The Challenge: By the time children from low-income families enter kindergarten, they are typically 12 to 14 months below national norms in language and pre-reading skills. Almost half of low income children are not ready for school when they enter their first classroom.
A Solution: The Educare curriculum places family involvement at the center of its development strategy for at-risk children. Research shows that children who enroll in Educare as infants or toddlers enter kindergarten at the same achievement level as their middle-income peers.
(Source: Zero to Eight: Children's Media Use in America)
Funders of this program include the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which is also a sponsor of the 2012 Education Nation summit.
OMAHA, Neb. – Just shy of his third birthday, Dominic Chiarello had a vocabulary that was just "yes," "no" and "potty."
After a year in preschool in the Educare Center of Omaha, the 4-year-old Nebraska boy wants to be an astronaut and blast off into space. "I want to shoot up into the sky like a firework," says Dominic, thrusting his fist into the air.
"He's exploding," says his mother, Audra Chiarello, of Omaha. "He's constantly telling me all the new words he has learned at school. Just the other day, he said, 'Mom, my hair looks atrocious.' He's using so many big words and has become a talking encyclopedia. I can't keep up."
The Educare Center, part of a nationwide program begun in 2000 in Chicago, aims to help the city's poorest preschoolers close the achievement gap with richer children through all-day, year-round care and education. The goal is that when economically disadvantaged kids reach kindergarten, they'll be able to keep up with their middle-class peers.
Educare relies on the belief that when children receive quality education early on, they're more likely to achieve academic success, graduate high school and go on to college or seek career training. The curriculum aims to develop language, literacy, mathematical and social skills.
The program has gained support from philanthropists, including The Buffett Early Childhood Fund run by Susan A. Buffett, daughter of Omaha-based billionaire investor Warren Buffett.
Omaha has two Educare centers, next to the Indian Hill and Kellom elementary schools. Children are enrolled as early as 6 weeks old. Classrooms are small: For example, the class size for toddlers (birth to age 3) is three teachers to eight children.
Results have been promising, says Gladys Haynes, executive director of the Educare Center of Omaha.
Data from Educare programs in six cities – Chicago, Denver, Milwaukee, Omaha, Seattle and Tulsa – show positive results in preparing at-risk children from birth to five for later academic achievement, according to researchers at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. They found that children entering kindergarten who had started at Educare before age 2 scored 98.2 on school readiness tests - the same as the national average.
A PromiseEducare centers have popped up across the country – in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Oklahoma, Maine, Washington and Wisconsin. Nationwide, Educare enrolls at least 2,000 children, from birth to five years old, and employs 700 teachers and staff, according to Educare officials.
The first Educare was opened in Chicago in 2000 by the Ounce of Prevention Fund, a Chicago-based nonprofit that advocates early childhood programs and policies.
The Ounce relies on private donations to develop programs and then leverages public funding to expand the programs to serve more children, Educare officials say.
"We never planned to have the number of programs we have nationwide," says Portia Kennel, executive director of Educare Learning Network of Chicago, a partnership between the Ounce, the Buffett Early Childhood Fund, and other national philanthropies. "We were just trying to keep a promise to a distressed community in Chicago that we would work tirelessly to make sure their children would be prepared for kindergarten and have an opportunity to have a good education."
In Nebraska, the cause's champion in Susie Buffett, who has focused her personal philanthropy in improving early childhood education. Her foundation is part of a collaborative effort with Omaha Public Schools and the local Head Start to fund the Educare Center of Omaha.
"There are too many poor kids in really horrible child care situations for the first five years of their lives," Susie Buffett said in an interview with TODAY's correspondent Jenna Bush Hager. "So we went around the country looking for who was doing the best work and we found the Ounce of Prevention people … So we just copied them – and partnered with them."
Statistics show up to 11 million children under the age of five in the U.S. are in some type of child care arrangement, according to The National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies, a nonprofit that works to improve quality and availability of child care services nationwide. The association also reported that 40 percent of infant programs were of poor quality.
Buffett's foundation and the Ounce of Prevention Fund are working with partners to build more Educare centers across the nation.
