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The Kingsley House Effect 

This nonprofit institution's early childhood development programs provide more than just a solid foundation for a youngster's education; they also help strengthen the family.

Jaeda Barrett wants her mommy. Not even a delicious meal complete with scrambled eggs, grits, pears and a teacher gently restraining her can deter this willful 2-year-old from tearfully reaching out for her mother, Jeanna Barrett, who stands a few feet away in the Kingsley House cafeteria. Mom realizes she's going to have to make a quick getaway if she expects Jaeda's tirade to end soon.

"Separation anxiety," Barrett explains as she walks out of the small cafeteria where groups of toddlers and preschoolers sit at rows of tables contently munching their breakfasts. It's a noisy and boisterous scene with parents bringing kids into the center or helping serve food while numerous teachers and aides swarm about making sure every child is attended to.

Maybe if Jaeda knew she couldn't be in a better place than Kingsley House, which houses a federally funded Early Head Start (EHS) program for youngsters from 11 months to 3 years old, she might stop crying. Doubtful, but the fact remains that in a city where available childcare for infants and toddlers is woefully inadequate and poses a barrier for many families who want to return to New Orleans, Kingsley House stands out as a model for effective early childcare.

Kingsley House has repeatedly been acknowledged for its service to the community, including its work with very young children and their families. Recent awards and recognitions include: accreditation by the Council On Accreditation, which sets high standards for human service organizations; Louisiana Association of Nonprofits' Seal of Excellence, the only New Orleans nonprofit to have this designation; the 2006 City Business Nonprofit Innovator of the Year award; special recognition by former Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton for agency excellence in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; a $160,000 award from Fore! Kids Foundation to expand pre-school and EHS capacities; and selection by United Way's "Success by Six" program as one of three mentoring agencies for other childcare providers throughout New Orleans.

Accolades for excellence and good work are not new to Kingsley House. From its beginnings in 1896, when Trinity Epsicopal Church opened it as a "settlement house" that dispensed social services to area residents, it has been a vital part of its Irish Channel neighborhood and is the oldest continuously existing facility of its kind in the South. In the early days, it opened a reading room and lending library, had a free dispensary for food and medicines, worked with doctors and dentists to provide medical services, established clubs for people in the neighborhood and started the state's first kindergarten and summer school programs. It later opened a swimming pool and gym. Kingsley House fought for child labor laws, worked for better housing conditions and health care as well as leading the way for the city's nonprofits to work with federal funding for community programs. Its programs spawned both the Tulane School of Social Work and Lighthouse for the Blind, and New Orleans Recreation Department descended from public playgrounds and sports programs pioneered by Kingsley House.

SHEILA MATUTE, KINGSLEY HOUSE'S EHS program manager, is watching the kids eat while she greets parents as they enter the center. She points out that parents don't rush in and drop off their kids; they take time to chat with their child's teachers or assist with serving breakfast. This kind of parental involvement is established as soon as a child is accepted into the program.

"As an educator, when I talk to the parents about their child's education, maybe they are only interested in someone taking care of their child," Matute says. "Well we're not here to just take care of their child. We're here to set the standards for what education is all about."

Of course, taking care of the children's immediate physical needs are part of the EHS program. The center provides each child with a well-balanced breakfast and lunch, and youngsters spend their days at Kingsley House in a safe, sheltered environment

In Jaeda's class, there are eight children, two teachers and often two teacher's aides. This one-to-four ratio of teachers to students is a federal requirement of the EHS program and one of the building blocks for many of the program's other educational standards. With fewer children to attend to, teachers have ample time to concentrate on their four students, observe them and guide their progress. Keith Leiderman, executive director at Kingsley House, says this ratio isn't typical.

"It's hard to find in early childcare, where you're going to get a one-to-four ratio for infants and toddlers," Leiderman says. "You're not going to see ratios even close to that in your traditional childcare center."

In conjunction with the small teacher-to-student ratio, there is the issue of room size. Children need their own space. As a state-licensed childcare center as well as an EHS center, Kingsley House is required to have at least 35 square feet per child indoors and 75 square feet per child outdoors. In order to maintain this, Kingsley House has 13 classrooms for the 52 children in the EHS program. Jaeda's room is large, open and well lit, with a Plexiglas wall facing the hallway so parents and administrators can observe what is going on inside without entering the classroom.

