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Opinion

The Podium

Getting Boston pre-schoolers to thrive in five

A quarter of Boston’s pre-schoolers live in poverty. That’s 10,260 girls and boys age five and younger. Leaders from the president and governor to community workers talk increasingly of the longterm value of investing in young children. But how? The statistics are stacked against them. Stubborn economic and racial disparities don’t lie.

For some years, government agencies have been urged to take a more holistic approach. When a five-year-old shows up for kindergarten unable to express himself, language skill may be only a fraction of what he needs. Poor nutrition, inadequate health care, struggling caregivers and a variety of other factors may contribute to the problem. Only a comprehensive approach gives promise of success.

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But no government agency can have as holistic a view of the needs of a particular child as the family itself, close friends, and neighboring families that are similarly situated. This logical but uncommon observation has led to a groundbreaking program in Boston that is using uncommon tools to produce results that are already getting national attention.

Thrive in 5 has strong government participation — it is a collaboration between Mayor Thomas Menino and the United Way of Massachusetts Bay — and is implementing innovative tools to measure its progress. But its core strategy is to leverage everyday involvement by family, friends and neighbors in support of its overriding goal: to have 100 percent of Boston’s children ready for school success when they enter kindergarten, by 2018.

Some 26 techniques for building that involvement range from literacy campaigns and playgroups to mentoring and welcome kits for new families. Behind such activities is an innovative approach to family engagement at the community level. Thrive in 5’s core initiative, Boston Children Thrive, works in five neighborhoods — Allston-Brighton, East Boston, Dudley, South End/Lower Roxbury, and Fields Corner – partnering with a local organization in each to build networks supporting young children’s school readiness.

To date, 2,179 families and 2,536 children five and younger – most of them poor to very poor — are enrolled in Boston Children Thrive. This includes one-seventh of all children five and under living in poverty in Boston.

Two innovative tools are key to this initial success:

— A “rewards card” membership system gives individuals access and a sense of belonging, while also providing up-to-the-minute knowledge of which resources are being used effectively.

— The Parent Leadership Pathway provides accelerating opportunities for parents to become effective partners with Boston Children Thrive, city agencies, businesses, and each other, and in many cases to become leaders and real change agents for their communities.

The membership card carries a point system to incentivize participation and gives items like books as “rewards” to frequent users. But, somewhat to the surprise of its creators — Thrive in 5 and its evaluator the UMass Boston Center on Social Policy — it has been embraced most heartily, users say, because it delivers a sense of belonging to a worthwhile enterprise — to a community.

The cards operate similarly to their retail counterparts, providing detailed documentation of who is using what, where, and when — information that can be highly valuable when paired with kindergarten entry data to better allocate critical support to the families whose children are most at risk of falling into the achievement gap.

For example, the membership card enrollment data provided mapping information that showed while the Latino community in East Boston was deeply connected to East Boston Children Thrive, the largely Arabic speaking residents in the community had not been engaged. As a result of targeted outreach, both communities are now involved — often together.

The Parent Leadership Pathway starts with familiar activities and culminates with opportunities for parents to lead projects in their community that progressively engage more families in Boston Children Thrive. At its core, the Pathway ensures parents participate as equals, helping to plan and implement their neighborhood Boston Thrive Children initiative, while Boston Children Thrive benefits by understanding the authentic, self-identified needs of families in the community. The impact of this experience is significant for the parents, who have not had access to leadership opportunities and who have experienced multiple challenges in navigating systems affecting their families.

Jane E. Tewksbury is executive director of Thrive in 5. Donna Haig Friedman is director of the Center for Social Policy at the John W. McCormack Graduate School at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

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