Serving children in tough times
As budgets get squeezed, CSUEB alumni, students and faculty get creative and collaborative to meet kids’ and communities’ needs
BY FRED SANDSMARK ’83
It’s 1 p.m. on a hazy July afternoon in west Hayward, and Joanna Bromstead ’08 is completing a quick inventory of six tables in room 13 at Longwood Elementary School, where paints, scissors, markers, construction paper and other colorful materials create an eye-catching jumble. Adult volunteer tutors are reviewing plans to create Moroccan “Good Luck Hands” — known in Arabic as khamsas — out of aluminum foil with 30 students, ages 6 through 12, who stream through the door.
Welcome to Day Two of Summer Learning Camp, a program run by the Hayward Public Library, staffed with volunteers and hosted by the Hayward Unified School District (HUSD). Day One emphasized math and science and included construction of baking soda volcanoes; today will cover history and computer skills (after creating khamsas, the kids will move to the next-door technology lab to research African tribes); and Day Three will cover reading and writing, culminating in puppet shows written and performed by the kids. “This isn’t daycare,” explains Bromstead, raising her voice as the volume of the children’s chatter grows. “The kids and parents all know that this time is for learning. We just try to make Summer Learning Camp a little more … active than their regular school activities.”
As a cooperative operation involving several agencies, Summer Learning Camp would have been hard to accomplish just a few years ago. While the library and school district share a mission — to educate children — the two often didn’t coordinate activities or communicate well, recalls Sean Reinert ’97, library and community services director for the city of Hayward. Politics, funding and turf got in the way.
But these are extraordinary times. The economic downturn has shrunk state revenues, which in turn has resulted in painful cuts to education, health, welfare and social services for society’s most vulnerable members, including programs benefiting children. And some experts on government and children’s services say previous levels of funding may never be restored. Fortunately, this “new normal” has only increased the resolve of people, including plenty of CSUEB alumni, who serve children through government, private and nonprofit programs. Many are seizing the opportunity to collaborate, tap new resources and invent creative, efficient programs for children in the community, from the alumna who started a nonprofit that provides school supplies and holiday activities for East Bay children in need (see “Putting Kids First,” page 19) to the alumnus who retired from the Walnut Creek police department and now helps young people make choices that lead them away from drugs and crime (see “Committed for Life,” page 40).
“One way we’re able to do more with less is by leveraging partnerships with other agencies,” says Reinhart. CSUEB students, faculty and alumni are important contributors to those partnerships, he notes.
The Cal State East Bay family is well-represented, for instance, at the Summer Learning Camp. Alumnus and site supervisor Bromstead is employed by the library, while Shayla Tommila, a sociology major who will graduate in June, and Wahab Abdul ’07, MA ’09, who studied history at CSUEB, volunteer as tutors. Tall and intense, animated and playful, Abdul helps the kids at his table trace their right hands onto foil as he explains that the khamsa represents protection, blessings and strength in Moroccan culture. Soon, 8-year-old camper Guadalupe’s khamsa is painted bright blue with a heart on the palm and golden sequins for fingernails, while 8-year-old Dulce’s artwork sports green and red pipe cleaner rings and a beaded bracelet. Each khamsa is as unique and lively as the child who created it.
“A lot of the students here don’t have the support system or other advantages that we had,” says Abdul, explaining why he volunteers. “Just being here and giving them that support — whether it’s for homework or through activities like this — makes a difference in their lives.”
Abdul is right: Children at Longwood — and many others in the East Bay — may need all the protection, blessings and strength that their khamsas can deliver. Longwood is among the 5 percent of schools in cash-strapped California with the lowest academic performance, as measured over a recent three-year period.
Many factors contribute to the challenges at Longwood and other East Bay schools. Money is just one: State funding for schools serving kindergarten through grade 12 in 2011-12 was $64.1 billion, down from $68.9 billion in 2007-08. In fall 2009 — the last year for which data is available — California public schools ranked 47th in staff-to-student ratio. The education budget is up slightly for 2012-13, and baseline education spending is guaranteed in the state constitution. Voters’ approval of Proposition 30 in November, Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax initiative that will raise about $6 million for schools, allowed the state to avoid additional painful cuts, but California’s revenue situation remains “volatile,” according to a recent San Francisco Chronicle editorial.
