aged children.

Research shows that children involved in an early education program are less likely to be involved in a violent crime by the age of 18 and for every dollar invested in early childhood education, there is a 13 percent return on investment.

At the Howard Levine Child Development Center, the goal is to mainly serve residents from the Renaissance West Community. The tuition for the program is $16,000. Hildebran said she knows that’s expensive, so the center offers options to bring that cost down - including scholarships, work incentives for the parents and vouchers.

Fola and her mother Joseph live at Renaissance West, so the 2-year-old qualifies for a scholarship.

“Her scholarship pretty much pays almost 75 percent of the portion,” Joseph said. “My portion is less than $300.”

Joseph clarified that she pays $300 a month. She said that even at her daughter’s early age, Fola is developing advanced skills that Joseph believes are the direct impact of the center. But the Howard Levine Child Development Center is not the only organization offering a quality education for low-income children in Charlotte.   

Credit Jessa O'Connor/ WFAE
A teacher at the Bethlehem Center made a treadmill out of boxes for his students to run on.

The Bethlehem Center, which runs educational programs from birth to high school graduation, offers the Head Start program – which began in the 1960s and is federally-funded. They have nine locations around Charlotte and serve 625 students, ages six weeks to 5 years old. The program is free of charge and only accepts students from low-income households.

Jared Keaton is Bethlehem’s chief operating officer. He said the teachers at the Bethlehem Center also use Creative Curriculum, but mix it with what he calls “student choice.”

“It looks like what I describe as organized chaos because of our student choice,” Keaton said, “But our educators are very skilled in being able to extend the choices that the children make in center time.”

In a Bethlehem classroom, a teacher created a treadmill for his students out of a cardboard box. Two young boys get on the treadmill and, at their teacher’s command, start to walk, jog, then run in place. They’re learning to follow simple commands, which Keaton said is an important skill that needs to be taught early on.

“At the preschool age we are developing the skills students will need to be successful in Kindergarten and beyond,” Keaton said. “In early childhood, the first 2,000 days – as we refer to it – are very important.”

Credit Colleen Whittingham
Dr. Colleen Whittingham

Dr. Colleen Whittingham, a professor of reading and elementary studies at UNC Charlotte, agreed and explained why.

“The brain is growing and the brain is at a very early age is influenced by external factors in ways that it's not as much as you grow older,” Whittingham said.

Meaning that positive experiences, like a quality early education or the influence of a good teacher, can shape the brain in a way that starts the child down a path of success. But adverse experiences, like instability at home, exposure to violence or poverty, can set the stage for a downward trajectory.

That’s why early development is key in upward mobility, but Whittingham said it’s not an isolated factor. She said to serve the whole child, a good early education program also has to serve the parent. She recommended resources like an on-site food pantry or workforce development programs for parents.

Both the Howard Levine Child Development Center and the Bethlehem Center take this multi-generational approach, focusing on the parent as well as the child, and partner with other Charlotte organizations to do so.

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Jessa O’Connor was an assistant digital news editor and Sunday reporter for WFAE.