AUSTIN (KXAN) — Erica Cummings is managing virtual learning and work from home during the coronavirus pandemic. 

The single mom said she’s constantly making sure her 6-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son are on track and focusing.

Long before school was at home, education was always a priority for her family. 

Erica Cummings said her son was ready for kindergarten because her late father started teaching him early (AISD Photo)

“I believe education starts at home,” Cummings explained. “Your child needs structure … over the years I’ve learned how important structure is to a child.” 

Cummings recalled how her late father helped her son during his early years. She attributed his success in school and being ready for kindergarten to him. 

“My dad worked a lot on reading. He was big on reading and math,” Cummings said. “He was really, really essential … for my son.”

Why tracking early matters

AAYHF has partnered with other early childhood advocates to change kindergarten readiness outcomes among young boys (Courtesy BiNi Coleman)

The African American Youth Harvest Foundation is working towards more success stories like Cummings’ son.

The non-profit works with youth and families and is now focusing on early childhood education, especially among Black boys from birth to 5-years-old. 

“We met with AISD, we met with United Way Success by 6, we met with a lot of folks and what they were seeing — that specifically Black boys were not academically prepared. They were not on grade level,” said Michael Lofton, president and founder of the African American Youth Harvest Foundation. “We’re trying to now catch them from early childhood and stay with them until they go to college.”

Traditionally, Lofton said the organization worked with middle and high school students, but realized during a summer camp that the need is there for younger children. 

AAYHF worked with youth during an employment initiative. It recently helped with the recruitment of more than 350 students (Courtesy Michael Lofton)

“We began to realize that it was about a third of the kids in our group were on some form of medication. Another third had some kind of behavior diagnoses and what we realized — we need to start earlier,” explained BiNi Coleman, Chief Operations Officer with the African American Youth Harvest Foundation. “Those are the most critical years that set the foundation for that young person to stay on track in terms of their educational and general life trajectory.”

Determining kindergarten readiness

According to Success by 6, a coalition of early childhood advocates and experts, school readiness data prepared by E3 Alliance showed that for Austin/Travis County in the 2019-2020 school year, only 34% of Black children were ready for kindergarten.

According to Success by 6, children ready for kindergarten can follow directions, manage emotions and focus (KXAN Photo/Arezow Doost)

“In reality, readiness is much less about knowing the alphabet, and numbers – but being able to get along with peers, follow two or three step directions, manage emotions and express needs, focus attention for 15 to 20 minutes at a time,” said Cathy McHorse, the vice president of Success by 6 at the United Way for Greater Austin.

McHorse said that language and how much vocabulary children have is also essential.

“If a child has these skills, then a kindergarten teacher will be able to work effectively with a child to teach the letters, letter sounds, counting and computation if those are not strong yet,” McHorse said.

Need for basic necessities

Before the pandemic, AAYHF teamed up with Black Women In Business and was awarded a grant from the St. David’s Foundation.

The group had one goal: to study the problem of school readiness and find ways to improve the rates among minorities and those with low incomes, particularly African-American families with boys. 

The organization surveyed about 300 families late last year who had young kids.

Findings revealed that almost one-third of parents are raising their children alone without help. If child care is needed, then more than half of kids are taken care of by either a grandparent or other family member. And, affordable child care is a concern among parents: more than half said it causes them severe stress. 

AAYHF survey asked parents with children between birth and 5-years-old what resources would help them get their children kindergarten ready (Courtesy AAYHF)

The foundation also said that the survey indicated immediate need for basic necessities.

“About 149 of those parents all were having some kind of financial crisis, mental stress —need counseling,” Lofton explained. 

Lofton said they wanted to immediately take care of those needs and started distributing food, clothes and diapers.

The foundation also helped with technology for virtual learning and school supplies including back packs filled with notebooks, folders, pencils and masks. 

“When a parent is stressed, there is an environment in the household. It can’t be as nurturing and supportive for that child’s development,” Coleman said. “When you don’t know where your food is going to come from and you’re stressed about a number of things it’s hard to create that kind of environment.”

Recommendations for better outcomes

Coleman explained that after the survey was complete experts came up with a list of recommendations, outlined in 43 pages, to help families. Solutions included:  

  • Developing home visitation strategies that lead to an environment that nurtures the emotional and learning needs of young children and understanding of developmental milestones.
  • Providing caregivers like grandparents training that encourages learning.
  • Requiring cultural training for agencies offering services to low-income families.
  • Starting parent support groups and continuing counseling services to understand how to better support a child’s development.
  • Offering services and support at times and locations that are convenient for parents and caretakers.
  • Working with organizations that can help navigate child care and affordability. 

The foundation is also working with other organizations to streamline services. Another finding through the survey was that many parents don’t even know about some resources that are already available.

What parents are asking for 

Judith Youmbi said her family moved from Africa two years ago so that her young kids could have better opportunities. (Courtesy Judith Youmbi)

Judith Youmbi is one of those parents who has been looking for resources to help her family.

Her days are spent making sure her son, who’s in kindergarten, doesn’t fall behind during virtual learning.

She’s also working with her two younger kids on educational activities around the house.

She said she’s constantly looking for more books and other learning material for the kids.

“Education is the first important thing in our family,” Youmbi explained. “We also need education to continue to educate our kids.”

She quit her nurse’s aide job when the pandemic hit to focus on her young children and their education at home. 

“If I prepare them well, tomorrow they’re going to be successful, ” Youmbi said. “So that the kids could have better opportunity — having good education — having good job later.” 

Cummings wants the same things for her own family and is also looking for resources that can help relieve some stress. AAYH helped her family pay a light bill this year, and she’s used other support in the past.

“The resources have been there,” she said. “Unfortunately, a full-time working parent isn’t able to take off work to go get boxes of food.”

Hurdles during pandemic

Though AAYHF has been able to address some immediate needs, the organization said the pandemic has halted next steps, including making home visits.

Another hurdle has been funding. More case workers and counselors are needed to help families navigate resources. 

The foundation explained that it’s not just Black families they help — about 18% of families who they talked to about early childhood needs are Hispanic. 

“We need case managers. We need social workers. We don’t have the funding to be able to bring on five or six social workers,” Lofton said. “We need … more educational tools.”

Lofton said the help the organization provides now isn’t a one time deal and they expect to keep in touch with the families long-term.

“Success is not just getting Pampers to them, getting them food, helping them get jobs, helping them get started on the right path. So, that we can be able to say, ‘The families were here, and here is everything that we were able to achieve and now, here is how they are doing,'” Lofton explained.

Coleman and Lofton, both parents themselves, said by helping the family it sets the children up for success so they can thrive in a healthy learning environment.

“It’s not just about getting them ready for kindergarten and then letting them go,” Coleman said. “It’s about keeping them on track, and the beauty of a group like the Harvest Foundation is we maintain those relationships over time. They don’t have to come in and out of our programs.”

Partnering with the national non-profit Solutions Journalism Network, Nexstar stations nationwide are telling unique stories about how the pandemic has exposed inequities for students and the solutions some groups have found to bridge that gap.