Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Sunday, May 27, 2018

CC ChildDevelCntrWtby 900x600pxChildren at the Catholic Charities Child Development Center in Waterbury gather for a group photo.As far as Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Hartford is concerned, giving children a good start in life is a family affair.

Every day, some 315 children in Hartford, New Haven, Meriden and Waterbury benefit from the School Readiness Program, a dynamic prekindergarten initiative launched just over 20 years ago by Catholic Charities.

Catholic Charities, a not-for-profit agency serving people of all faiths in Hartford, Litchfield and New Haven counties, aims to promote the dignity of every person, family and community in a way that maximizes human potential, self-sufficiency and richness of diversity. It employs about 450 people and has a budget in excess of $24 million.

The seven centers, which are licensed by the state and open year-round, daily serve up breakfast and lunch along with a full curriculum of lessons in subjects ranging from math and science to getting along with others.

“The purpose of our work is to prepare young children for success,” said Tiffany Hall, director of child and family development programs for Catholic Charities. “When we send these children off to kindergarten, we know they are ready.”

That’s not something that can be taken for granted in the communities the program serves, which face the challenges that come with high poverty rates and a lack of resources in everything from employment to public services. Across the state and the country, children from those communities typically fare worse in school than their peers in more affluent cities and towns.

“Our kids are getting the support and education they need to close the achievement gap,” Hall said, noting that the program is accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, certifying that it meets the highest standards in the field. “If children don’t get that support at the beginning, they never catch up.”

It’s particularly critical for young children like those in the program: at five of the six readiness program centers, the children are ages 3 to 5, with Waterbury also enrolling infants and toddlers. According to a landmark study by University of Kansas researchers, the bulk of the most important brain development occurs before the age of 5.

That’s important because of the voluminous evidence that children who aren’t at the appropriate reading level by the time they reach third grade are significantly more likely to drop out of school and be convicted of committing a crime.

But Hall and the teachers and family specialists who staff the program understand that it takes more than a high-quality program to help children succeed. Parents, she said, are the “first and most important teachers” of their children.

Children, after all, can only spend so much time in prekindergarten or school during the day, and that’s where the program’s holistic, family-centered approach comes in.

The program offers parenting education, along with help in everything from applying for jobs to setting up payment plans for past-due utility bills.

“We start out from the proposition that every parent wants the best for their children,” Hall said. “People sometimes say, ‘Oh, these parents don’t care. They don’t read to their children or anything like that.’ But if you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, you’re not worried about reading a book to your child. You’re worried about feeding your child.”

It’s something Janett Cerna, a family specialist at the Meriden center, understands well. Sometimes, helping a child succeed means helping parents understand how they can solve problems in their lives, she said.

Recently, the mother of a young girl at the Meriden center came in agitated because the family’s heat had been shut off. When Cerna tried to work with the woman to find a way to solve the problem, she said, the toll of previous disappointments was evident in her response.

“She had just given up,” Cerna said. “That’s the hardest part, when you see someone who just doesn’t know what to do, and is feeling this deep despair.”

Instead of shrugging her shoulders and moving on, Cerna persuaded the woman to accompany her to the office of the gas company, where they were able to get the family’s heat turned back on.

The experience not just of solving a problem, but of having someone care enough to help proved to be transformative.

“Ever since, when she brings her child in, she has a completely different attitude” and is planning to go back to school to earn her high school degree, Cerna said.

Making that kind of connection with the whole family is essential for the success of the child, said Destiny Ramos, the director of the school readiness center at SS. Cyril and Methodius in Hartford.

“That’s the most gratifying part, honestly, building those relationships with parents and children,” she said.

Relative stability at home means the children who come to the center are able to focus on the activities that give them a head start on kindergarten. At the SS. Cyril and Methodius Center, that includes a strong focus on reading, with a library area in every classroom and a curriculum that starts with the very basics.

“When they come in at 3 years old, it’s literally teaching them how to hold a book, how to turn the pages,” she said. “Then when you see them grow and develop, and by the time they’re 5 and making connections between the pictures and words, it’s such a good experience.”

As convincing as the statistics on early childhood education are, those are the kinds of moments that can’t be captured by even the most rigorous measurement. Hall said the program regularly enrolls younger siblings and neighbors as the word from families spreads, and that older children occasionally come back to praise the experiences they had.

“At the risk of dating myself, a student who I taught in one of the centers is now getting ready to graduate college at the top of his class and go on to medical school,” Hall said. “That’s a great feeling.”

Early childhood services locations:

Centro San Jose Child Development Center

290 Grand Ave., New Haven

Child Development Center

790 Grand Ave., New Haven

Child Development Center

965 S. Main St., Suite 2, Waterbury

Child Development Center

81 Akron St., Meriden

Paraiso Infantil

45 Wadsworth St., Hartford

  1. SS. Cyril and Methodius Child Development Center

45 Groton St., Hartford

St. Stanislaus Child Development Center

81 Akron St., Meriden