You are here


The Cradle-to-Career Solution

Providing a birth-to-employment education can stop students from falling through the cracks.
Simone Kelly, (left) a junior at City College in New York, had an internship at SONY's RED division last year. Kelly took part in the Harlem Children?s Zone after-school programs in high school and the HCZ's College Success Office.

Extensive media coverage of New York City's Harlem Children's Zone's cradle-to-career program over the past several years has served to focus mainstream attention on school reform in a way unprecedented in recent history.

Cradle-to-career programs seek to provide children living in poverty with a high-quality birth-to-employment education through a continuum of services that include health, social and economic supports in addition to school. School-family-community partnerships and data-tracking of student progress are central to the cradle-to-career model, which asks not just educators but all community service providers to take responsibility for student outcomes in an effort to break what the Children's Defense Fund terms the "cradle to prison pipeline" of these communities.

The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, US News and World Report, 60 Minutes, PBS, CNN, Oprah Winfrey and the documentary Waiting for Superman are just a few of the media channels that have repeatedly covered the Harlem Children's Zone (HCZ) and its CEO, Geoffrey Canada. In a 2007 campaign speech, Barack Obama held up the HCZ as a model of education reform he pledged to replicate as president. He took a first step toward doing so with 2010's Promise Neighborhoods competitive grant initiative.

Based on the HCZ template, the Promise Neighborhoods grant helps fund programs in high-poverty communities that can demonstrate a capacity to craft a technology-based data-tracking system and to build the network of community partnerships crucial for ensuring that students "won't fall through the cracks," says Larkin Tackett, deputy director of Promise Neighborhoods.

Federal Funding Challenges

Above, toddlers in the Incredible Years group at the East Durham Children?s Initiative (EDCI) in North Carolina play with blocks, which in part, promote development.The EDCI focuses its efforts on early childhood.

Despite widespread acclaim for the model, which includes both charter and noncharter school initiatives, funding for the Promise Neighborhoods grant and other cradle-to-career efforts is threatened by the same proposed cuts in the 2011 federal budget as the broader spectrum of education programs. Last year, 21 communities were awarded up to $500,000 from the program's $10 million fund, but Obama's requested $210 million for Promise Neighborhoods in 2011 has been reduced by the Senate and House to $20 million and $60 million, respectively.

Also on shaky financial ground are early childhood programs, which remain core elements of the cradle-to-career model. The underfunding of Early Head Start, Community Development Block Grants and similar programs are of great concern to advocates such as Susan Ochshorn of Early Childhood Education Policy Works and Adele Robinson of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Both point to the research of experts like University of Chicago economics professor James Heckman, who links early childhood education to reduced rates of teen pregnancy, crime, drug abuse and dropping out of school, and to increased earning power.

In the face of likely drastic cuts, Robinson and other experts, such as Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, counsel innovation. Robinson says schools can spearhead community partnerships to establish shared goals and initiatives, such as pairing early childhood and primary level educators for joint professional development to address the crucial transition from pre-K to kindergarten, or divert Title I funds from schools to external early childhood programs. Hess advocates integrating new tools and technologies into classrooms as a method for reaching kids on an individual level and compensating for high student-teacher ratios.

The Harlem Children's Zone

Harlem Children's Zone's cradle-to-career education model has its roots in a 1970 truancy-prevention program of the Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families, in New York City. In 1983, Canada arrived as education director, then became president in 1990. Impelled by his personal experience growing up in the crime-ridden South Bronx of the 1960s, Canada was determined to help other children escape the fear, danger and limitations of his own childhood.

The "Harvard" kindergarten class at the Promise Academy II, which is a program of the Harlem Children's Zone, recites the Promise Academy Creed for a visitor.

After expanding the program with a community center and adding teaching assistants partly funded by the AmeriCorps national service organization, Canada then began a single-block pilot program of the Harlem Children's Zone Project, providing a network of health and education services to students and families, with financial support from the New York City-based Edna McConnell Clark Foundation.

