Measuring success

FPG researchers led by Peg Burchinal helped the local Family Success Alliance evaluate its impact on children’s lives. Could a four-week pre-K program really make that much of a difference? The answer is yes, Burchinal said, and she has the data to prove it.

From left, Coby Jansen Austin, FSA director of programs and policy, and Zone 6 Navigators Mariela Hernandez and Brittany Bulluck celebrate the Ready for K graduation.

Peg Burchinal, as a researcher and director of the Data Management and Analysis Center at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, has spent more of her time evaluating programs than creating them. The goal is to make programs designed to improve the lives of children better.

Peg Burchinal

Burchinal is the evaluator, the one whose real work begins when the educational program creators are done. Her team observes classrooms, interviews teachers, students and parents, gathers and compares before and after data and rates skill levels. Educators can then use this information to improve teaching in the future.

Burchinal was the first person FPG senior scientist Lynne Vernon-Feagans thought of when she heard that the Family Success Alliance needed to evaluate the impact of an educational program it was launching in Orange County.

“There’s only one person who can do this and that’s Peg Burchinal,” said Vernon-Feagans, who has worked with Burchinal on many projects. “She has a staff. She’s done research in the real world.”

They’re both good, not to mention cheap. The two researchers are not billing the alliance for their time to allow the evaluation to extend past the original year. The Office of the Provost grant for the evaluation came from a fund set aside to support poverty-related projects after the Board of Governors-mandated closure of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity in 2015.

The big divide

At the Ready for K graduation, students show their families what they learned during camp, including songs to help them remember numbers and letters.

In a state with as much widespread rural poverty as North Carolina, some might question a grant to help students in one of its richest counties. But Orange County’s affluence masks some disturbing statistics.

In income inequality, Orange County ranks first in the state and in the top 10 nationally, Burchinal said. The median income for households in Orange County is more than $59,000, yet 16 percent of residents live in poverty and 30 percent do not earn a living wage, according to Orange County government statistics. Of the county’s children, 14 percent live in poverty and 75 percent of the children born in poverty will remain there or in low-income households into adulthood.

The severe shortage of affordable housing in town makes it harder for the working poor to take advantage of available services, like the free bus system.

“We have good transportation where poor people can’t afford to live. We have no transportation where poor people can live,” Burchinal said. “If a county like Orange can’t deal with these issues—a county that has so many people dedicated to addressing issues of inequity and incredible resources—what hope is there for the rest of the state?”

Inspired by a Harlem model

This persistent problem of inequity led 10 government, nonprofit, school and community organizations in the county to band together as the Family Success Alliance, modeled after the successful Harlem Children’s Zone project. The alliance’s goal is to close the achievement gap and end generational poverty by providing “a pipeline of success from birth to college/career” for the county’s neediest children.

Like the Harlem project, the Family Success Alliance focuses on a certain place, addressing all the challenges faced by children and parents living there. The alliance divided the county into six zones, then set up pilot projects in the two poorest zones, Zone 4 in southern Hillsborough (A.L. Stanback Middle and New Hope Elementary schools) and Zone 6, Carrboro/Northside (FPG, Northside, Carrboro Elementary).

Even 2-week-old Elizabeth Maria Arcos Juarez attended the Ready for K graduation of her big brother, Manual.

Ready for K Summer Camp, launched three years ago, is a free, all-day school program for children who will be attending kindergarten in the fall. Transportation, breakfast, lunch and afternoon snack are provided for the children. The children not only learn math and reading skills, they also practice school routines, like raising their hands to ask permission to go to the restroom.

But could four weeks really make that much of a difference? Yes, Burchinal said, and she has the data to prove it.

“I was amazed. I thought a four-week program was not going to have any impact,” she said. But all students made gains in attention and early reading skills. “The students making the largest gains were those who entered the program with lower skill levels. At entry to kindergarten, the FSA students had higher levels of attention, math and social skills compared to students who did not participate in Ready for K Camp.”

The evaluators did see room for improvement, though, in literacy instruction as well as in teaching counting skills, said Allison Young, heath informatics manager for the Orange County Health Department, who works closely with FSA.

“Teachers have expressed that the classroom and student assessments have been particularly useful for developing areas of focus in the classroom and have also expressed excitement in being able to spend more time with students who need extra support, prior to the school year,” she said.

Next, Navigators

A second component of the alliance’s project, Zone Navigators, was directed at the children’s parents. Navigators are people from the same communities who have faced many of the same challenges and learned to navigate the system to get help. Members of the community trust them. Each family has a Navigator to help them determine their needs and set their goals.

Those results, Burchinal said, were “less positive” because top of mind issues for parents—like finding better, more affordable housing—took up a lot of discussion time with limited results.

“It’s tough because the parents who really need the most require so many different types of support,” Burchinal said. “When you’re living on the edge, it’s very easy to fall off.”

Based on that evaluation and other feedback, FSA is “making adjustments to the caseload for Navigators and adding training components to the program,” Young said.

FSA is also working with UNC Pediatrics on improving student health and exploring ways to provide “one-stop shopping” for services for these families, preferably within the school. As FSA’s programs expand, the group will need continuing evaluation to stay on track.

“Their assessments and recommendations have helped our staff, Navigators and the phenomenal teachers and administrators at our Zone Schools to continually improve their services,” Young said. “We hope this is a partnership we can maintain into the future, so we at FSA can continue to grow and support the families of Orange County who need it the most.”