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‘You can’t teach a child without family’: It’s the magic ingredient at one preschool

Students build a tower with magnetic tiles during center time in an early-childhood classroom at Christopher House in Chicago in May. The nonprofit organization has infused parental support into its model for its preschools and elementary charter school. (Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report)

CHICAGO — When Mariano Agosto’s fiancee died a year after the birth of their daughter, he was scared and lost. A friend suggested a nearby early-childhood education center might be able to help him and his little girl.

Melanie was about 2 when Agosto visited Christopher House for a three-day trial run. He quickly realized school officials were concerned not only about his daughter’s well-being and education, but also about his.

He was sold.

“What do you need?” Agosto recalled his daughter’s teachers asking him. “Do you need to speak to someone? Food? Clothing? Shelter?”

Many of the nation’s top preschools have found that the magic ingredients in supporting kids and boosting their academic success are: involving parents and providing intensive support to families. Christopher House, a nonprofit organization that runs a high-performing elementary charter school and a small network of public preschools in some of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods, has infused parental support into its model. And it has taken its efforts beyond the preschool years in an attempt to tackle fade-out, a problem that afflicts even top preschools.

Too often, after launching kids into school far ahead of their peers, even high-quality preschools with intensive family support see students’ academic gains slowly diminish. After a few years, the effects are often hard to discern.

To make the preschool magic last, the Christopher House network accepts children from newborns to fifth-graders, embracing the whole family as a part of the child’s success.

After graduating from the preschool, most kids stay in the program, attending Christopher House’s public elementary charter school. The organization will soon begin construction of a middle school, allowing students to remain in its program through eighth grade.

In just a few years of operation, the school ranks at the top of Chicago Public Schools in academic performance. Experts and teachers say this success demonstrates that meeting a family’s needs outside of school helps kids focus better in school and achieve more.

“You can’t teach a child without family,” said Karen Ross-Williams, director of early-childhood and youth development for Christopher House. “This is what makes the difference, when you’re able to partner with the family.”

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Lori Baas, chief executive of Christopher House, said she commonly hears preschool advocates claim they prepared children for kindergarten and blame grade schools for any fade-out; elementary school staffers point the finger at preschools, saying they failed to prepare students for kindergarten.

“We have one continuum of education that takes full accountability,” Baas said. “If there’s fade-out amongst our kids through eighth grade, then we’ve done something wrong.”

Staff members at Christopher House say the program is successful in preparing kids for school. Nearly 75 percent of 5-year-olds who have attended the early-childhood program for at least two years are kindergarten-ready. Last year, Christopher House was ranked in the top 1   percent of the 473 Chicago public schools rated by the district.

Nearly 79 percent of Christopher House’s third-grade students and 77 percent of fourth-graders are at or above grade level in reading. Many of these students got their start in Christopher House’s early childhood program, including 80 percent of kindergarten students in the 2017-2018 school year.

Although intensive family support can be costly, research shows the need is clear. Trauma and stress, brought on by poverty, food and housing insecurity, and violence in the community can impede the brain’s development and lead to long-term mental and physical health issues.

Christopher House teacher Jordan Reece said outside issues clearly interfere with her students in the classroom. “If your family is living paycheck topaycheck . . . having that on your mind is a lot heavier than whatever’s going on in the classroom that day,” Reece said.

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The preschool’s focus is twofold: to provide an excellent education to children and stability to children and their families. Teachers of infants and toddlers stay with the same children from age 6 weeks to 3 years, ensuring they know each child’s family circumstances and dynamics well. This shows parents “we’re in this for the long haul,” Ross-Williams said. “You have us and we have you.”

When children start at the school, their parents are encouraged to take a questionnaire about their lives, which lets school officials know the issues — such as substance abuse, domestic violence and unemployment — they’re struggling with most. Parents then get assistance setting and prioritizing goals, and they receive ongoing one-on-one help from a school official to make progress toward those goals. The school pays for nine full-time parent advocates at its early-childhood programs and two at the elementary school.

Families can receive crisis and trauma counseling, home visits and even doula services. Parents and guardians can attend a parent school to learn how to budget, plan a healthy diet and interact with their children in a way that encourages learning. Families can get free food through the school’s food pantry; the school also offers families clothing and emergency financial assistance to help pay rent or security deposits.

Parents and school officials at Christopher House say the programs have had an impact: Parents have become more self-sufficient, been able to remain in stable housing, put food on their tables and support their kids’ academics at home. Through parenting classes, many have learned how to build a good relationship with their children and, in some cases, have come to understand that behavior accepted in some cultures, such as hitting kids for misbehaving, is harmful.

Although the services are free to those who qualify, Christopher House expects a lot in return, primarily in the form of parental involvement. Beyond attending parenting classes, parents are encouraged to participate in school events, serve on the parent council and take on leadership roles.

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Eric Bruns, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington School of Medicine, said it is important that schools adopting a wraparound model provide parents with formal, intensive support when their children are very young. “The earlier you intervene, the better the outcomes you’re going to achieve,” Bruns said.

But making this happen in a school is not without challenges. The organization must raise $2 million each year from corporations, foundations and individuals to sustain its programs.

While Christopher House educators say their support of families is the secret ingredient to students’ success, academics are also key. Christopher House’s baby, toddler and preschool programs are accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, which looks at dozens of indicators to measure quality.

The school’s early-childhood classrooms, like those at most good preschools, are organized into centers where kids can play with sand and water tables, sculpt clay or work with teachers in small groups. Child-to-teacher ratios are lower than those required in Chicago’s child-care programs, and early-childhood teachers at Christopher House complete more than five times the professional development hours required by the state. This education is free except for a small supplemental fee for after-school care or child care that some parents pay depending on income.

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One morning in a Christopher House preschool classroom, 20 children scattered around. Student artwork, a sign of a high-quality program, decorated the walls. One boy sat on the ground in the center of the classroom, carefully adding blocks to a perilously tall tower. Three children played dress-up in the back corner, giggling as they adorned themselves with capes and fairy wings. The other 3- to 5-year-old children played with sand, finger-painted and read books. Four teachers monitored the class.

There’s a long waiting list, but families who get a spot for their kids here consider themselves lucky and say the benefits can be profound. Mariano Agosto, whose fiancee died a year after their daughter was born, says Melanie is thriving. Now 8, she loves to tinker and is fascinated by science, technology, engineering and math activities. She enjoys singing and dancing, and she wants to be a veterinarian.

As for Agosto, with help from Christopher House, he was able to see a therapist to cope with his fiancee’s death. The school also gave him access to its computer lab so he could search for jobs. With the support of the school, Agosto completed mechanics school and is waiting to take his certification test. He is deeply involved with Christopher House, serving on the parent council and even dressing up as Santa Claus for the school’s holiday event.

“They basically guided me through it to where I am,” he said.

This story about early-childhood education was produced by the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter at