Opening the Door for Early Childhood Education

by Maya Brennan

Whether engaged in new construction or rehabilitation, housing developers know that the quality of their buildings directly affects children’s health. The physicality of children’s early years—babies crawling and young children playing on the floor and craning their necks to see out the window—makes avoiding lead exposure and other neurological hazards in home and child care settings of critical importance, but fostering healthy cognitive development in the early years entails more than just lead abatement. Recent research suggests that housing policies regarding code enforcement, foreclosure prevention, and neighborhood revitalization may play a role in supporting kindergarten readiness. Housing affordability, stability, quality, and location have ripple effects on food security, caregiver consistency, parental stress, and exposure to trauma—all factors that contribute to children’s early development.

The connection between housing challenges and other early childhood disadvantages can perpetuate disadvantage across generations. Compared with children from higher-income families, many children from low-income families enter school with fewer of the skills they need for later school success. These skills, which include problem solving, language, task persistence, motor development, creativity, and empathy, are often grouped by child development experts into five domains: cognition, language development, learning approaches, physical/motor development, and social/emotional development. The domains are closely connected and contribute mutually to kindergarten readiness and subsequent educational success.

The negative effects of poverty and instability on children’s development can be buffered by effective early childhood education, among other family, community, and environmental characteristics. Housing developers can play a bigger role in supporting children’s healthy development across domains than it sometimes appears.

Seeing how important the preschool years are for short- and long-term achievement, some housing developers have extended beyond traditional housing assistance models—adding early childhood education programs near new or existing affordable housing.

The case for early childhood education as a central part of community development work is clear. Evidence suggests that high-quality early childhood education programs can strengthen children’s cognitive and language skills by the start of school, improve the likelihood of high school graduation and on-time grade promotions, and yield economic and behavioral benefits into adulthood. Having reliable child care also benefits parents by allowing them to participate in the workforce. Yet, as of 2011, children from families below 200 percent of the federal poverty level are less likely to participate in preschool than children from families with incomes higher than that.

When Broadway Housing Communities (BHC) embarked on its first early childhood center in 2003, the barriers were evident. “Some of the same forces that we had experienced in affordable housing applied to early childhood capital development. There were very limited capital sources out here to create early childhood programs,” says Ellen Baxter, founder and executive director of BHC. “The operating sources don’t support the budgets.” This creates missed opportunities to support children’s healthy development during a critical period of their lives.

Head Start funds, as well as state and district prekindergarten funds, are too limited for programs to reach all children living in poverty. Social impact bonds or pay for success models are emerging as one strategy for filling this gap, having been used in Chicago and Utah to expand preschool access.

Capital funds may come from community development financial institutions, banks seeking Community Revitalization Act–compliant lending opportunities, or New Markets Tax Credits. Without working out the operating budgets, though, capital funds will remain hard to come by. Despite the financing challenges, BHC opened a second early childhood center and children’s museum in 2015 as part of its Sugar Hill housing development.

“The youngest children in a community are its most valuable assets,” says Baxter. “Why not invest heavily in them?”

The children who attended Dorothy Day’s early childhood program when it first opened are teenagers now. Most of those teenagers who were residents of Dorothy Day in 2003 still live there. “Every single one of those children is headed to graduate from high school and enter college,” notes Baxter. Determining how much of that is because of the school and how much is because of the housing is hard to know. “We think it's having both that creates a different culture altogether,” says Baxter.

After strengthening children’s kindergarten readiness, the staff at Dorothy Day works with families on elementary school placement so that children’s educational opportunities continue to be fed. For Dorothy Day residents, full-time educational advocates in the apartments continue to support children and youth in navigating the “educational maze” as they pass through the later years of school.

For BHC, having early childhood programs assists with their broader community development mission. The early childhood education centers mostly serve neighborhood children, because a single housing development simply will not house enough 3- and 4-year-old children to sustain a preschool on its own. The broader reach of the early childhood centers facilitates community organizing.

According to Baxter, everyone working in low-income communities should include early childhood education programs. “Even though the financing can be complex, the children are worth it.”