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New Charlotte Group Hopes Books, Toys And Toddlers Can Break Cycle Of Poverty

Early learning specialist Nerys Centeno (right) applauds while Gabriela Samayoa does an activity with her 19-month-old daughter, Elliette.

Mecklenburg County is expanding pre-K to get 4-year-olds ready for kindergarten – but what about getting younger children ready for pre-K? A national program that’s moving into Charlotte does just that. 

Nerys Centeno is one of the local pioneers. On a recent February afternoon, she arrived at a home in Charlotte's Sugar Creek neighborhood to visit Gabriela Samayoa and her not-quite-2-year-old daughter, Elliette.

Centeno is an early learning specialist with ParentChild+, a New York-based home visitation program that’s getting started in North Carolina. Centeno, a young mother herself, comes across more like a friend than a visiting expert. That’s intentional.

Samayoa and her family came to Charlotte from Guatemala about 10 years ago. Centeno came from Nicaragua about the same time. Both women speak English but are more comfortable with Spanish. ParentChild+ wants to make sure Elliette grows up fluent in both languages.

Gabriela Samayoa reads with her toddler daughter Elliette while 4-year-old Amy and Nerys Centeno watch.

ParentChild+ was created as a dropout prevention program in the 1960s. It’s active in six countries and 15 states, including just across the state line in Lancaster, South Carolina.

Now some of Charlotte’s leading foundations and philanthropists see it as a key to breaking the cycle of poverty by building toddlers’ skills and supporting their parents.

At  Samayoa’s house, the two women, the toddler and her 4-year-old sister, Amy, sing, look at books, play with stickers and draw with thick crayons. 

Samayoa says Elliette is learning to love books, and the visits are a good reminder to take a break from chores and focus on her daughter.

"Like quality time," she says. "And I think that makes the difference in other days, and that’s why she now asks for that time."

Starting Before Pre-K

Studies show that gaps between children of poverty and more affluent counterparts open early and are tough to close. The state and Mecklenburg County are investing heavily in free public pre-K for 4-year-olds.

ParentChild+ starts earlier, sending trained specialists into toddlers’ homes to deliver culturally relevant books and educational toys – and to build parents’ skills as their children’s first teachers. It’s done at no cost to families.

And it’s done by people who can build trust in the communities they serve. Charlotte’s pilot program works with Charlotte Bilingual Preschool, a program for Spanish-speaking children, and Southside Homes, a public housing project serving mostly African American families.

Banu Valladares, director of Charlotte Bilingual Preschool; early learning specialist Nerys Centeno and Angie Drakeford, North Carolina director of ParentChild (l-r).

State director Angie Drakeford works from Southside, while Banu Valladares oversees the Spanish-speaking staff from the east Charlotte preschool.

"I’m born and raised Charlottean, Banu has been here since 1982," Drakeford says. "You know, we are the community, and I think that makes a difference. And the passion shows."

Valladares says her preschool was already looking for a partner to help reach younger children. What sold her on ParentChild+, she says, is that they insist on hiring people like Centeno, who emerged as a parent leader when she had a child enrolled at the bilingual preschool.

That meets two goals, Valladares says: People from the community get jobs, and immigrant families who may be wary of outsiders get visitors they can trust. She says controversy over immigration and fear of ICE raids have ratcheted up anxiety in the Spanish-speaking community.

"Even if the family directly is not impacted there’s this fear – maybe they will deport me, even though I’ve got all my papers," Valladares says.

Centeno says the parents and the toddlers she’s working with know what to expect: "Books, toys, coloring, arts materials. … They know when I’m coming. They look in my bag because it’s like magical for them."

Who Pays?

Centeno and other early learning specialists make two 30-minute visits a week to their families. The toys, books and staffing cost about $3,800 per family for a 23-week session, and families make a two-year commitment.

The program got a $1 million grant from a group of Charlotte-area corporations, foundations and philanthropists called the Charlotte GreenLight Fund.

Educational toys for ParentChild are stored in Charlotte before delivery to families with toddlers.

After a 2014 study ranked Charlotte 50th out of 50 large cities on people’s chances of moving out of poverty, community leaders spent years strategizing solutions. Early childhood education and family stability were ranked as high priorities, and the fund set out to make things happen. Bringing ParentChild+ to Charlotte was the first investment.

Eventually, the goal is public funding. Many other sites around the nation are already there. For instance, the Lancaster program gets money from the school system.

Valladares says North Carolina’s spending for public pre-K sets the stage for investing even earlier.

"We know that getting a great solid education at 3 and 4 is really good for kindergarten," she says, "but the majority of the brain is really evolving from the time that they’re in the uterus all the way to that 3-year-old space."

ParentChild+ will track results in Charlotte. The most extensive study so far was done in Seattle, which launched the program in 2006. Researchers found gains in kindergarten readiness, English proficiency and third-grade test scores when participating children were compared with a control group.

In addition to the data, Drakeford says there’s a common-sense appeal: Kids learn so much in their first three years.

"What better time to catch these children and fill their head with what they need to be successful in life?" she asks.

For now the focus is on getting ParentChild+ established in Charlotte. The program is working with 50 families in the first round, and the grant is designed to cover at least 400.  After that, the plan is to expand across North Carolina.

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