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A Path Out Of Poverty: Career Training + Quality Head Start

Apr 28, 2017
Originally published on May 1, 2017 12:18 pm

What makes a high-quality learning program effective not just for the child but the whole family? What else, besides a well-run early ed or pre-K program, is essential to help families break out of intergenerational poverty?

These are some of the key questions that an approach called "two-generation" programs are working to answer. There are many of these "two-gen" programs across the U.S. And while they differ in emphasis and detail, at their core they intentionally focus on ways to help both the child and parent. Usually this happens through targeted education and career training and other vital support such as health services, mentoring, and transportation.

NPR Ed has been keeping an eye on one innovative two-gen program in Oklahoma. It's called Career Advance and is run by the Community Action Project of Tulsa County (CAP Tulsa). I've reported on it here and here. It gives low-income parents access to high-quality Head Start for their children, alongside free career training in nursing and other in-demand health care fields as well as life coaching and support.

A new study on the first year impact of Tulsa's Career Advance shows that, so far, Career Advance is working well for both parents and their children. In fact, the study says, CAP Tulsa's program is working better than similar combined job training and Head Start programs elsewhere in terms of job certification, employment, income and overall well-being for the parent. And, the report shows, the program has boosted attendance and reduced absenteeism among participating children.

I reached out to two of study's co-authors to find out more. Teresa Eckrich Sommer is a research professor at Northwestern University's Institute for Policy Research. Chris King is a senior research scientist and lecturer at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

When I went down to report on the program, no one had studied it in-depth. Is this the first big look at this program and its impact?

Teresa Ekrich Sommer: This is the first one. We're [a colleague, Lindsay Chase-Lansdale at Northwestern University, is the first author on this paper] looking at what happens at the end of year one.

In terms of their education, we see that participants had much higher rates of certification in the healthcare fields. And then we see that in terms of employment, a greater proportion of the families, at the end of the first year, are employed in the specific career to which they've been trained, as compared to those who weren't in the program. Sixty-one percent compared to 3 percent.

Chris King: I would add to that, Eric, that the kinds of impacts we're seeing, certainly in terms of job certification, the shifts towards healthcare employment are much larger than anything you see in most other similar career pathway programs. I think this speaks to the components of the model: the career coaching, the peer groups and the incentives.

[The program offers a $3,000 a year max incentive if certain goals are reached — for example, attendance at monthly partner meetings for skills training — as well as incentives for achieving milestones such as certification.]

You're saying that there's no secret sauce, that it's the whole package? The financial incentives, the career counseling, the mentoring, etc., all together?

Eckrich Sommer: We can't conclusively say what single element matters the most. You know, at the base, just having this high-quality early childhood education is an incredible starting point for them.

There's no question that the financial incentives make an enormous difference to them in their lives. Many of them have previous college debt, and are struggling financially. And we have people in the comparison group that are similar in motivation and interest and talk about how big their financial struggles are. So I think that's a significant piece.

Also, I wouldn't want to leave out the importance of the fact that these are families doing this together. They're in a small learning group. They go to school together, they have their schedules for school when they start out coordinated with their child's Head Start schedule, so they can both pick up and drop off their kids and still go to school. And many continue to work, usually in off hours.

And also this coach is an essential element to helping families break down big goals, set specific markers along the way and be able to achieve them. Such as becoming a certified nurse assistant or becoming a licensed nurse practitioner, and knowing how to make those steps and decide, 'Should I take a full course-load? Can I take a half course-load? How do I do this and manage the work and income I need for my family?' with the education that they're trying to pursue at the same time.

For the children, I also see that attendance was better and fewer were chronically absent. But the absentee rate is still kinda high. Near 50 percent. Do you think there's more to do to lower that?

Eckrich Sommer: I think there is. I know that the eye goes towards the high rate. The bar is pretty low, it's missing 10 percent or more of the school days. It tends to be a few kids who are absent a lot that drive up those numbers.

Your report argues that Career Advance is doing better than comparable career training programs in other cities in America. In your view, what exactly is Career Advance doing better?

King: Career Advance fits within the family of other career pathway sector strategies. Employer-driven strategies based in specific growth sectors of the labor market that offer opportunities for career advancement over time in jobs with good wages and benefits, e.g., health care, advanced manufacturing, transportation and logistics. It may be that they have more of all these elements feeding together to make the success possible. What we really have, I think, blown away is traditional postsecondary workforce and education training which doesn't have persistence completion and employment kinds of effects the same size, at all, to what we're seeing here.

Eckrich Sommer: What's incredibly important is that we're building on what's already a positive platform, which is early childhood education. So we know the kids are getting these huge benefits. And then we're adding to that these incredible benefits to the parents.

The question is, what is the overall effect over time? And as we follow the kids we'll know that in a few years.

There's additional help under the program: gas cards, bus passes, childcare outside of Head Start's normal hours. Overall, it's costly. Can it be scaled or replicated easily?

King: Easily, probably not. ... It's admittedly a high-cost intervention. So you're paying for both parents and kids to get leading-edge, high-quality services, very intensive. At the same time, the way the Career Advance model has rolled out, it really hasn't been a model that relied on the other partners involved to ante up.

And I think going forward the way to scale this thing up is to go to the workforce system. To go to the community college system. To go to other providers in the community and say 'OK, we're providing the wraparound services, the career coaches, the Head Start services.' You could then begin to share the cost for training those parents going forward and probably cut those costs to some extent.

We know that the return on investment for early childhood is what, [between] 7 [and] 13-to-1. I mean, it's high. We see similar returns for adult services in career pathway sector models. So the theory that we're operating under, we don't have the proof yet, is that when you combine them, you should get at least that, if not more.

If someone from another city said 'We want to replicate this, but it looks expensive.' What do you tell them?

Eckrich Sommer: What's really interesting and important to think about is these initial investments, I think, have led to some changes in the way the local educational partners do their business. And that kind of systems change is essential.

So, for example, by buying classes at the local community college, and working very closely with the instructors there, they've thought much harder about how do you serve families well? Parents of young children, who in fact, are a large majority of the population at many community colleges nationally.

And so if you change the way things are done in a traditional school system, then you're making improvements that you can't even quantify, but you know , are the result of this initial big investment.

It's not cheap, but it is less expensive than the initial intensive model.

And we will have more results, unfortunately, in about five years.

What are the takeaways here for cities and states that might not be able to afford this kind of a gold-standard program, but still want to try to replicate some of the achievements CAP Tulsa is seeing?

King: [Colleges need to] make it easier for all students, but especially parents, to navigate what the offerings are, and focus those offerings on sectors that are growing, that will lead to families sustaining jobs. Project Quest in San Antonio has done a good job. [Other leading examples include programs with the Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership, Per Scholas, and Jewish Vocational Services.]

Having governors support [two-gen] strategies and having local workforce entities pursue them is now part of the federal legislation and guidance coming out of the U.S. Department of Labor. Under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, governors must support implementation of career, private sector strategies statewide and are encouraged to embed career pathway approaches as well.

Eckrich Sommer: I think it's about partnership. And I think community colleges and early childhood education programs and anti-poverty programs can work together, and figure out how they can both serve parents and children.

And I think they're both invested in that, but they tend to focus on their primary population and if they think about investing in the other, and how it'll improve the gains for each, then everyone's better off.

[The CAP Tulsa study was funded in part by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as part of the Affordable Care Act's Health Professions Opportunity Grant]

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