The teachers round out the building blocks for the program's educational standards, and Kingsley House rises above the federal EHS benchmark for teacher qualifications. EHS requires a teacher to be certified as a child development associate, which is a national credential and it takes about a year to qualify for. Kingsley House requires that its teachers in the EHS or Head Start (HS) program, which is for kids 3 to 5 years old, at least have an associate degree in early education. Many of the center's teachers hold bachelor's degrees in early childhood education.

Ethel Woodard, Jaeda's teacher, has a bachelor's degree in elementary education with a concentration in early childhood from Southern University. She joined Kingsley House in February and has enrolled her 1-year-old son, Jaden Love, in the center's program. Sharing the classroom with her is Elisha Thompson, who has an associate degree from Delgado Community College and is on target to graduate with a bachelor's degree in early childhood education from Dillard University next year. Thompson's son, Kyron Goodmond, also attends Kingsley House. This is common. Many of the center's employees have family members who participate in various services -- adult daycare, Head Start, or summer camp -- and Leiderman thinks this plays a role in retaining a quality staff.

"We have a high percentage of staff with children participating, parents in senior programs, etc.," he says. "We also have a high percentage that have come up through Kingsley House programs themselves."

BY NOW BREAKFAST IS OVER AND JAEDA and her classmates have made their way into their classroom. The kids are moving about, and Woodward, Thompson and two teaching assistants, Tami Luke and Lillian Armwood, manage to keep up with the fast-moving toddlers. To the untrained eye, it might appear that the kids are just wandering around, but Matute refers to what they're doing as "self-directed play." The room is set up with many different areas: dramatic play, discovery, blocks, music and a library. The children select the area where they want to be, and the teachers follow their lead.

Jaeda may think she's just playing when she's pretending to cook a meal in the dramatic play area's tiny kitchen, but as Matute points out, "They are doing things that are part of daily life -- dressing up or cooking -- which helps with their social development and social responsibility."

"Every moment is a teaching experience for us and a learning experience for the kids," Thompson adds.

The teachers do help guide the youngsters in some of their selections. For instance when Jaeda's parents, Darryl and Jeanna Barrett, decide to visit her class, which parents are encouraged to do often and at any time of the day, they find Woodard and Thompson have put smocks on the kids and have laid out coloring markers and paper on small round tables. Those are the only cues the kids need for art class to begin.

These kinds of suggestions let the youngsters know the class is transitioning from one activity to another. Within a few days, the children will realize that music appreciation ends when the music stops and that means they'll move to another activity. Like the students, the teachers are learning as well. For the first 45 days of this new school year, they will observe the children and then formulate individual education plans, which are updated and recorded weekly and stored in the children's folders. Each plan lists a child's strengths and current skill levels in various categories such as self-help, speech and language as well as a goal for them to work toward. In the category of speech and language, for example, if a 2-year-old isn't very verbal, the child's goal might be to say at least 20 words every day.

Unfortunately, Jaeda hasn't forgotten her separation anxiety so the Barretts have to leave the class without talking with Woodard about their child's progress. It's OK though, it's not the first time they've met Woodard. Before Jaeda started in her class, Woodard already had introduced herself to the Barretts and the three of them discussed Jaeda's development and what they wanted to see in the future.

At Kingsley House, teachers and children aren't the only ones concerned with educational standards -- the EHS program requires parents' participation.

As a two-parent household, the Barretts are atypical at Kingsley House. Single female-headed households make up 90 percent of the families the center's EHS program serves. Another difference between the Barretts and most of the families in the program is the couple's level of education. Jeanna Barrett earned a Bachelor of Science in chemistry degree from Xavier University, and Darryl graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in computer information systems from Loyola University. Sadly, their college degrees didn't prevent them from sharing the common denominator of nearly all of the families participating in EHS and HS: poverty.

EHS and HS parent applicants must have incomes below or at the federal guidelines for poverty. For a family of two, a parent and child, this translates into a yearly income of $13,200. The only exception to this rule is for disabled children. Regardless of income, any child with a physical or mental disability automatically qualifies for these programs, which are funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In New Orleans, Total Community Action (TCA), a nonprofit community services provider, is the local EHS and HS grantee, and federal dollars are funneled through TCA to individual EHS and HS facilities. Currently, there are only four EHS centers with a total of 120 children, which is "not even a drop in the bucket," considering the high demand and need for EHS in the city, says James Evans, deputy director of operations for TCA. There are 350 names on the waiting list for EHS at Kingsley House alone. Before the storm, Evans says, there were seven EHS centers with 204 children participating. TCA hopes to have three more buildings up and running with 72 new slots by early next year, but these plans do not come with any new federal money.

