November 20, 2009

‘Every child deserves a childhood’: St. Mary’s Child Center uses innovative approach to help at-risk children

Educator Pat Hughes reads to 3-, 4- and 5-year-old children at St. Mary’s Child Center in Indianapolis, which is affiliated with the archdiocesan Secretariat for Catholic Education and Faith Formation. The center offers an early childhood education that its staff believes can improve the lives of at-risk children. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Educator Pat Hughes reads to 3-, 4- and 5-year-old children at St. Mary’s Child Center in Indianapolis, which is affiliated with the archdiocesan Secretariat for Catholic Education and Faith Formation. The center offers an early childhood education that its staff believes can improve the lives of at-risk children. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

Skipping into the classroom, the smiling 5-year-old boy doesn’t realize that he’s benefiting from a different approach to early childhood education which is designed to give at-risk children a fighting chance in life.

He’s still grinning as he passes the sign on the classroom door that proclaims, “Dreams and desires must be a part of the quality of everyday life.”

Soon, he picks up a tape measure and begins measuring everything in sight—a table, a bookcase, his teacher’s foot—never realizing that his teacher is using his interest in the tool to help him with recognizing and counting numbers.

He even measures his white binder—the one filled with photos of him looking happy and involved, and handwritten notes that reveal he likes to go to the zoo, wants to be an Indianapolis Colts’ football player when he grows up, and plans to set aside bubblegum for the reindeer on Christmas.

Moments later, when a teacher’s aide plays Michael Jackson’s song “Beat It” on a CD player, the boy breaks into a moonwalk, gliding past signs on the classroom walls that ask, “What will you build today?” and “What are the characters in your favorite book?” and “What’s your story about?”

Well, this story is about St. Mary’s Child Center in Indianapolis and its innovative efforts to help 3-, 4- and 5-year-old children whose challenges in life can range from growing up in poverty to living in dangerous neighborhoods and settings marked by neglect, drugs and violence.

Learning through interaction

Since 1961, St. Mary’s Child Center has been striving to live up to the sign that greets people today as they enter the facility at 901 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St.—“Every Child Deserves A Childhood.”

Since 2001, the staff at the center has tried to fulfill that belief through an innovative approach to early childhood education which was developed in Reggio Emilia, Italy. The educational approach focuses on the child’s interests in learning, working from the belief that “children learn best through interaction with others, including parents, staff and peers in a friendly learning environment.”

“It’s real easy to think, ‘Poor child, sad child,’ ” says Connie Sherman, the executive director of St. Mary’s Child Center. “But in this approach, the image of the child is strong, competent and capable. We believe our children are extremely capable, and we expect a lot.”

Those early childhood years are crucial to children who grow up in poverty, Sherman says.

“Children who grow up in poverty generally go into school one or two years behind developmentally,” Sherman says. “When they go into kindergarten, they may look like a 5-year-old, but developmentally they are at a 3-year-old level.

“Studies show that by the time they go to first grade, children need to be read to 1,000 to 1,700 hours to be successful in school. While that’s generally the case for middle class children, research shows that poor children are read to an average of 25 hours in the six years leading up to kindergarten. They go to school two years behind, the gap widens and then they drop out along the way. It’s not that our families don’t care. They just have a lot of challenges.”

Sherman cites a study that tracked two groups from the time they grew up as children from a poor, urban background until they were 40. One group had a high quality early childhood education. The other group didn’t.

“The group that had the high quality early childhood education was healthier, they had higher graduation rates, they made more money, and they had happier marriages,” she says. “Their rate of incarceration was half that of the other group.”

The wonder of learning

As a teacher, Mimi Milhauser has seen the difference it makes when a child is given a choice in what he or she wants to learn.

“I love that these children can be creative and use their imaginations and learn what they want to learn,” says Milhauser, who is in her second year of teaching at the center. “Before coming here, I taught first grade in a typical school setting and the children didn’t have the choices they have here. They weren’t able to use their creativity as much as they can here.”

Milhauser acknowledges it took time for her to let the children do what they want to do instead of what she told them to do.

“The difference I see is that they enjoy learning here,” she says. “They seem to have fun and enjoy themselves because they are making choices. When they leave here, they will think of learning as fun. They can be creative, they can have choices, and they can speak their minds.”

While the focus is on the wonder of learning for the 170 students at the center, there is also a lot of work being done by the children. The walls of the center and its classrooms are filled with the artwork and the projects of students.

“We want children to be able to work together, to ask questions, to work on projects that are long-term, in-depth and child-driven,” says Lynné McGuire, the center’s director of curriculum and outreach.

“We work in smaller groups. We have 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds in the same classroom. We try to give the children many opportunities to express themselves. It’s not uncommon for our children to build a building, then draw it, and then write a story about it. We don’t want our children to become part of the video game generation.”

The children at the center come from diverse backgrounds. In one classroom, an Asian child sits next to a white child who sits next to a black child who sits next to a Hispanic child. Soon, they are on their feet together, dancing to a song and flashing huge smiles. They live in that moment, never thinking about their futures. Yet that’s the overriding focus of the staff at the center.

“We have always been a really good school,” Sherman says. “When we were an American traditional school, we were meeting all the standards of best practices. But I’d have kids lined up outside my door because they were crying, sad or having an outburst. The issues about behavior were huge. Today, they’re rare. In fact, it was such a change that we were wondering if we were having the same kind of kids as before. They are the same kind of children, but you wouldn’t know it.

“What we want to do is provide the highest quality early childhood education available because we know it will change their lives, and they’ll become happy, successful adults.”

(An exhibit focusing on the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education is on display at the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis through Dec. 18. The exhibit is called “The Wonder of Learning.”)

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