Today the program covers a 97-block area in Harlem and serves more than 8,000 children and 6,000 adults. The comprehensive range of services begins at birth, with a training workshop for parents of infants to three-year-olds. "We make it a fun atmosphere, and the goal is to inform parents about their child's development and ways to, for example, discipline their children without hitting them," says Marty Lipp, HCZ's director of communications.

He adds that another goal of the program is to start long-term relationships with parents, as their ongoing engagement is important to student success. HCZ's broad coalition of community partners includes Harlem Hospital, the Children's Health Fund, New York Presbyterian Hospital/ Columbia University Medical Center and local public schools, says Lipp.

Additional HCZ programs include a preschool, asthma and obesity initiatives, and two Promise Academy charter schools, serving 1,400 lottery-selected kids from kindergarten through high school. Academies offer extended-day and extended-year programs, as well as wraparound services, such as healthy meals, dental and medical care, and healthy-nutrition gourmet cooking classes for parents. The children who don't win a lottery slot in one of the charter schools are supported through what HCZ terms a "dual-track pipeline," which serves other area students.

Eighty-six teaching assistants work within the area's seven public elementary schools and help run free after-school academic and middle school readiness programs. Other services for noncharter-school students include academic case management, leadership and social development classes for middle school students, and job skill, summer employment and college-readiness programs for high school students.

HCZ also supports college students with tutoring, time management skills, financial aid application assistance and internship opportunities. Broader services available for adults include legal and financial guidance, domestic crisis and debt relief counseling, and advice on acquiring public benefits.

Among the evidence of success posted on HCZ's Web site are scores from 2008 showing that 100 percent of charter school third-graders tested at or above grade level on the statewide math assessment, and that 93 percent of third-graders in Promise Academy 1 tested at or above grade level in the statewide English and language arts assessment.

HCZ has only begun working with kids in college over the past couple of years and has no data on graduation rates, yet 90 percent of its 2010 high school seniors have been accepted into college, and more than 600 who have participated in HCZ's after-school programs are attending colleges across the country. Lipp calls this "an enormous source of pride for us."

Replicating HCZ

Despite criticism that the HCZ model is dependent on its Manhattan location, Canada's singular personal passion and extensive philanthropic connections, programs such as North Carolina's East Durham Children's Initiative (EDCI), are able to replicate the model in customized form. Read the sidebar, "Harlem Children's Zone Critics Weigh In," about how difficult the HCZ is to reproduce elsewhere.

Inspired by HCZ, EDCI targets a 120-block area, which director David Reese terms a "bull's-eye for police," that is rife with crime, prostitution and child abuse. Without the benefit of HCZ-level resources or federal Promise Neighborhoods grant money, EDCI forged a range of community partnerships to gain funding and resources, with the Center for Child and Family Health as its parent organization. Targeting early childhood education and primary grades, the program began training teachers in the spring of 2010 and conducted a literacy summer camp for low-performing first- and second-graders.

In the fall of 2010, EDCI also began offering new-parent training and home nursing visits. The Y.E. Smith Elementary School, where 85 percent of kids receive free or reduced-price lunches, is the main focus for the first phase of the program, providing ongoing tutoring, a classical violin program for kindergartners, school museum partnerships for enrichment, and parent-school advocates who keep parents up-to-date on their children's progress and suggest interventions when appropriate. Identifying and taking advantage of existing high-quality community programs and practices help make the program affordable and replicable, Reese says.

The Strive Model

Strive, another cradle-to-career program being emulated across the country, was spearheaded in 2006 by Nancy Zimpher, who was then president of the University of Cincinnati and is now chancellor of the State University of New York. She was concerned by the lack of readiness of young children for kindergarten, poor performance on benchmark tests, and low college enrollment of students in high-poverty urban areas of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.

So Zimpher began by developing a partnership with the education advocacy group Knowledgeworks. The partnership establishes relationships with community service providers that could help with Strive's mission to improve academic success for every child, every step of the way.

Strive differs from the HCZ model in that it does not deliver direct services to students. Rather, it helps build a community's capacity to support students by coordinating existing services and educating funders to support programs that use student outcome metrics to ensure there is a positive return on their investment dollars, says Geoff Zimmerman, Strive's director of continuous improvement.

The Center for Collaboration and Continuous Improvement at The Strive Partnership in Ohio, held its Strive Six Sigma Training. Strive trains participants working with children and families across the cradle-to-career continuum.

Jennifer Blatz, director of partnership engagement and advocacy for Strive's newly formed national network, which will add thousands of students to the current 50,000 now being served in the Cincinnati area, also emphasizes the model's affordability, stating that cross-sector partnerships including businesses, foundations and schools can be implemented in other communities for less than $500,000 a year.

Key to such implementations is a strong convening organization that can establish partnerships with local schools, industries, businesses, parent groups and service providers to craft goals; a continuous improvement plan; and a method for ongoing measurement of progress.

In its four years of existence, Strive has trained more than 200 community stakeholders— including pre-K education groups, service organizations, tutoring and mentoring groups, and after-school programs—in data-driven evaluation. Strive programs have included expanding preschool days and kindergarten- readiness summer programs for at-risk 4-year-olds, facilitating additional training for early childhood educators, establishing a new early childhood curriculum aligned with state success indicators, and adding an additional month of early childhood academic instruction.

When Cincinnati Public Schools launched its Ready for High School elementary initiative in 2008, Strive helped align afterschool, tutoring, mentoring and health programs in 16 turnaround schools and has facilitated placement of 2,000 tutors at those sites.

Within four years, the results in three districts—Cincinnati in Ohio and Newport and Covington in Kentucky—included 9- and 10-point increases in kindergarten readiness for Cincinnati and Newport, respectively; an 11-point increase in high school graduation for Cincinnati; a 10-point increase in college enrollment for Cincinnati; 28-point and 30-point increases in fourth-grade math for Covington and Newport, respectively; and a 42-point increase in eighth-grade math for Newport.

A major challenge is getting more district leaders on board. "We're not here to place blame or push more accountability on administrators," Blatz says. "We want to help differentiate the responsibility across the range of community service providers." Strive's new initiatives are in Richmond, Va.; Houston; Hayward, Calif.; and Portland, Ore., where the group offers "technical support," including Web-based conference capabilities, on-site training and more.

Strive in Portland

In 2008, Portland State University took the lead in the Multnomah County, Ore., cradle-to-career initiative, whose goals are improving early childhood programs and offering extended-day academic and athletic activities for elementary and middle school students in the county's high-poverty, high minority metro area.

Six urban districts representing 85,000 students will be served by the Strive-supported program, which is organizing teams of providers, such as Portland Parks and Recreation, the Oregon Mentors Program, the YMCA, and boys and girls clubs. Pulling together the diverse community resources and leadership groups and achieving consensus around a data framework for outcomes and measurements has been both the greatest challenge and the greatest opportunity of the two-year planning phase just completed, says Pat Burk, associate professor of the school of education at Portland State.

Project implementations that began in March include training for early childhood day-care providers and an initiative on transitioning students between eighth and ninth grades, in part through college visits and tutoring. For other districts looking to implement cradle-to-career programs, Burk suggests looking to a university for assistance with data and research, and like EDCI, reaching out to a range of community organizations and partnering with the best programs already in the community.

The Cradle-to-Career Outlook

Although philanthropic funding for cradle-to-career programs remains uneven, and federal funding is an increasing challenge for all such initiatives, early results of this reform model are capturing the attention of more and more at-risk communities across the country.

With partnerships and shared goals as key elements, cradle-to-career programs unite communities by stressing collaboration and accountability over competition and isolation. This is aimed at encouraging success for every child and ending intergenerational cycles of poverty.

In a 2010 Huffington Post article about the HCZ, clergyman and education advocate Andrew Wilkes said the following: "There are two trains running in urban spaces today. One train, the cradle-to-prison pipeline, leads to deferred dreams, arrested development and misallocated public dollars. The other train, the cradle-to-career pipeline, can lead to flourishing families, job opportunities and the judicious use of public investment."

Susan McLester is a freelance writer based in Berkeley, Calif.