Jeremie Elkins wants to be a lawyer. Katrina George plans to be a teacher, and Domonique Craig has set her sights on business studies. All are taking part in the College Bound Babies program at Twin Rivers Housing Complex, but they aren’t students.
The three parents help out at the kindergarten-preparation program every day as a requirement for their child’s attendance. They say their involvement has fostered a sense of community at the low-income public housing complex and has inspired them to continue their own education.
“A lot of families here are struggling,” Elkins said. “A lot don’t know where to go with life.”
The nonprofit Roberts Family Development Center launched the program last year with hopes of getting parents more involved with their children’s education – and getting them to take a good look at their own lives at the same time.
Twin Rivers Housing Complex is located in the midst of one of Sacramento’s grittiest areas. Black wrought-iron fencing encircles rows of faded tan buildings near Highway 160 and Richards Boulevard. Small barbecues sit in front the small concrete pads of some of the townhouses.
The median household income in the neighborhood was a mere $15,000 during the recession, about 75 percent lower than the countywide median, according to the U.S. census.
Parents and their preschool-age children gather four hours a day four days a week in the small building at the entrance of the complex – a cheery retreat with desks, games, art projects and an outdoor playground.
“This helps out this community a lot,” Elkins said. “A lot of kids were home all day doing nothing.”
The children were busy Tuesday working on a lesson about dinosaurs. In the middle of the room, students and parents worked together to assemble dioramas featuring dinosaurs. Mothers sorted through a pile of yard clippings to find the right “bush” or “tree” for scenery.
Things were a little more raucous on the back patio, where the school’s youngest children – 2- and 3-year-olds – called out the colors of plastic dinosaurs as they played with them on a shaving-cream-covered table.
Elkins stood watch Tuesday over a table of 4- and 5-year-old students, each focused on a Chromebook. His daughter Anastajia maneuvered a cartoon dinosaur on the screen across rock hurdles to a pond. The PBS online program, based on the popular “Dinosaur Train” show, was designed to teach kids about the concepts of distance, volume and, of course, dinosaurs. Her brother Jeremie Jr. worked nearby.
Elkins, 25, sometimes must take a day off from his full-time job to help out at the school. He sees the high level of parent participation as positive. “Kids take learning more seriously if their parents are involved,” he said.
It also has motivated him to consider college himself. Elkins works at a business that offers payday loans.
The focus on education has other parents in the program reconsidering their options. George, 51, has returned to college, attending Sacramento City College with plans to become a teacher or work in the technology field. She started volunteering with the program when her grandson attended. He moved on to kindergarten, but George stayed and now is a resident teacher in a paid position.
“The children motivate me,” she said.
Domonique Craig, 25, has lived in the public housing complex since she was 10 years old. Now she is raising her 4-year-old daughter A’Keelah Brown there. Craig plans to return to school to study business or sign language. She has an office specialist certificate and is operating a community resource center sponsored by Roberts Family Development Center. She refers students to services, helps them with job applications and résumés, and offers technology assistance.
“No matter what, we are a family,” Craig said. “We are here for each other. The program brought people together.”
Wednesday includes a Power Hour for parents taught by lead teacher Kathy Henry, who helps them with life skills and parenting techniques. A community college instructor also offers monthly workshops that focus on topics like goal setting, dealing with adversity, improving organizational skills, building job skills and taking on leadership roles in the community.
The workshops are voluntary, but there is a full house every time, said Lawanna Johnson, the early education teacher with the program.
Funding comes from the First 5 Sacramento Commission, which uses Proposition 10 tobacco-tax funds to support the healthy development of children from birth to 5 years of age. A consultant hired by the commission found there was a 45 percent increase in school readiness among students in the first six months of the program.
Parents are seeing progress, too. Graduates have landed on the kindergarten honor roll. The youngsters are counting, reciting their letters and learning to tie their shoes. They also are learning to listen in the classroom, be respectful and do their homework, parents say.
“When it’s time to go to school, they will be prepared,” said mother Tiffany Beckwith. She said the children also are getting excited about their futures. “They tell people, ‘I’m a college-bound baby.’ ”
The academic success of the children has helped to motivate the parents, said Henry, a retired executive for Merryhill Schools, a network of private campuses.
Roberts Family Development Center started College Bound Baby programs 14 months ago at the Twin Rivers complex and at a center shared by public housing in the Alder Grove and Marina Vista neighborhoods along Broadway in Upper Land Park. Each program serves about 25 children and their families.
College Bound Babies is working exactly as Roberts Family Development Center founder Derrell Roberts hoped. “The way to close the achievement gap is to prepare the parents for school the same way we prepare children for school,” he said. “If our parents are ready, our kids will be ready.”