"There hasn't been any additional funding allocated to increase EHS slots," Evans says. "This lack of available slots was a problem pre-Katrina -- it's even bigger now. We have many more people requesting EHS than ever before."

Darryl and Jeanna applied to the Kingsley House EHS program in 2002. At the time, the couple had an infant daughter, Daryanna, and another daughter, Anjerrica, who had just entered kindergarten at Bauduit Elementary School. Darryl, who is disabled and unable to work, was staying home with Daryanna while Jeanna worked as a pharmacy technician. Because Darryl wasn't receiving any disability assistance, the family of four was trying to survive on less than $20,000 a year. Darryl has two slipped discs in his neck, which severely limits his ability to lift any object and prevents him from any repetitive movements. Taking care of an infant demands lifting and repetitive motion; the Barretts needed early childhood care for Daryanna.

They heard about Kingsley House from the other parents at Bauduit, applied for the EHS program, qualified and were put on a waiting list. According to Matute, when slots become available, a list of potential applicants is generated. Each applicant is assigned a score based on a rating system that takes into account various criteria such as hardship and income -- the greater the need, the higher the score. Darryl didn't want Kingsley House to forget about his family, so he made calls to the center every week.

"They knew they had a parent who would be involved," Darryl says, remembering his numerous phone calls. After seven months, a slot finally opened up for Daryanna.

Another requirement of EHS is that parents have to be working, attending school or in a job-training program because for EHS to really work, parents have to try to improve their family's situation. As Leiderman explains, Kingsley House wants to assist the entire family, not just the child in the program.

"If you think about the individual as just existing in a vacuum, you've missed the boat," he says. "When we work with a child that's coming into the EHS program, we're working with the child in the context of their family because there's all of this interaction happening between the child and the family constantly.

"We work with that family in the context of their community. We recognize there are many environmental issues going on -- safety and security, housing, crime, schools and everything else -- in the greater world that revolves around the family. The family revolves around the child and these lines are always being crossed."

Like all EHS programs, Kingsley House enters into a family agreement with parents enrolling children in the program. Kingsley House calls this agreement the parent partnership, because the program doesn't want to dictate the agreement's goals to the parents. Instead of telling the parents what areas they need to improve, staff social workers ask questions about the family's strengths, its needs and where it would like to be.

In the case of the Barretts, the family had always rented a home and thought owning would have a stabilizing influence. The social worker assigned to the Barretts told them about the Individual Development Account (IDA), a dedicated savings account that can be used to purchase a first home, start a small business or pay educational or job training expenses. TCA offers the IDA, and participants who put money into these accounts get a two-to-one match for every dollar saved. The Barretts have deposited money in their IDA for three years and have accumulated enough for a deposit on a house. They will move into their new home this month.

Parent volunteering is just as vital to Kingsley House's EHS program as the parent partnership. All EHS programs expect parents to volunteer, but Kingsley House requires a minimum of 100 hours per parent. Matute insists that these volunteer hours "aren't cookie and punch time." Parents serve meals, clean rooms, chaperone field trips, sit on governing boards and even paint when necessary. Matute says this dedication makes parents realize how integral they are to their child's education.

"We're helping parents learn what their role needs to be in their child's academic success," she explains. "No child can do this by themselves."

Because of his disability, Darryl Barrett can't do the more physically demanding volunteer work. Plus, he admits there's another reason he doesn't spend much time volunteering in the classroom. "The truth is I'm not really good with children," he says. "It's not my niche, but there are a lot of other things you can do to fill these needs."

He does work well with adults. During the Barretts' first year at Kingsley House, Darryl served as president of the parents' association. The next year he became a parent policy council representative. He would attend meetings held at TCA regarding EHS and HS and report to the parents' association any policy changes or new programs available through TCA. For the past two years, Darryl has been the parent representative on the Kingsley House board of directors.

Jeanna Barrett volunteers in the classroom. She also accompanies the class on field trips, and, like Darryl, has been the parent association president.

