University Park, IL,
14:59 PM

Family Development Center Achievement Data Debunks Stereotype

Along the halls of the Family Development Center at Governors State, the classrooms are not numbered. Instead, they’re called things like Rainbow and Tulip Room. Inside Rainbow, a little boy, approximately four years old, orbits the room, giddy with a piece of paper in his hands. On it, he has written a capital letter F in green crayon that he plans to give to his mom. On the other side of the room, two girls build a perimeter together with blocks while another sends dry beans sliding down a cardboard incline between two washtubs.

In an infant and toddler room, three teachers watch over eight little ones, ages 6 weeks to 2. One teacher reads to a small group while another leads two toddlers in a song. The third worker rocks a six-month-old while she feeds him a mid-morning bottle. Every teacher at the FDC holds a degree in early childhood education, some from GSU.

Amidst all of this fun, there is learning. On the surface, it looks like play, but this is how the children learn to make sense of the world around them at GSU’s Family Development Center. The teachers’ lesson plans are centered on play-based learning activities that result in real learning outcomes in early mathematics, language, and literacy. Children leave the FDC ready to succeed in kindergarten.

Last month, the Black Child Development Institute of Chicago released a report backing that up. According to that report, titled Being Black is Not a Risk Factor: Statistics and Strengths-Based Solutions in the State of Illinois, the FDC is a “Point of Proof” that Black children and families can and do succeed, on a range of measures, across many communities.

Data from a 2013 index shows the center’s children to be meeting or exceeding 92% of the standardized indicators for school readiness. 85% of the enrollment meets or exceeds the targeted language proficiency, 78% meet or exceed literacy expectations, and 66% are at or above level in mathematics.

With a diverse enrollment, 66% of the students at the FDC are Black. The remaining 34% breaks down as 22% White, 7% Biracial, 5% Latino, and less than 5% Asian or Native American. A majority of the center’s enrollment comes from low income homes, placing them “at risk for school failure.”

Despite those odds, the FDC’s children flourish. Carol Morrison, Executive Director of the FDC, authored the facility summary and collected the statistics that went into the BCDI report.

“We’re just doing good school. We’re just doing really good practices. We’re doing what everybody should be doing,” Morrison said. “Low income is a risk factor, you know, being below the poverty level. Another risk factor is having a high-risk pregnancy. Having a low birth weight, coming from a single-parent home, these are risk factors (in early education success). Black is not a risk factor.”

Morrison is quick to point out that the center is more than a day care or a preschool. Its reach goes far beyond its hours of operation, and this is so much of what makes the FDC a success.

“We take a comprehensive approach. We have caseworkers who work with our families, we have a social services person – if the family has needs, we can help them set and meet those goals,” she said.

Caseworkers often begin working with families during the prenatal period, helping them to connect with whatever resources they may need during that crucial time before birth. With an average waiting list of 40 children, Morrison said that this is the best way to guarantee a place at the FDC.

Jennifer Armstrong Ph.D., CCC-SLP, Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Disorders at GSU, agrees that one of the FDC’s great strengths lies in their holistic approach.

“They look at the entire child. They’ve structured the environment—the classrooms, the hallways, the atrium—to support the children and reinforce who they are. They support their language, their learning,” Armstrong said. “They’re reinforcing the entire child through their work with families. It’s a space where children can express themselves emotionally and the teachers are able to reinforce their understanding of their experience.”

Armstrong’s students conduct language and hearing screenings at the FDC as part of their own learning, and she holds language and literacy workshops for the parents and teachers involved with the center.

As Armstrong pointed out, the architecture plays a role in the center’s success. At the FDC, children are given room to grow. Originally designed to be a charter school, it features greenhouse atriums in between all of the classrooms. These heated, vault-ceilinged spaces are furnished with sandboxes and picnic areas. The glass panels bring in all of the natural light of the outdoors and allow the center’s children to “play outside” even in the frostiest depths of Chicago’s winters.

Weather allowing, all of the children spend a minimum of 30 minutes in the real outside during the day – although Morrison said that in nice weather, that time climbs and reaches into the hours – and each age group has access to its own developmentally-appropriate playground. In the preschool yard, a pretend post office, outdoor xylophone, and a small bridge pepper the landscape surrounding traditional playground apparatus.

“It all starts at this age,” Morrison said.

For Armstrong, communication is the key, and she believes that some research has mistakenly confused socioeconomics with race.

“I think that a lot of the literature in the past has suggested that Black children do not have the same skills when compared with other children their age, and I train my students to not walk in with those negatives ideas of The Black Child,” she said. “Part of the beauty in being culturally responsible is that you can use culture as a positive influence. We have to validate the beauty of the culture and show them there are various ways we communicate with each other. For me, I know if they can have a better understanding of who they are, then they can better relate to other people and who they are.”

Morrison, proud to see the FDC included in this report, watches a preschool class in the yard. Two boys zip past her on tricycles.

“There are people in the world who think they’re Black, they’re low income, and they’re not gonna make it. They’re wrong.”