Embrace. Empower. Evolve. That's the motto Tulsa Educare operates by.
A national organization, Educare, has 16 locations across the United States dedicated to preventing what they refer to as the achievement gap, that is, children who are not fully prepared when starting kindergarten.
The school first opened its doors to Tulsans in 2006 and has since opened two additional locations in the area, including one just launched this month.
All three locations reside on the grounds of Tulsa Public Schools, a very deliberate move according to Caren Calhoun, executive director of Tulsa Educare. Not only does TPS donate the land needed for the buildings, by aligning themselves with the public school system Educare aims to send a very specific message to the community: learning begins at birth.
"These are Tulsa's public school children," Calhoun said. "We're preparing them for school [whether they start] in three years or in five years or in one year."
The partnership between Educare and TPS goes beyond location.
"We've aligned our curriculum with them, our standards," Calhoun said. "We work with them on transitions into public schools."
Educare also works with TPS on early intervention according to Calhoun, who said the district provides paraprofessionals for children who need extra help on developing individual education plans.
Tulsa Public School teachers also visit the center, meeting with Educare's preschool staff and talking to children who may someday be in their classroom just a few steps away at the Kendall-Whittier, Hawthorne, or MacArthur Elementary locations.
Educare aims to be a community resource, integrating itself into the city by forming personal and business connections.
"One of the biggest strengths we have in Tulsa is our partnerships," Calhoun said.
In addition to Tulsa Public Schools, Educare is linked in with Head Start, the Department of Human Services (DHS), University of Oklahoma and the George Kaiser Family Foundation. These organizations provide Educare with support through both funding and resources.
The George Kaiser Family Foundation is a private, charitable organization that invests in community-centric civic, health and education programs. They believe introducing programs such as Educare to low-income families is a step not only toward improving the individual child's success in school but also in alleviating the cycle of poverty.
It was the foundation's efforts that helped bring Educare to Tulsa six years ago.
"We initiated the conversation," said Annie Koppel Van Hanken, senior program officer with George Kaiser Family Foundation. Van Hanken now works very closely with Calhoun and Tulsa Educare.
"We felt like Educare was important because it really is a flagship, [an example] of what the very best in early childhood education can be," Van Hanken said.
Educare's focus is on affording children from impoverished homes the opportunities for engagement and learning they may not otherwise be exposed to.
"I believe they just come to the table with less resources," Calhoun said. "Because of that, the children fall behind and never get a chance to catch up."
In total, the three Tulsa centers are available to serve more than 500 students from as young as 6 weeks through age 5. Children are admitted based on need, the portion of tuition each family is responsible for determined by DHS.
Educare works to get these children on track and caught up before they enter the public school system.
Calhoun says Educare's programming is based on relationships and interactions, and that includes building trust with the children and parents they serve.
The center organizes its classrooms into "pods," a group of four rooms, three designated for infants and toddlers and one designated for older children, who are closer to starting school. This setup allows students to stay in the same area the entire time they're with Educare, whether that be one year, or five. This is part of the ongoing message of continuity of care the organization is known for. Children also remain in the care of the same teachers from birth to age 3, and another team stays with them from ages 3 to 5.
This continuity builds trust among staff, parents and children; this is crucial according to Van Hanken who says children affected by poverty tend to be more mobile than the average student. Changing schools and care providers can affect a child's learning progress.
"Stability is so important," Van Hanken said. "Any time a child is in and out of school -- that's disruptive."
Another benefit of the continuity of care is the loyalty and longevity of the teachers they employ who, according to Calhoun, are often the ones who have a hard time letting go when the children in their classes move in to another level of the program, or on to kindergarten at Tulsa Public Schools.
The connection formed between teacher and child goes both ways, as staff members are often the primary daytime care providers for children of working parents.
Educare employs one master's level teacher for every set of four classrooms, while each individual classroom has a lead teacher who holds a bachelor's degree in early education and an assistant teacher who has at least an associate's degree in the subject.
Teaching techniques come in a variety of activities geared toward engaging children regardless of the different academic level each child may be starting from.
"When the children come into the program, we assess where they are," Calhoun said. "We set activities based on the child's developmental level."
Classrooms offer both small group activities as well as large gatherings, such as story time. They also offer dramatic play, blocks, and other engaging toys.
"Some of it may look like play time, but children are learning through their play activities," said Calhoun, who considers each class a balance of teacher and child-initiated activities.
Educare is dedicated to alleviating the education gap in young minds, but believes true change comes when parents work in-sync with Educare's efforts. That's the motivation behind Tulsa's parent-centric support opportunities.
"We believe there needs to be a dual generation approach to alleviating poverty," Calhoun said. "We can help the children learn and try to take away the achievement gap, but not if they don't have the environment [at home]."
Each family is assigned an advocate who helps parents set goals at the beginning of their child's program, what they want for their family, as well as what they want for themselves.
Educare promotes self-sufficiency above all else.
"What we want to do is empower them and train them so that it's not just something we're fixing for them, they're setting the goal and learning how to do it themselves," Calhoun said.
Some parents may opt to get hooked into some of the center's parent education resources, including GED and ESL programs. A group of parents recently graduated from Educare's first nursing cohort with the University of Oklahoma.
Educare network sites participate in regular evaluations on local and national levels; this prevents them from the risk of their programming becoming static according to Van Hanken.
"That's a real core belief, that's a commitment we've made." Van Hanken said. "The network is always pushing us to improve."
Calhoun agreed, adding, "It's nice being a part of a network that's making a difference across the nation."
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