Dane County officials are working on fighting the county’s racial academic achievement gap by going back to the beginning.
“We know that the gaps in learning and opportunity don’t begin when kids are in school. They start when they’re born,” said Jane Belmore, early childhood project director for the Oscar Rennebohm Foundation, Inc.
To combat this, the county established three Early Childhood Zones, which facilitate home visiting programs for parents of young children and expectant mothers in low-income areas. The goal was to help families create stable learning environments for their kids.
The zones showed promise, but only about a quarter of eligible families were taking advantage of the program.
“Home visiting is very, very successful in both lifting families up and the successful development of the child,” Belmore said. “We know that that strategy works … but parents have to stay engaged with it.”
This spring, families living on Madison’s north side will be able to participate in a new zone that aims to remove barriers to service, double participation rates and provide families with comprehensive and concentrated services.
Dane County and United Way established the zones program in 2013. One designated Early Childhood Zone in Madison serves the Leopold Elementary area, with two others serve Verona and Sun Prairie.
Home visiting services provide individualized time for caseworkers to teach parenting and developmental skills.
In 2015, the Oscar Rennebohm Foundation decided to focus on early childhood initiatives. While researching existing initiatives, the organization quickly zeroed in on the Early Childhood Zones. They found that home visiting itself worked well, but needed some extra support.
“Basically, one of the greatest needs was to keep families stable in housing so they could take advantage of home visiting services,” said Belmore, who led the project at Rennebohm. “Closely connected to that was keeping families stable in employment.”
Other families may never have started the home visiting programs because mothers were struggling with postpartum depression, didn’t know about services or didn’t trust the service providers. Lack of transportation and child care compounded these problems.
This meant that sometimes the families that needed the services most weren’t connected with the program, Belmore said.
To combat these problems, the zones started providing wraparound services like employing housing case managers and helping parents to further their education or get driver’s licences, but lacked additional funding to expand services.
The Rennebohm Foundation decided to become a partner in establishing a new zone on the north side with expanded services, creating a zone benefiting from private funds. It’s also the first to benefit from direct involvement from the city, having garnered the support of Madison Mayor Paul Soglin and the Madison Metropolitan School District.The project is also sponsored by Dane County and United Way.
The north side zone is focusing on populations that feed into Black Hawk Middle School, comprised of four elementary schools: Lake View, Mendota, Lindberg and Gompers. It wants to see 50 percent of eligible families participate in the program.
More robust wraparound services include providing transportation and day care support, both of which can otherwise be barriers to stable employment. It will also provide a housing case manager and emotional wellness support with an on-staff therapist specializing in trauma and attachment.
The north zone will also be distinct in its decision to co-locate the services in one office at 2830 Dryden Drive.
“The idea behind the co-locations is that we can really team together,” said Brittany Brooks, lead family support specialist for the ECI program. “When referrals come in, we can match the families for the program that best fits their needs.”
The four voluntary home visiting programs are Early HeadStart, Early Childhood Initiative (ECI), Welcome Baby and Nurse-Family Partnership. They all have different emphasis and strengths. The Nurse-Family Partnership provides a nurse who can answer questions about a first pregnancy, while Early HeadStart can help connect parents with quality childcare.
Co-locating encourages a team approach, Belmore said. When families receive services from different locations, care is often not as effectively coordinated.
There’s also an increased effort to involve the community. It will be the first zone to hire “neighborhood navigators,” residents that will spread the word of zone services throughout the community and help evaluate the program. The Northside Planning Council is responsible for hiring the navigators, and is looking for neighbors who are already known and trusted in the community.
This will result in a more authentic resident voice, said Abha Thakkar, the executive director of the Northside Planning Council.
The office will open on June 1, although the zone is already accepting families while operating out of the Center for Families building.
For the first year of the program, low-income pregnant mothers and mothers with children born in 2017 can enroll. In the following years, the program will widen their age qualifications.
The zone aims to serve 79 families this year, and an additional 109 families in following years.
The project will employ a three-phase evaluation process.
“In the long run, we hope to have information that would say, ‘These are the things that really work to help support young families take the best advantage of home visiting and child development support,’” Belmore said.
Originally appeared in The Capital Times.