"It is a model of what's working," said Adele Robinson, deputy executive director for the nonprofit National Association for the Education of Young Children in Washington, D.C. The association serves as an adviser to policymakers and advocates for literacy and early childhood education. But Robinson says there's a big hurdle.
"Many places are trying programs like this, and everyone is troubled by the same problem and that's funding," she said.
Operations like Educare are expensive, and states keep making drastic cuts to preschool programs.
Wendy Moreno, a 19-year-old single mom from Omaha, says Educare has helped her sons learn to read and count. "My boys are learning so much and I know they are going to have a brighter future," said Moreno, whose sons, Anthony, 2, and Jonathan, 3, attend the Educare Center at Indian Hill Elementary School. "I don't have to worry about who is taking care of them. I know they are in school learning."
She said teachers have worked hard to strengthen bonds between parents and their children. Parental involvement is the key component in Educare's curriculum. Before school starts, teachers make home visits to meet the child's parents, siblings and family members.
"At first, parents are reluctant," said Reyna Barrales, a teaching assistant at Educare. "Some want to be involved, but don't know how to, while others think it's the teacher's job to teach and that's it. What we try to explain to them is that it's up to everyone. Some of these families have so little, and they still want to give us something when we go to the home. One time we got bananas."
Barrales, born and raised in Mexico City, is bilingual and is also helping coach her colleagues to speak conversational Spanish.
"The biggest thing parents need to know is to be patient," Barrales said, adding, "A child is not going to learn overnight, especially for those 3 and 4 years old."
At school, teachers give updates to parents on their child's learning progress at the end of each day. Parents are encouraged to share issues or concerns with their child.
"The program has made me a better parent," said LaChar Perkins, a single mother of two, Raheem, 8, and Ilana, 4. Ilana is enrolled in the program and Raheem graduated a few years ago and is now in third grade. "I can't say enough positive things about the school, its program and its teachers. The teachers are open and honest."
Like her children, Perkins said she is studying hard. She is enrolled at the Metro Community College, studying to be a nurse. When she's not with her children or at school, she's working as a nail technician. She said she earns $10,000 a year.
"I didn't want my children to struggle," she said. "I wanted to give them a good education so they can succeed in life, and with Educare I believe they have a solid foundation to do just that."
A version of this story also appeared at NBCNews.com.
LaChar Perkins, Educare Parent
Diana Rauner and Jessie Rasmussen work in a partnership to oversee the strategic direction of the Educare Learning Network. Rauner also supervises staff at the Ounce of Prevention Fund, focusing their efforts on Educare initiatives.
Jessie Rasmussen supervises the Buffett Early Childhood Fund's grants to the Educare Replication Pool, in which Buffett and other national philanthropies annually award more than $1 million in capital grants to encourage communities nationwide to build Educare schools.
The Educare Learning Network is a partnership between the Buffett Early Childhood Fund and the Ounce of Prevention Fund to provide partnership development, program implementation and policy and communications support to Educare schools.
"Recognizing that parents are children's first and most important teacher, we partner with them to provide their infants, toddlers and preschoolers with an environmentally and emotionally safe foundation that allows them to develop the skills they need to be successful in school and in life," Haynes wrote in an email to NBC News. Gladys Haynes is responsible for overseeing overall administration functions, including fiscal operations, human resources, self assessment and monitoring, strategic and program planning and Board relations.
"The families and Educare staff work closely together to create learning opportunities and experiences which will help the children be successful throughout their entire education. It's exciting to see that the work we do is making a difference in the lives of children and their families."
Deb Winkelmann makes sure everything is running smoothly at the Indian Hill center. "I'm always working in the background," Winkelmann says. She oversees a team of four master teachers and conducts classroom observations. When a family crisis emerges, Winkelmann is the troubleshooter. She fills in wherever needed in the school, from teaching to helping parents.
Kari Johnson and Chris Fowler provide extra support for teachers who seek guidance in boosting a child's language skills. The pathologists visit classrooms and participate in small group activities to encourage language development.
Johnson: "I love going to work each day knowing that I am giving the children at Educare opportunities for learning that they may not be able to experience at other places."
