Where Parents Train While Their Kids Learn

Two-generation Head Start programs are preparing little ones for school and ushering their parents into better employment.

National Journal
July 27, 2015, 5:18 a.m.

At the McK­night Early Child­hood Fam­ily De­vel­op­ment Cen­ter, 4-year-old Cesar Vasquez learned how to count, how to write his first let­ters, and his first words in Eng­lish.

At the same place, his moth­er, Cecil­ia Gu­ti­er­rez learned some im­port­ant things too.

“I first took him out of curi­os­ity,” said Gu­ti­er­rez, 38, a nat­ive of Mex­ico City. “But now I not only know bet­ter how the school works, but it’s helped me grow as a par­ent, and now I can go fur­ther and pre­pare my­self for a bet­ter job.”

The mis­sion of Head Start pro­grams is to pre­pare kids to suc­ceed once they enter school. But the Par­ent Train­ing pro­gram at Par­ents In Com­munity Ac­tion (PICA), a par­ent-led non­profit that op­er­ates nine early-child­hood cen­ters in Min­neapol­is, gives par­ents a sol­id foot­ing in the loc­al labor mar­ket. Their train­ing fo­cuses on five sec­tors: in­fant/tod­dler and preschool child­hood de­vel­op­ment, trans­port­a­tion, food ser­vice, and cler­ic­al.

“We’ve al­ways be­lieved that you can have the best early child­hood pro­gram, and that’s great, but if you don’t change the eco­nom­ic out­look for par­ents, the growth of the child will be af­fected.” — Rico Al­ex­an­der, PICA

PICA’s pro­gram is an ex­ample of what has been called the “two-gen­er­a­tion” ap­proach by the Na­tion­al Head Start As­so­ci­ation.

“Two-gen­er­a­tion is not a new concept,” said Rico Al­ex­an­der, Dir­ect­or of PICA’s Head Start and Early Head Start pro­grams. “We’ve al­ways be­lieved that you can have the best early-child­hood pro­gram, and that’s great, but if you don’t change the eco­nom­ic out­look for par­ents, the growth of the child will be af­fected.”

A re­cent study by the Eco­nom­ic Policy In­sti­tute iden­ti­fied the ir­reg­u­lar hours that go with many types of low-wage jobs as one of five so­cioeco­nom­ic dis­ad­vant­ages that de­press stu­dent achieve­ment. PICA’s par­ent train­ing pro­gram tackles this head-on by get­ting par­ents ready for steady jobs with reg­u­lar hours in job sec­tors that are com­pat­ible with child care and where there is de­mand.

Par­ents who enter the pro­gram must com­plete 96 hours of train­ing and put in many hours of prac­tice.

“Some people think they want to watch chil­dren, but they go through the pro­gram and real­ize it’s a lot more in­volved,” said Al­ex­an­der. But enough par­ents have stuck with it that the pro­gram is now the top train­er of early-child­hood teach­ers of col­or in Min­nesota.

Gu­ti­er­rez was en­thu­si­ast­ic about what she learned that she com­pleted two pro­grams, one in in­fant/tod­dler de­vel­op­ment and one in preschool de­vel­op­ment.

“I have been able to help the teach­ers and un­der­stand what they do bet­ter, and I be­came so in­volved I de­cided to do the second pro­gram,” said Gu­ti­er­rez, who said she wants to be­come cer­ti­fied to be­come a teach­er’s as­sist­ant. She said she is much hap­pi­er do­ing work that con­nects with her fam­ily’s needs than when she cleaned houses or worked in a fact­ory.

“We now have a work­force that re­flects the back­ground of the kids and their par­ents,” Al­ex­an­der said.

Min­neapol­is’ strong jobs mar­ket — with an un­em­ploy­ment rate of 3-4 per­cent — has turned PICA’s train­ing pro­gram in­to a vic­tim of its own suc­cess. “We’re al­ways com­pet­ing to hire par­ents with oth­er en­tit­ies like the school dis­trict,” said Al­ex­an­der. “We train par­ents and they get hired away.”

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