Certainly, children’s health services and childcare and development programs have taken hits in recent years. The 2012 state budget cut 26,000 childcare slots. CalWORKS, which is both a welfare-to-work and a child well-being program, now serves one in eight children — a bigger share than in 2007— but the maximum monthly cash benefit has dropped by about half since 1980, when adjusted for inflation. Taken together, the challenges facing children statewide are widespread. More than 50 percent of public school students live in low-income families, and more than 40 percent come from homes where English is not the primary language, which research shows makes success in all subjects — not just language arts, but also STEM subjects such as math and science — more difficult.
The connection between childhood poverty, difficulties in school and adult success are well documented, according to Susan B. Neuman, who earned an M.A. in reading supervision and administration from then-Cal State Hayward in 1974 and was granted an honorary doctorate from CSUH in 2003. Neuman, who began her educational career as a first grade teacher in Vallejo in 1969, is now professor of educational studies at the University of Michigan. She also served as U.S. assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education from 2001 to 2003. It’s no exaggeration to say she knows children’s needs from top to bottom, particularly as they relate to education.
And what she knows can be chilling. Children in poor communities have limited access to reading material, cognitive stimuli and other positive resources, Neuman says, and these early shortcomings are exacerbated as children get older. “Eventually, there are limitations on (their) social mobility” because of the lack of educational resources, Neuman says. “Those early differences have lifelong affects on their ability to live a quality life.”
The situation calls for a threefold response, Neuman says. First, educational resources must be targeted at schools in high-poverty communities — particularly those in the lowest five percent, like Longwood — rather than simply made comparable to high-performing schools. Second, Neuman advocates increased support for public libraries and related institutions, which serve as safe places where books and resources are available to all. And third, she believes in helping parents become active partners in their children’s education.
Collaborative Program, Huge Improvement
Neuman argues that the challenge in helping children is not one of dollars, but of focus. “I believe there’s plenty of money out there,” she says. “We just need to make decisions based on what works. We need to fund those programs that work, and not fund those that don’t.”
Hayward’s Homework Support Center (HSC) is one example of an efficient program that has proven its worth. Reinhart launched the HSC soon after he joined the Hayward Public Library in 2008. Within a couple of years, the after-school drop-in HSC was serving 40 to 50 students a day, four days a week, with one-on-one or small group homework help led by trained volunteers — many with CSUEB ties, Reinhart notes.
Lindsey Vien ’06 coordinates the HSC, which relies on an earmark from the federal Department of Education budget. (The program is free to participants.) After three years operating at two Hayward libraries and serving more than 750 individual children per year, 60 percent of whom don’t speak English at home, the program expanded in September 2011 to Longwood Elementary. Using library resources, volunteer tutors and Hayward Unified School District (HUSD) facilities, the Longwood center today serves almost 250 students on a regular basis.
The HSC is more than a feel-good program, Reinhart says. In fact, he has tested its effectiveness. An abbreviated, grade-level California STAR test was given to children who had visited the center three times, and administered to them again after 10 more visits. The students’ scores improved 13 percent, or what Reinhart calls “a huge improvement” in student achievement that also bolstered parent confidence in the program.
Reinhart says the success of the HSC, and the collaborative model it represents, contributed to the design of the Hayward Promise Neighborhood project, a CSUEB-led initiative that will focus interagency educational, community, health and other resources on children in Hayward’s Jackson Triangle neighborhood. Five more in-school HSCs will open by 2017 as part of Promise Neighborhood; other programs include early childhood development programs for preschool kids, parent education and group support to assist adults in the children’s lives, out of school time (OST) programs to give children positive options when they’re not in class and coordinated efforts to improve neighborhood safety, nutrition, access to healthcare and technology.
CSUEB is just one of five groups in the U.S. to receive a Promise Neighborhood implementation grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The university and its public and nonprofit sector partners — including HUSD, Chabot College, the City of Hayward and the Hayward Area Recreation and Park District (HARD) — are striving to create (in the words of its mission statement) a “world class cradle-to-college-to-career education and support system” to serve thousands of area children.