Fowler: "Tracking the children's speech and language development is very exciting. The growth that is made in this area is amazing. There are times when you get a little concerned and then there's this explosion of growth."
Liz DeGraw Renna and Nicole Looper are among the eight master teachers who work alongside classroom teachers, providing mentoring, coaching and support. Master teachers have earned advanced degrees in early childhood education and received special training in infancy for birth-to-age-three classrooms.
DeGraw Renna: "One thing I especially enjoy is being a witness to those positive outcomes which are supported by the dedicated efforts of our outstanding staff as well as by the committed participation of our families."
Looper: "What I love about working for Educare is an opportunity to see the process of learning happening within my eyes. I enjoy watching the knowledge unfold with children and teachers."
"We are the bridge to the classroom, because language can be a barrier for many families," Rivera says.
Eva Rivera leads a team of four family enrichment team members, each working to help strengthen ties with families in and out of the classroom. She speaks Spanish and helps in translations, conferences and activities for families who have limited English-speaking skills.
Each classroom has a lead teacher, an assistant teacher and a teacher's aide. Lead teachers are required to have earned a bachelor's degree in early childhood education; assistant teachers, an associate degree in early childhood education; and teacher's aides, a high school diploma/GED and courses or credential in child development.
Brandy Pierson, lead teacher: "One of the most rewarding moments of teaching: Seeing a child begin to understand concepts, grasp what you are teaching. When school first starts, I feel so bad when children are crying because they miss their parents. But as the days go on, they end up crying when they have to go home. I love that because to me it means they love being here."
Katie Larson, lead teacher: "I am able to stay with the same children for three years. I love that I started with the children as infants and am able to watch them learn and grow in so many ways."
The first three years of children's lives are the most critical for shaping their long-term academic success, say officials at Educare. That's why there is so much focus on early childhood education and why helping those facing the largest roadblocks — such as poverty, crime and violence — is critical.
Another challenge is preparing teachers to prepare the kinds of lessons you want in workshops, says Hackmann. “It’s really hard for them to get out of that ’Let me stand up here and tell you something mode.”
While early childhood programs are costly, they also hold the most promise for success of the next generation, experts argue. But finding money to sustain such programs is getting harder.
Costs to run operations like Educare's program are high. Construction for each center costs up to $12 million. Each school, enrolling up to 200 children, has an operating budget from $2.8 million to $3.4 million. Head Start covers 50 to 60 percent of the operating costs.
Educare has gained financial backing from philanthropists, including The Buffett Early Childhood Fund, headed by Susan A. Buffett, daughter of Omaha-based billionaire investor Warren Buffett. She has committed her philanthropy to expanding Educare programs nationwide.
"We would love to see replications of Educare centers nationwide," said Adele Robinson, deputy executive director for the nonprofit National Association for the Education of Young Children, based in Washington, D.C. The association serves as an adviser to policymakers and advocates for literacy and early childhood education. "The question becomes, 'How can Educare sustain and grow?' It is just as dependent on big programs, such as Head Start, Early Head Start and it will have to find the funding — and not every community has a Susie Buffett."
These interviews were conducted by NBC News’ Jenna Bush Hager.
JBH: What's going on in these centers that's working?
DR: Our teachers are constantly narrating their experiences. Our teachers are keeping up a constant stream of interactions with the baby, following the baby's focus of attention, looking at what the child's playing with and then talking about what the child's playing with, being able to set up routines where there are interactions that children are familiar with and using that constant stream of language to support language development, but also very importantly to show the child how valued he is. How important his thoughts and his ideas are to even his most important caregivers. That's a message that stays with children.
JBH: How important is it for every mom and every baby to have that conversation?
DR: It's important. This is not only a problem for children who are in childcare, but even at home. Parents who talk to their children all the time, over meals, in book reading, and in everyday life – narrating at the grocery store, talking about the laundry as you're doing it, talking in the kitchen as you're preparing meals, talking in the car, or in a stroller about everything you see around you the world. This is what creates a child who goes into kindergarten ready to tell everybody everything he knows about the world, excited to learn more.
JBH: Phones and mobile devices are everywhere - you see moms who are on their phones as they're walking their kids. Do you worry about the rise of technology?
