Associated Press
A new Chicago education program seeks to span the achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children through a program of support that begins at birth and moves through K-12.

Low-income children in the United States need a clear pathway out of poverty, but that isn’t easy to find. Current efforts to increase opportunities for disadvantaged children are divided between philanthropies, churches and various levels of government — a scattershot approach that is difficult for disadvantaged families to navigate, and often is ineffective.

That’s why the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute and the Ounce of Prevention Fund are collaborating to develop a birth-to-college approach to public education aimed at closing the achievement gap for vulnerable students.

A case study report on the project said the achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children becomes discernible as early as 9 months of age and is reflected in students’ performance on standardized tests, as well as in high school graduation and college-going rates.

The Ounce and UEI hope to arrive at a model for closing the gap by aligning early education and K-12 standards and practices, and by providing effective teaching and family support that spans the birth-to-college continuum.

The groups worked together to construct a “pipeline” of services that offers families a road map out of poverty for their children. Teachers, administrators and family support staff work together in “Professional Learning Communities” from preschool through the K-12 years to pilot practices that prepare children for college, beginning at birth.

A major component of the professional learning communities is educating teachers to develop a mindset focusing on the long-term impact of their involvement with students, rather than the "here and now," according to Education Week’s Early Years blog.

The first stage of the birth-to-college pipeline begins at Chicago’s chapter of Educare, a coast-to-coast network of schools for at-risk infants, toddlers and preschoolers. The federal Head Start program and state and district school funding pay for the Educare program, which has been proved successful in getting disadvantaged kids off to a good start.

Research shows that low income children who enroll in Educare as infants or toddlers enter kindergarten with the same skills as their middle-income peers. Amanda Stein, a senior research associate for the Ounce, explains the next steps of the program in a podcast:

Children whose families enroll them at birth in Educare will be admitted to one of University of Chicago’s charter elementary schools when they reach school age — without going through the typical lottery process for charter schools, Stein said. The children and their families then remain in contact with the professional learning community throughout the rest of their K-12 schooling, creating a seamless path from birth to college.

“The earlier we begin, the greater success we have in narrowing the achievement gap, and even eliminating the achievement gap for children who are risk,” Stein said. “To the best of my knowledge, there aren’t others others working on a model that begins at birth and spans all the way to college.”