Since each parent in the EHS program provides numerous hours of free labor, it offsets some of the program's costs. Considering the small teacher-to-student ratio, two meals per day served, degreed teachers, health screenings and a social worker assigned to each family, it seems almost miraculous that the annual cost of the EHS program per child is only $6,500. That number becomes even more impressive when you consider that sum not only benefits a child but a whole family as well. The $6,500 is focused on the child's care, but that allows a parent to work, go to school or get vocational training. Plus, the social worker looks at the whole family's needs, not just the child's. According to the 2005 report "Investing in the Child Care Industry," commissioned by the Louisiana Department of Social Services, for every dollar spent on childcare, $1.72 is returned to the economy, and for each new childcare job, 1.27 additional jobs are produced.

This kind of investment allows taxpayers to pay much less now than they might have to spend later, Leiderman says. "It's about $22,000 (two years of EHS costs $13,000 and two years of HS costs $9,000) for a quality early childhood education from 11 months to age five. Take that $22,000 and compare that to what happens within the prison system."

Louisiana's Department of Public Safety and Corrections proudly boasts that the state has the country's second lowest per-year incarceration cost at $11,924. Four years of incarceration costs taxpayers $47,696.

HOW DOES KINGSLEY HOUSE MANAGE TO be so efficient? Leiderman says the HS model is well established as being cost effective -- and it has to be, because $6,500 per child is the limit the federal government is willing to pay. Funding must be stretched, and because Kingsley House is a mentoring agency for the United Way's "Success by Six" program, it receives some additional funding from the United Way.

Although assisting the entire family is part of the Kingsley House model, not all services can be paid for through EHS funds. Kingsley House is a multiple-program complex, however, so parents can get their needs met.

"We have a whole array of services that are focused on early intervention that we're able to bring to the table for every single preschool or EHS family that steps in our doors," explains Leiderman. "If a family member is having a mental-health issue, we have counselors that can work with that family at no additional cost. It's not part of the EHS program, but it is part of the Kingsley House structure."

Underscoring all of Kingsley House's efforts is the board of directors. Skip Brechtel is board president and a successful businessman. He grew up just a block away from Kingsley House and says three generations of his family have benefited from the center. Brechtel feels that part of Kingsley House's success can be attributed to it being a private nonprofit that's run like a private enterprise with a diverse board.

"I think it's a strength because our board members are a combination of successful business people and education-focused individuals that bring their expertise to the table."

Todd Battiste, vice president of Children and Families for the Greater New Orleans United Way, founded "Success by Six," which focuses on improving daycares throughout the state. Before naming Kingsley House a mentoring agency for other daycares, Battiste and his "Success by Six" collaborative studied successful daycare programs and decided that all these programs have two common features: budgeting and strong board development. Battiste also believes that for Kingsley House, size matters, giving them advantages over other places.

"Some of your smaller neighborhood childcare centers have to deal with the day-to-day operations, payroll, hiring, budgeting and accounting," Battiste says. "Kingsley House is large enough that they have additional staff that can handle these responsibilities, letting the childcare staff ... concentrate only on the children."

Maintaining and retaining any size staff is particularly difficult these days. Before Hurricane Katrina, there were 135 people working for Kingsley House. That number was 32 after the storm. Today, the staff is almost back to its pre-Katrina level. Adrian Todd, associate director for programs, says that it's a struggle to keep up with increases in teachers' salaries, but adds that Kingsley House offers a positive work environment, not always found elsewhere.

"People come to Kingsley House because they need jobs," Todd says, "but they stay here because they believe in what we do -- our commitment to quality -- and they buy into that."

Leiderman, Todd, and Matute must have bought into this belief as well; each has been at the center for more than 10 years. Compare that to the number of people, at least five, who have gone through the revolving door of the office of school superintendent for New Orleans Public Schools during the same time period.

If Leiderman was to assign one method for other daycares to replicate Kingsley House's success, it would be the accreditation process, he says. Kingsley House is one of only six agencies in the state accredited by the Council on Accreditation, a nationally recognized group that painstakingly evaluates agencies before granting its approval.

"The only way I know that you can ensure high-quality nonprofits is through accreditation," Leiderman states. "There's a lot of different accrediting bodies, but this has to be meaningful, where national experts actually come out, look at records and observe."

Which is precisely why the United Way's Women's Leadership Initiative (WLI) chose Kingsley House for its five-year, $250,000 pilot program on childcare. "It's not just about childcare for us," states WLI Chairman Flo Schornstein. "It's about quality childcare, and that means accreditation. If the Kingsley House model could be duplicated in more areas, New Orleans would have a more solid foundation of young children zero to six benefiting from a high-quality learning experience."

