In the heart of one of the poorest neighborhoods in Oklahoma City, in a state-of-the-art facility beside the railroad tracks, the smell of fresh-baked bread and cookies wafts down the halls, which wind around the building to simulate streets in a town.
This is Educare, a premiere early childhood education and child care program, and Oklahoma City is one of only a handful of cities to claim one. In fact, at the time OKC Educare opened this summer, Oklahoma was the only state to have two Educare centers. (Tulsa’s opened in 2006.)
OKC Educare provides developmental child care and education to 200 low-income children, ages birth to five. A product of Oklahoma’s George Kaiser Family Foundation and Inasmuch Foundation among other partners, it is a model program based on research indicating that if at-risk children are provided with the right kind of care and services early enough, the trajectory of their learning curve can change over time. Other foundations have joined Educare’s public-private partnership bandwagon, including household names like the Gates Foundation, the Buffett Early Childhood Fund, and the Steve Nash Foundation.
Low-income children start out behind the bar, so the Educare model is designed to give them a leg up. Nobel Laureate economist James Heckman estimates that certain investments in early childhood education yield a 10 percent rate of return. The FPG Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina, which is conducting the evaluation of Educare, says that
Young children from low-income, distressed environments start school far behind their more advantaged peers. This achievement gap persists to high school and is linked to social and economic problems later in life, including illiteracy, teen pregnancy, high drop-out rates and unemployment.”
Educare isn’t all about the building, though it is the kind of place that even the highest income families would want to send their children to if they could. Educare’s focus is on providing quality education, even to its youngest attendees. Students attend school all day and all year. Each classroom is required to have one teacher with a bachelor’s degree, another teacher with at least an associate’s degree and a teacher’s aide. Groups of classrooms are supervised by teachers with master’s degrees in early childhood education. Teachers even design lesson plans for babies; more tummy time is scheduled for infants who do not have enough strength built up in their necks, for example.
Based on the notion that children are more likely to succeed when they have support from their family, Educare strives to meet the needs of low-income parents so that they can in turn better meet their children’s needs. Adults are the focus of a third of the operating budget of centers. OKC Educare offers parents a play therapy room, and a research computer room where they can search for anything from employment to recipes. Since parents are required to either work or be in school, the center also provides a satellite library and a separate classroom for sick children, so parents don’t have to risk losing a job to pick up a sick child from school. Family advocates are available to visit with parents every day when they pick up their children.
Educare isn’t cheap, however. OKC’s facility cost more than $9 million to build, and the annual operating budget is $3.5 million. That’s about $17,500 per pupil, which more than doubles Oklahoma’s average per pupil spending of $7,420. Educare proponents say that the center’s funding is sustainable because it combines public and private funding streams, including Early Head Start, Head Start, and OKC public schools Pre-K funding, in addition to United Way and foundation contributions. Yet, with 8,900 children eligible for OKC’s Educare, and only 200 served, it begs the question, is the model replicable?
All Educare centers submit data on families, children and staff to evaluators at the University of North Carolina. Early results appear to be promising: Educare is succeeding in preparing at-risk children for later academic achievement. If it is like other innovative early childhood programs, the gains are small compared to the price tag, however. It is too early to tell if the impact of Educare exceeds the cost.
Oklahoma is ahead of the curve in many areas of early childhood education. We have a higher percentage of four-year-olds enrolled in publicly funded pre-K than any other state, and Oklahoma’s Pilot Early Childhood Program is the envy of many jurisdictions. Educare is another notch in our early childhood belt, one that we expect will have an ongoing positive impact on the children who attend, their families, and the state as a whole. Time will tell whether it is sustainable and replicable, but in the interim, we applaud the vision of our early childhood education leaders, who, instead of getting lost in the same old debates over funding, have taken a chance on an innovative approach.