STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
NPR's education team is grappling with a big question. It grows from a subject President Obama talks about a lot: preschool. The president wants every child in America to have what he calls high quality preschool.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Which leaves the question of what a high quality preschool is. We visited Tulsa, Oklahoma, a leader in early childhood education. Teachers there are well-trained and well-paid. Classrooms are safe, nurturing and challenging.
INSKEEP: Tulsa has also focused on the families of kids in preschool. Their program called career advance presumes you can help kids by helping their parents. Here's NPR's Eric Westervelt.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Networking. What's networking?
ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Two dozen students, all women, settle into long white tables and stiff metal chairs in a classroom at Tulsa Community College's downtown campus. This is not your ordinary class. It's a required monthly seminar for the program Career Advance. Topics include resume building and basic finances. This week: Workplace Etiquette 101. Be on time, eye contact, firm handshake, basic hygiene.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You know, I can't be stinking it up and looking like I really did in the morning first thing, right?
WESTERVELT: Career Advance, run by the nonprofit Community Action Project of Tulsa or CAP, tries to strategically link low income parents, almost all women, with education, career training in nursing and related healthcare fields, with federal Headstart services for their children. Consuela Houessou came to Tulsa from Benin about a decade ago.
She works weekends as a nurse's assistant, but through Career Advance she hopes to become a registered nurse, a challenging but in demand and well paying job in Tulsa. What do your kids think of you doing this?
CONSUELA HOUESSOU: They're really proud. They have a mom that go back to school, you know. Because I came here I have to redo everything over. They want me to do well. We compare grades. I get A's today, what did you get?
WESTERVELT: Tulsa organizers believe linking high quality childcare with intensive help to parents going back to school might prove the missing link in anti-poverty efforts.
STEVEN DOW: We sort of thought that maybe that combination might have some sort of compounding effect beyond what either does alone.
WESTERVELT: Steven Dow is CAP Tulsa's executive director.
DOW: The paradox of our early childhood work is that we are so focused on young children and yet many of the outcomes that we want for young children are dependent on being able to also make progress with their parents and the adults. So this inner plate is a tough nut to crack.
WESTERVELT: Down and others here think they're starting to crack it, but the change is slow and tough. It's heading for 8:30 a.m. at a bustling headstart center in East Tulsa and 32-year-old Tiffany Contreras is late to drop off her 4-year-old daughter. The on-time kids play with blocks, puzzles and books on the carpet while a teacher prepares a cereal breakfast.
8:45, still no Tiffany Contreras. Her daily juggle is on - four kids, a commute, classes, homework and meetings. Her husband, the father of her two youngest, works the night shift coating gas pipes and airplane parts at an industrial paint shop. 8:50, she finally arrives. Adding to Tiffany's hectic mix this week, a dinner gone wrong nearly torched her kitchen.
TIFFANY CONTRERAS: A pan of grease caught on fire. It ruined my stove a couple of my cabinets. Thankfully, no one was hurt. The story of my life. Always something.
WESTERVELT: For many of the low income women in Career Advance getting retrained for a career in nursing, there is always something. They often seem one event away from derailing, says staffer Megan Oehlke.
MEGAN OEHLKE: It's my car died. I had a house fire. We had an unexpected stabbing in our family last week. My mom is hospitalized. She does all my childcare. It's all of those things together that they're trying to figure out how to finagle, and still be successful in school.
WESTERVELT: Tiffany says goodbye to her youngest, Kyndall, a vivacious 4-year-old, big cheeks, a bright smile and her straight black hair tied in a loose pony tail.
CONTRERAS: Love you. No tears. Have a good day today.
WESTERVELT: No tears, Tiffany says again as she jumps in her car and heads toward Tulsa Community College. A class paper is due today and there's a test. Tiffany was born in Tulsa but moved away. Now she's back home with four children and dreams of becoming a registered nurse.
It's hard. She's been down the college road before. It never panned out.
CONTRERAS: I had tried to go back to school and just life happened, basically. Either having kids of having to work.
WESTERVELT: But this time, she insists, it's different. She quit her job at a Toys R Us and enrolled in Career Advance. She's trying to wrap up her RN prerequisite classes. This day starts with nutrition class.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Okay. So now, Tiffany, where is vitamin B4?
WESTERVELT: Tiffany sits attentively in the front row, pen and notebook ready, wearing pink plastic flip-flops and sweatpants. Career Advance covers her tuition, her childcare, and gives her bonus money for good grades, good attendance and more. Good grade bonuses are $200 a month in expense reimbursements or gas cards. Out of all these support tools, the program's career coaches may prove the special sauce.
They're part mentor, counselor, uber-mom and motivator. Coach Megan Oehlke.
OEHLKE: Okay. So you had a house fire. Does that mean that you can't be a nurse anymore? You didn't do well on this test. Is that the end of your college career or do we practice some resiliency skills, see if you can retake the test? And sometimes it's just having that voice of reason that tells you pick yourself up and move on.
WESTERVELT: Still, more than a quarter of the women drop out and never come back. And it's an expensive program to run. Cash bonuses, coaches, seminars, emergency gas cards, it costs more than $7,000 per mom per year on top of the $7,500 per child for headstart services. Professor Christopher King at the University of Texas at Austin is carefully studying the program's long term impact.
It'll be a few years before the results are in, but he's convinced that getting policymakers and agencies to think about the family all together will save taxpayers big money in the long run.
CHRISTOPHER KING: If you actually double down your monies on a family as a whole, those are families that you can actually get out of poverty and not see coming back to public support. What we're trying to do is to kind of bring the partners and stakeholders together and say, you know, let's think about parents and kids at the same time. I think we can break that cycle of poverty for at least a number of those families.
WESTERVELT: Back in her car, traveling along Tulsa's historic Route 66, Tiffany Contreras says the RN program is daunting. Motivation and time management haunt her as equally as science and math she hasn't tackled in years. How confident are you you're going to raise your GPA enough to get in?
CONTRERAS: I've been busting my behind for that. My confidence is a little iffy on there, but my peer coaches tend to try to boost that for me.
WESTERVELT: Tiffany heads home to the kitchen with the burnt cabinet and damaged stove to take care of her four kids, and study. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Tulsa.
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