The Promise Neighborhood is modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), which began addressing poverty and its related challenges for Harlem’s children in the early 1990s using a multidisciplinary, interagency approach involving schools, health care, public safety, housing and other agencies. Early intervention was one key: “They found that if you wait until children (of poverty) walk through the door of the school (to start addressing their problems), the children are already standing in a hole,” says Melinda Hall, project manager of the Hayward Promise Neighborhood, describing the HCZ.
The Hayward Promise Neighborhood initiative creates three networks of organizations: one network providing learning services for children younger than school age, another focused on preschool through adult education and a third centered on health and neighborhood development. “It’s important for services to belong to a network because it helps with accountability,” Hall says. “They know they’re going to be collaborating with another group of folks to improve the situation for children.”
All of these Promise Neighborhood collaborators — including Cal State East Bay — kicked off their efforts at an Oct. 27 community festival and information fair at Harder Elementary School in Hayward. CSUEB President Leroy M. Morishita, Hayward Mayor Michael Sweeney ’72, MA ’74, and other dignitaries officially cut the ribbon for the program at the event, and some 40 agencies and service providers shared information with parents and students.
Hall believes the kickoff was just the beginning of collaborations that will continue after the Promise Neighborhood funding ends. “The idea is for these to be vibrant and alive networks,” she says of connections CSUEB is building and facilitating between groups that serve Hayward children. “Over the years they may pull in new partners, and some partners may go away, but we are working on system sustainability … They will become so used to working together that it will become a habit and will change their behavior.”
Reaching Them Early
The word “cradle” in the Promise Neighborhood mission suggests the value of identifying children in need as early as possible and bringing support and services to them. In fact, reaching children before they reach the cradle — by providing prenatal care to expectant mothers — is part of the Promise Neighborhood plan, Hall says.
Identifying needs and delivering services early — when challenges are easier to address — is a crucial goal because it increases odds of success and is more fiscally efficient in the long run. “With a lot of clinical problems, all the data speaks to the importance of early intervention,” says Associate Professor Nidhi Mahendra, chair of CSUEB’s Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders. “If you intervene early and intensively, you often don’t need to intervene forever.”
Under the supervision of Mahendra and her colleagues, graduate students have diagnosed childhood hearing loss for years at a subsidized on-campus clinic. The clinic’s low cost — as little as one-tenth the price of a private hearing test — reduced the financial barrier to widespread screening, but it didn’t cut the time and opportunity cost (such as lost wages) to parents bringing children to campus for appointments. That changed in 2007, when the department pooled more than $125,000 in grants to purchase and equip a mobile audiology van, the first of its kind in the East Bay to bring hearing services to childcare facilities, schools and Head Start centers.
“We’ve been able to expand the service options, and the population to whom we’re offering those services, with the van,” Mahendra says. “We’re doing fewer screenings in the on-campus clinic — which is great, because we’re able to do them where the children who need these services actually are.” Nearly 1,000 children annually receive hearing screenings, while CSUEB graduate students receive important clinical training.
Tearing Down Silos
Increasing and improving services to children, even in an era of belt-tightening, is in sharp contrast to the compartmentalized, turf-based systems that may have limited the effectiveness of children’s services in the past. In today’s economic environment, early childhood education programs, parent involvement programs, libraries, schools, nonprofits and other programs that serve children must collaborate and cooperate to effectively meet their mission, children’s advocates argue.
“We need all of those things, working in concert,” says Neuman, the former U.S. assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education. “We need to recognize that our children will not be successful unless we create a more all-embracing community set of supports.”
The Hayward library’s Reinhart puts it another way: “We’re coming to the realization, as public agencies in this community, that we’re all in this together. We have shared goals, but we also share in the community’s problems.” He’s optimistic that the East Bay’s schools, public agencies, nonprofits, businesses and citizens — assisted by the university’s network of scholars, students and alumni — can and will break down the old-style silos that, in the past, caused children’s services to be fragmented and inefficient.
“From the child’s perspective, they don’t see those silos,” Reinhart says. “They just know that this is their community. They — and their parents — don’t care which agency we are; they just want to see their children educated, their streets clean and their community safe.”