For Sheila Matute and her team of EHS teachers and support staff, the main concern is making sure their kids continue to grow, learn and successfully transition to a preschool class when they are 3 years old. Often this means a child moving up to the Head Start program within Kingsley House. This gives the staff an opportunity to see firsthand the effect of EHS. Matute is very satisfied with the results.

"When the children leave my Early Head Start program and they go into a preschool program, they know where they are," Matute says. "This is measured by their ability to interact socially and to have social responsibility. This is clear and evidenced by their early accomplishment profile, which is an assessment tool. We know when children go from EHS to Head Start that they are really doing well."

Daryanna Barrett, Jaeda's older sister, is an excellent example of a child smoothly transitioning from EHS to preschool, and she also illustrates how her parents became advocates for her education. Daryanna went through the EHS program and graduated into Kingsley House's HS program. When she turned 4 years old, her parents saw a chance to get her enrolled in Audubon Montessori School, one of the city's high-achieving public schools. The Barretts thought it would be better to get Daryanna in Audubon's pre-kindergarten class now so she would automatically be placed in the kindergarten class.

Matute considers this kind of thought process to be one of the greatest lessons parents can learn from Kingsley House. "It's your right as a parent to demand that your child is in a classroom where learning will take place," she says.

This academic calendar marks the final year the Barretts will be at Kingsley House. Jeanna has become an educator herself and works for the My House Center for Learning, where she is the director for the community science workshop. Jaeda will graduate from the EHS program and follow her sister to Audubon Montessori. Darrel says he will miss the learning and familial environment at Kingsley House but realizes that by moving on, the Barretts are opening a door for others.

"I always tell people that these programs have a dual meaning: it's catered directly to the child, but indirectly for the entire family," Barrett says. "When we leave, we open a spot for another family to have the kind of opportunity we've had."

click to enlarge Kingsley House sits on three acres of land and maintains a - beautiful place that is safe and comfortable for the people - who participate in its programs. - TRACIE MORRIS SCHAEFER
  • Tracie Morris Schaefer
  • Kingsley House sits on three acres of land and maintains a beautiful place that is safe and comfortable for the people who participate in its programs.
click to enlarge Jeanna Barrett, her daughters, Jaeda -- who is in the - Early Head Start Program at Kingsley House -- and - Daryanna -- who also went there -- and husband Darryl - see the early childhood development programs as a way - to help their children and their whole family. - TRACIE MORRIS SCHAEFER
  • Tracie Morris Schaefer
  • Jeanna Barrett, her daughters, Jaeda -- who is in the Early Head Start Program at Kingsley House -- and Daryanna -- who also went there -- and husband Darryl see the early childhood development programs as a way to help their children and their whole family.
click to enlarge Jaeda reads a book to herself in the library section of her - classroom, which has a variety of areas for different - activities, at Kingsley House. - TRACIE MORRIS SCHAEFER
  • Tracie Morris Schaefer
  • Jaeda reads a book to herself in the library section of her classroom, which has a variety of areas for different activities, at Kingsley House.
click to enlarge Kingsley House has a rich history of helping neighborhood - residents and serving as a hub of activity since it opened in - 1896, as illustrated by this procession for the center - around the turn of the century. - HOWARD-TILTON MEMORIAL LIBRARY, TULANE UNIVERSITY
  • Howard-Tilton Memorial Library, Tulane University
  • Kingsley House has a rich history of helping neighborhood residents and serving as a hub of activity since it opened in 1896, as illustrated by this procession for the center around the turn of the century.
click to enlarge First Lady Pat Nixon visits Kingsley House in 1970.
  • First Lady Pat Nixon visits Kingsley House in 1970.
click to enlarge Children can choose their own activities, such as pretend - cooking, reading, making art or grocery shopping. "They - are doing things that are part of daily life -- dressing up - or cooking -- which helps with their social development - and social responsibility. Every moment is a teaching - experience for us and a learning experience for the - kids," teacher Elisha Thompson says. - TRACIE MORRIS SCHAEFER
  • Tracie Morris Schaefer
  • Children can choose their own activities, such as pretend cooking, reading, making art or grocery shopping. "They are doing things that are part of daily life -- dressing up or cooking -- which helps with their social development and social responsibility. Every moment is a teaching experience for us and a learning experience for the kids," teacher Elisha Thompson says.
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