DR: This isn't my area of specialty, but I worry about that a lot. I worry when I see kids who are not being talked to because their parents are engaged on a cell phone talking to someone else or on their blackberry, because we know how important quality speech is in the development of child's social and emotional skills as well as, of course, children's vocabulary.
JBH: Most people think education starts in preschool or kindergarten, but is that way too late for many kids?
DR: Well absolutely. And of course education in the first three years of life doesn't look like education in kindergarten - there aren't desks or flashcards or worksheets. But we have to recognize what science tells us: in the first thousand days of life the brain is developing so rapidly that it is absolutely too late for us to wait, especially for the most at-risk children. We do need high quality early education settings, not just so mom can go to work, but really importantly so that these children can develop the language skills, the behavior skills, the social skills and their own understanding of the world that will allow them to be successful when they enter kindergarten, preschool, and on into school.
JBH: How important is this problem of access to quality early education?
DR: This really is a challenge to our economy, to our democracy, our way of life. We can't afford to sustain a 30 percent dropout rate - 50 percent in the inner cities - and not think about the roots of that in the first thousand days of life. We are, at this point, ignoring the first thousand days and focusing all of our attention, all of our anxiety, at other points of development. When in fact we know from science and from program evaluation what a difference quality early education can make in addressing long term challenges. We know from research that children who have had early experiences that were high quality and supportive have lower rates of criminal experience, higher graduation rates from high school and college, higher earnings, higher marriage rates, lower rates of teen pregnancy. And yet we simply treat it as too expensive or not relevant for this election cycle. And that's really tragic. This is a long term investment for sure. But it's also one
JBH: How important is it that we focus on the first couple years of these kids lives?
SB: Jack Shonkoff, who's the genius guy at Harvard, has studied brain development in the earliest years, and what happens before the age of 3 is enormous. 700 synapses per second are connecting. 700 per second! And the poorest kids are growing up with a lot of toxic stress in their lives that damages their brains and it makes it difficult to learn in the years ahead. And so the first three years I think are most critical.
JBH: You've worked with a lot of child care centers around the country, what have you seen?
SB: The short answer is everything, from the very worst to the very best. And quality matters enormously. You know, there are too many poor kids in really horrible child care situations for the first five years of their lives. So we went around the country looking for who was doing the best work and we found the ounce of prevention people and the irving harris group in chicago, and they seem to have it figured out, so we just copied them - and partnered with them.
JBH: Your dad gave each of your siblings a large sum of money to start a foundation. Why did you choose education?
SB: Because I grew up with the importance of public education being pounded into us. And because I care enormously about public education and everyone getting a fair shot in life. So, honestly, when I got the money in the beginning, I went to the superintendent and I said, "We have this money, I'd like to do something for the K-12 public school system." And he pulled out a book about early childhood and said, "You know what would really help us is if you could figure out something to do with the birth-to-five kids. If the kids walk in prepared, we can teach them, and we can help them to succeed." Which had actually never occurred to me. So I give him a lot of the credit.
JBH: You're a big advocate of the public school system. You attended public school here in Omaha. Why is that system so important to you?
SB: As my dad has said many times, if every child went to public school, no matter how wealthy they are, it would fix the public school system overnight. You need the people with the wealth, the power, the voice, in the public school system so that they care about what's happening to everyone. And the public school system is there so that every kid gets an equal opportunity, a good shot at success in life. And when the rich, the powerful – the people with the voices - opt out, it's really a bad thing. That for the most part hasn't happened in Omaha. We still have a very good public school system in omaha. But it scares me to think about what happens to all the children who don't have the opportunity to opt out. They should have just as good a shot as everybody else. It matters enormously that we all stay in it so that everybody cares and is invested in it.
JBH: Are you working on advocacy?
SB: We've been working on it. One of the problems with that is you don't see the results of this in an election cycle. So, to try to get the people who have to vote for the money to vote for it, when it's more than four years or two years or six years before you see the results, it's tough and it's really frustrating. The truth is there's only 4 percent of the early Head Start eligible kids in early Head Start, because there's no money. Four percent. So that tells you how really serious this is.