Community-Powered Early Learning Collaboration in Altgeld-Riverdale

This is a good-news post—a progress report on the impressive accomplishments of an extraordinary community coalition in the Altgeld-Riverdale community in which BPI has been deeply engaged over the past two years.

A little back story is in order: After many years of involvement in the neighborhood as part of our broader housing work, two years ago BPI launched the Altgeld-Riverdale Early Learning Initiative, organized around a robust community-based coalition of some 30 member organizations dedicated to improving the life prospects of young children in Altgeld Gardens and three adjacent Riverdale low-income housing developments. This diverse group includes local childcare centers, elementary schools, library, park district, city agencies, youth development and faith-based organizations, and residents.

Altgeld-Riverdale Early Learning Coalition members are committed to making the community one in which all children are on track to succeed developmentally and educationally by third grade—a critical benchmark for future school and life success.

Over time, the Coalition’s monthly meetings have become an important mechanism to build knowledge, trust, and enthusiasm as well as an important time to learn about early learning issues through guest speakers and member presentations. All engaged in this effort also believe that a stronger, more cohesive community will emerge as an outgrowth of the Initiative.

Now on to the progress report:

Launched in January 2014, the Coalition’s new service for community residents, the Altgeld-Riverdale Parenting Program, offers three separate components: doula (birthing coach) services, home visiting services, and parent support groups. All services are provided by the professional counseling staff of Catholic Charities. Doulas provide mothers under 21 information on infant cognitive and social-emotional development, assistance navigating medical support and social services, and parenting support until the infant reaches three months. At this point, a family support worker (home visitor) takes over providing a range of services including counseling on infant developmental phases and the importance of talking and reading to babies, screening for developmental delays, and providing registration assistance for pre-K programs. Home visitors also support parents in achieving personal education and employment goals.

To date, 21 first-time moms have enrolled in the program, with two intakes pending. With the program’s annual capacity of 25, we’re about to reach our goal for year one.

Complementing both doula and home visiting services are weekly support groups for pregnant and parenting moms. Facilitated by the family support workers and doulas, the groups cover a variety of issues, such as post-partum depression, difficulty with fussy babies, relationship and family challenges, as well as problems at work or school.

As more research documents the importance of doula and home visiting programs to the cognitive, social-emotional, and physical development of children and strengthening the bonds of attachment between parent and child, the Altgeld-Riverdale Parenting Program is fulfilling a singularly vital role in the community.

The Coalition has also dedicated itself to making sure the multiple organizations providing out-of-school-time activities are working together to provide a diverse menu of programs for the community’s young children. Just this year, a group of three social service providers and BPI successfully launched “Camp Fit Kids,” a full-day summer camp for children four to twelve. Based at a local elementary school, Camp Fit Kids provided a range of activities designed to improve children’s fitness, nutrition, and social-emotional and academic well-being.

Before the Altgeld-Riverdale Early Learning Coalition, collaborations like Camp Fit Kids were rare but are now becoming more common in the community. In fact, for the first time, pre-K and kindergarten teachers from the four local elementary schools and the childcare centers are working together to make sure young children have a successful entry into kindergarten. And as of November 2014, all pre-K programs are fully enrolled, a significant achievement for the community.

With much remaining to be accomplished, the Altgeld-Riverdale Early Learning Coalition—passionately empowered and engaged—is making important strides in improving early learning opportunities and strengthening community collaborations. Stay tuned for more news on the Coalition’s progress.

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