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Learning the Ropes

At Harlem’s Baby College, expectant parents are getting the tools they need to prepare for their kids’ success.

At Harlem’s Baby College, expectant parents are getting the tools they need to prepare for their kids’ success.

On most Saturday mornings, in the auditorium of a public school in Harlem, New York, a nation-building exercise is taking shape. Nearly 100 black and hispanic expectant mothers, new parents, and even a few grandparents gather to participate in something called Baby College.

Since 2000, Baby College—which operates nearly year round in five nine-week sessions—has helped thousands of Harlem parents develop strategies to better discipline, protect, and connect with their young children. It is an early-childhood training program operated by the pioneering social service nonprofit organization, Harlem Children’s Zone.

Today, staff members have convinced the families in attendance to stand up out of their chairs and belt out upbeat, a cappella English and Spanish renditions of “Itsy-Bitsy Spider.” Some mothers even up hop on stage, mimic the climbing spider with hand gestures, and lead the unlikely community in an all out sing-along.

“We do things in a kooky fun way, because we want to model for parents how important is to play with their children,” explains Baby College director Marilyn Joseph. “We want to use these early years to teach parents that they’re the first teachers.”

The nursery rhyme has become a signature icebreaker activity at Baby College. It helps set the mood for the rest of a day where parents get to discuss the most effective child rearing practices—everything from disciplining methods to facts about immunization and safety, to the role that reading, singing, and playing with a young child has on their early cognitive and social development.

For many unmarried mothers, like 25-year-old Raenel Ross, there’s something comforting about the Baby College community. “One thing I learned is that parenting doesn’t come in a book,” says Ross, holding her 2-year-old son, Blake. “You can never prepare or just read Parenting for Dummies. Nothing compares to coming here and speaking to other parents.”

The program represents the first step Harlem Children’s Zone’s attempt at a comprehensive strategy to create a “cradle to college” system, in which low-income, inner-city children are groomed for academic success from the womb until they are 3.

At Baby College, parents are urged to provide encouragement and stimulation that will start that process in motion. It’s a novel approach that, like many of the programs at Harlem Children’s Zone, seems ripe for replication. In fact, the organization regularly conducts workshops, arranges site visits, and fields phone calls from other groups seeking guidance on how to best replicate the success of Baby College in their neighborhoods around the country.

However, Rasuli Lewis, who manages such consultation requests as head of Practitioners Institute, which shares the work of HCZ with other communities, warns that nonprofits interested in creating their own version or Baby College need to first evaluate the needs of their local population and then modify a program accordingly.

For instance, the needs and challenges faced by Harlem children and parents may not be the same in every city. “If they decided that early childhood is where they want to focus in the beginning of their initiative, they will have to look to see what they have,” Lewis says. “Who is doing this work in their neighborhood, community, town and what is their capacity, their need. That will help in terms of decisions if Baby College will be helpful or not.”

The expansion is underway. At least two organizations that have visited HCZ have subsequently modeled successful programs on their own terms, according to Lewis. The Homewood Children’s Village in Pittsburgh is planning to provide a range of social, health and educational services to an entire neighborhood based on the efforts of the HCZ.

And in Richmond, California, some 30 community agencies work together to provide educational and social services for residents within a 10-block radius. As part of their efforts, the New Generation program encourages young families to practice “positive parenting” methods similar to what’s taught in Baby College.

Author Paul Tough, who examined the Harlem Children’s Zone in his 2008 book Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America, sees no reason why programs similar to Baby College couldn’t be spun off, despite the $1.5 million it costs to serve upwards of 500 parents per year and employ at least 60 staff.

“When I was reporting, it struck me as the easiest thing to replicate,” Tough says. “It is a big undertaking, but I don’t think that it is specific to Harlem. It could work anywhere.”

Illustration by Parliament of Owls.

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