It’s part report card, part road map.
“We specifically support families from high-poverty areas, more specifically, D.C. families experiencing homelessness,” said Anthony Sims, director of organizational learning at Bright Beginnings, which has two campuses in Southeast Washington and is a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand.
These are parents who want the best for their children — after all, they’ve made the decision to enroll them at Bright Beginnings — but who may not have all the tools to provide for them. Or they may themselves be mired in circumstances that make parenting difficult.
That’s where the self-sufficiency matrix comes in. It consists of a list of 17 different domains. Alphabetically, the domains range from “access to services” (an assessment of the client’s knowledge of, and ability to get, outside services they need) to “transportation” (an assessment of whether the family has safe and reliable transportation, whether by car, transit or friends and family).
The six most important areas out of the 17 are known as the “power domains.”
“You can’t focus on other things if you’re worried about housing stability, income stability, safety, child care, food and mental health,” said Sims, listing the most critical areas. “Those are the foundations that the other areas of functioning rest on.”
In each of the domains, families are assessed on a scale of zero to 10. These ratings encompass four categories: in crisis, vulnerable, stable and self-sufficient.
It may sound complicated, but the aim is simple: to help families move from crisis to self-sufficiency.
“I ask staff members: ‘I don’t just want to know what you think the score should be. I want you to give me evidence of why that score is earned,’ ” Sims said.
The data that teachers, case managers and counselors gather is used to open a conversation with parents. Take the food metric, which explores what students eat at home.
“We’re not just talking about whether they eat,” Sims said. “We’re talking about what do we need to do to connect you to nutritious meals?” (The school has a healthy eating club for parents.)
Child care is another example. Bright Beginnings is open from early morning to early evening, Monday through Friday, so families have ample child care then.
But, Sims said, “With the lives of highly transient and poverty-impacted families, regular attendance becomes an issue.”
Teachers explain that regular attendance — 85 percent or more — can help guarantee a child’s success when the child moves on to kindergarten and beyond.
As for the days and the hours that Bright Beginnings is closed, the self-sufficiency matrix requires the staff to dig deeper. What does it mean when a mom says she has child care at home?
“If it’s the oldest sibling who’s 9 years old, that’s not a teenager,” Sims said. “That family would end up with a score of zero. That is considered an unsupervised child.”
Stabilizing the power domains means families can then focus on other areas. For example, clearing up legal issues. Parents may have an arrest or a conviction on their record that is eligible to be expunged. Until that happens, applying for a job can be difficult.
The specifics of the matrix — a computer program that can generate all sorts of information — aren’t shared with the parents. No one plops a printout down on the desk in front of them. Rather, the matrix is a tool to help guide the staff — and to help the staff guide the families.
Bright Beginnings serves kids from 6 weeks old up to prekindergarten 4-year-olds. The self-sufficiency matrix was introduced in April 2018, so it’s too soon to make many conclusions, Sims said. The data collected now will be useful for providing a baseline.
“The next phase for us is longitudinal tracking to see how these families are faring,” Sims said. The hope is that vulnerable families will travel from crisis to stability, and then to self-sufficiency.
It’s teaching families to fish rather than giving them a fish.
Said Sims: “We’re trying to disrupt this mentality that the best way of serving the most marginalized families is to continue to give to meet their crisis needs.”
You can help
Bright Beginnings prides itself in its two-generational approach to ending poverty and homelessness. While the teachers help the children, other staff members help the parents.
You can support this work by participating in The Washington Post Helping Hand, our annual fundraising drive. To give, visit posthelpinghand.com and click “Donate.”
To contribute by mail, make a check payable to Bright Beginnings and send it to the following address: Bright Beginnings, Attn: Helping Hand, 3418 Fourth St. SE, Washington, D.C. 20032.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.