Chapel Hill News

Family Success Alliance, inspired by Harlem, gets Orange County kids ready for school

Colleen Bridger
Colleen Bridger

The Family Success Alliance school-readiness program will help a group of Orange County children take their first steps toward a better future, organizers say.

The program is a new coalition’s first link in a cradle-to-career pipeline being piloted in two high-poverty zones – Zone 6 in Chapel Hill-Carrboro and Zone 4 in rural Orange County. The pipeline is focused on helping a growing number of children living in poverty and at higher risk, as adults, for substance abuse, mental illness and chronic diseases. The work started last June and will expand to other neighborhoods in the future.

Children under the age of 18 comprise roughly 20 percent of Orange County’s population, or 28,120 residents, according to a N.C. Child report. About 17 percent live in poverty, the report found, creating a higher risk for diabetes, heart disease, obesity and developmental delays. Roughly 6.8 percent of local children are uninsured, it stated.

A slightly higher number – 20.9 percent – live in “food insecure” households, sometimes going without food or adequate nutrition, it found.

The Family Success Alliance will build on the success of similar programs, such as the East Durham Children’s Initiative and Harlem Children’s Zone, officials said. The coalition will evaluate the results at each step to identify what’s working for the children and what’s not working, cultivating a “failing fast culture,” said Colleen Bridger, director of the Orange County Health Department.

Roughly a dozen alliance partners attended a three-day Harlem Children’s Zone Practitioners Institute in New York this spring to learn about that community’s programs and how they are refined through data-based results.

The Orange County group attended workshops and explored program centers, including the Harlem Armory, which offers nutrition and fitness activities to over a thousand children and their families. The Orange County visitors watched 4- and 5-year-olds learn ballet in one classroom, while in another, young children practiced gymnastics.

The visit was inspiring, said Rosemary Deane, a New Hope Elementary School ESL teacher and family support specialist. While it will take passion, time and money, she said, the work is an investment in the future.

“Helping (children) to navigate the system, gain access to knowledge and resources, pursue their passions, and face whatever obstacles society throws their way, will lead to the creation of a more thoughtful, creative, hardworking and just society,” she said.

Harlem officials continue to revise their 20-year-old program, Bridger said.

“They went back to the drawing board on numerous occasions,” she said, “and even when they had initial success, they determined it wasn’t good enough, and they tweaked it and revamped it.”

Building a foundation

Orange County’s kindergarten-readiness program will introduce children to the social and academic environment they will find at school, testing them before and after to compare their progress with peers who didn’t participate.

The alliance has $90,000 in county funding for the program and two zone “navigators” to work with the children.

At least a dozen people have applied to be a navigator, said Delores Bailey, executive director of Zone 6 champion Empowerment Inc. Some have dealt with the challenges of poverty, she said, and can “look a mom or dad in the eye and understand what they’re going through and help them.”

Navigators will be able to talk one-on-one with the children and meet their concerns in a way that works for everyone, she said. Starting early will make the difference, she and others said.

The Harlem program starts before a child is born by identifying and educating soon-to-be parents about budgeting, child care and other relevant topics, Bailey said. As the children age, they get one-on-one support, opportunities and the skills necessary to advocate for themselves, she said.

Harlem Children’s Zone officials found young adults who leave the pipeline for career training or a university education may continue to need support, Orange County Commissioner Bernadette Pelissier said.

The Harlem program prepares all children for college; 98 percent graduate from high school and 96 percent go to college.

High-poverty students – often the first in their families to attend college – may lack skills to handle the academic, social and emotional pressures of college, Pelissier said.

“We need to make sure we have enough eyes, hands and hearts working with these kids on a daily basis,” she said.

Talking it out

While the Harlem Children’s Zone started small and built a network of programs, officials said, Orange County already has established programs and partners. The challenge is to bring those partners together, build relationships and trust, and decide how to collaborate to do more, they said.

The Family Success Alliance Advisory Council started the process by talking with residents in each zone about their needs and potential solutions.

It is important to ask hard questions and challenge every assumption, Bailey said. It’s OK to disagree, she said, if people are willing to talk it out.

Pelissier noted a judgmental or rigid approach can destroy the pipeline before it’s even built. The alliance needs to meet people where they are and push the boundaries, she said.

“It isn’t about getting this kid an education,” she said. “It’s really about our whole view of people and how we engage folks.”

In the zones

The Family Success Alliance is piloting its cradle-to-career pipeline in two Orange County “zones”:

Zone 4

▪ Location: Between Interstates 40 and 85, includes A.L. Stanback Middle and New Hope Elementary schools

▪ Priorities: transportation, kindergarten readiness and more support for Hispanic families

▪ Poverty stats: Roughly 25 percent of children identified as poor; 55 percent receive free or reduced-price lunches, a poverty indicator.

▪ Test scores: 53 percent of third-graders are not proficient in reading and 63 percent of eighth-graders are not proficient in math

Zone 6

▪ Location: Southwest from downtown Chapel Hill and Carrboro, past N.C. 54

▪ Priorities: affordable housing, kindergarten readiness, childcare access and family support

▪ Poverty stats: 22 percent of children identified as poor, 30 percent receive free or reduced-price lunches

▪ Test scores: 41 percent of third-graders are not proficient in reading and 43 percent of eighth-graders are not proficient in math