By Melanie Lasoff Levs
NEW ORLEANS — Every Tuesday at Educare New Orleans is Coffee Connect. Over coffee, juice, pastries and fruit, some of the parents and caregivers of the 167 children who attend the early childhood center sit around tables and discuss questions such as, “What are your child’s favorite snacks and can you share the recipes?” and “How do you handle technology with your children?” As the name implies, these weekly programs help create community among parents, says Rafel Hart, Educare’s director. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to connect with each other,” he adds.
Coffee Connect is just one of the many ways that Educare New Orleans, which celebrated its year anniversary last October, is impacting Columbia Parc and surrounding neighborhoods. A full-day, year-round program for low-income families with children from birth to age 5, Educare New Orleans is the 19th school in the Educare Learning Network, and the first in the Gulf South. The program emphasizes child development, family support, and health and nutrition, according to Hart.
“Not only do we highlight the importance of these three components in the early years of a young child, but we stress the importance of them,” he says. “We ensure school readiness and the social and emotional development of a child.”
The comprehensive Educare model is so sought-after that the New Orleans facility opened in October 2013 with 150 children. A year later, the population is at capacity at 167 children, with a wait list of more than 250 families, says Hart. About 35 percent of the Educare students come from Columbia Parc, with the rest from surrounding neighborhoods.
Hart calls Educare New Orleans a beacon of light and hope. The facility itself is striking, combining three historic buildings with modern construction. “The space far exceeds what the state requirements are for square footage per child,” Hart explains, with common areas for children and separate ones for parents, as well as a staff lounge, multipurpose room and staff work room.
“When people look at this building and recognize that an investment has been made for 167 children yearly to attend this program, it means something to them,” adds Hart, a New Orleans native who ran early childhood education programs in North Carolina, Washington, D.C., and Seattle before returning to open this one. “For people to see this is not for school-aged children but for younger children, it highlights the importance of early childhood education and allows the words of President Obama [who has called for universal early childhood education] to resonate.”
Within a few months of opening, Hart says, he and the staff exceeded their first-year goal: doing the basics well. “The basics are caring for the children, making sure the children and families understand this is an environment that fosters support and caring,” Hart says. Then they work on engaging families, helping them understand their role as first teachers and advocates for their children, he adds. “It’s a continuous interdisciplinary approach and partnership, in that the staff is embracing not just the child but the family as a whole.”
As Educare New Orleans moves into its second year of operation, Hart says he is most excited about the elementary school breaking ground nearby, which should be ready for students in the fall of 2016. A new high school also is set to open this summer.
A large component of Educare’s success nationwide is locating facilities close to elementary and secondary schools, which often partner with their younger peers, Hart says. But before he follows these youngsters through their high school — and perhaps college — years, he has the Educare New Orleans Mardi Gras parade and Black History Month programs to attend. After all, he adds, echoing early childhood education proponents worldwide, “children don’t start learning when they go to kindergarten. They’re learning when they’re born.”