July 7, 2017

Starting Early: The Younger Siblings Project

In April, EdVestors highlighted the work of the Younger Siblings Project at our 15th annual Urban Education Showcase. The annual Showcase shines a spotlight on innovative and replicable practices happening in Boston schools. Each year, EdVestors School Solutions Seed Fund provides up to ten schools and their partners with $10,000 grants to pilot and test new ideas. The explicit goal of each grant is to learn from the experience and to either expand the work in the following year or determine what changes need to be made to ensure the initiative’s future success.

The Younger Siblings Project was selected for its pioneering cross-school approach (a charter school and a traditional district school) and cross-sector approach (schools and health centers) to tackling the common challenge of school readiness among young learners.

The Challenge

Many young children arrive at school without basic readiness skills as well as undiagnosed special learning or language needs. Parents in under-resourced communities often do not have access to information on how best to support their young children’s early learning and school-readiness. Moreover, the current process for identifying, evaluating, and delivering appropriate supports for students once they’ve enrolled in school can take months, delaying critical learning supports for children in need. This is not a new problem, but one that has yet to be solved.

The Solution

Codman Academy Charter School and the Hurley K-8 School are partnering with two local community health centers – the Codman Square Health Center and the South End Health Center respectively – to provide parenting education around school readiness (such as the importance of reading to your child, nutrition and healthy habits, positive discipline approaches, etc.) and conduct early needs screenings for children. Codman Academy and the Hurley, like many schools, give enrollment preference to siblings of current students. This program focuses on those families that already have a relationship with the school and have a three-year-old child at home. Using a new parent education curriculum from The Primary School in East Palo Alto, participants learn valuable parenting information and approaches, connect with local health-care providers, and become part of a supportive peer network of fellow parents. While the approach focuses primarily on parent education, the end-goal is to ensure more students arrive at school in either preK or kindergarten ready to learn.

We know that early education and early childhood health are closely intertwined. This type of partnership with local health centers holds promise as a model for other schools to reach parents and their young children before they enroll in school and set them up for success.

Early Learnings from the Pilot

In its initial spring pilot, Codman Academy and the Hurley School worked with a total of 16 parents of incoming K1 (pre-k) students and their children. Staff members from each school coordinated the five weekly sessions, inviting six practitioners from the two health centers as guest speakers and experts.

Staff leading the work at both schools found that parents appreciated the opportunity to meet with pediatricians and other practitioners in a small group setting and learn more about early childhood development. Parents found real value in meeting other parents of incoming students and forming an early peer support group for themselves and their children.

Despite the fact that often half of a school’s incoming class can be made up of siblings of existing students, one of the unexpected findings of the pilot was the low awareness among Boston families about “sibling preference” policies. These policies give families with a child already enrolled a higher priority for enrolling subsequent siblings, but only if they enroll by the appropriate school assignment deadline. As a result of the pilot, both schools will more actively reach out to their current families next fall to ensure they are aware of the policy and register for school before the deadline.

As Codman Academy and the Hurley School look toward next year, they taking all they have learned to build upon and strengthen the program. Both schools plan to start meeting with families earlier in the school year and believe the Younger Siblings Project can be self-sustaining within their existing school budgets.

EdVestors’ Seed Fund grant allowed these two schools and their health center partners to pilot a new idea quickly and learn lessons we can all benefit from.  Have an idea for a pilot? The process for a new round of Seed Fund grants will begin in the fall so get those juices flowing this summer!

Want to learn more? Watch the WBZ profile on the Younger Siblings Project.