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The Pathways Early Education Center of Immokalee has provided rent assistance, food and diapers to families in the community to help relieve stress during the pandemic. Credit: Beth Hatch/Pathways Early Education Center of Immokalee

When the coronavirus pandemic shuttered the Pathways Early Education Center of Immokalee in the spring, staff members knew they would need to do more than simply move their classes online. The early learning center, located in a southwest Florida community with a poverty rate of over 50 percent, serves a large percentage of children whose parents are migrant farm workers or work in the hospitality field. As parents found themselves out of work and struggling to pay bills, school officials sprang into action, delivering food, diapers and cleaning supplies to families, providing financial support for rent and utilities and connecting families with community partners for more assistance.

“[Immokalee] was already an area of great poverty, and this had made that just so much more extreme,” said Beth Hatch, executive director of Pathways. “They’ve lost jobs…it’s affected every part of them.”

Pathways is one of several early childhood centers across the country that has adopted a wraparound approach, a model that provides a variety of supports to families, to provide much-needed help during the pandemic. Nationwide, more than 60 percent of households with children have experienced significant financial troubles due to the pandemic. Many families have struggled to have their basic needs met, dealing with eviction notices and food insecurity that persist as the pandemic continues. In an attempt to help families, some early childhood centers and nonprofits in states like Florida, Illinois and California have stepped up, regardless of the cost, to provide stability to families with young children.

“Ninety percent of the brain develops by age 5,” said Kristin Spanos, chief executive officer of First 5 Alameda County, which in April started handing out what amounted to $6 million in grants to organizations that support families’ basic needs. And that development can be impacted by “stresses that are happening in the home,” she added. “If we can help to alleviate any elements of that…any way we can insulate any of those adverse experiences, we’re obviously interested in doing that.”

“The toxic stress of everything that these families go through is extreme. So extreme, it affects every part of their development. We have to make that investment in their learning.”

Beth Hatch, executive director of the Pathways Early Education Center of Immokalee.

Research done prior to the pandemic shows that providing intensive supports to parents can have a long-term impact on families. Programs that have adopted a community-schools or wraparound model, like the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City and various federally-funded Promise Neighborhoods nationwide, have found that making sure families’ basic needs are met can have a big impact on closing the achievement gap.  

At Pathways, educators have witnessed this. When their students are safe, fed and healthy, they are better able to engage with them at school. Although Pathways had to close in the spring, officials knew it was imperative that they eventually open for in-person classes for their families. As the new school year approached, the center used funds from the federal CARES Act to pay for new, “intense” cleaning and safety procedures and keep the center afloat as they decreased class sizes and added a teacher to each age group. The center asked teachers to “loop” or move up with the same kids they taught in the spring to build on existing relationships between teachers and students. And when several families said they weren’t comfortable coming back to school, the center used grant money from T Mobile’s Empower ED program to launch a new online learning pilot for those families, providing mobile hotspots and tablets to the families. Those students will participate virtually in lessons held in classrooms, 1:1 time with a teacher to track their progress and will receive a virtual mentor through the school.

Educators say despite the challenges of logistics and cost, bending to meet the needs of families is critical. “The toxic stress of everything that these families go through is extreme. So extreme, it affects every part of their development,” Hatch said.  “We have to make that investment in their learning.”

This story has been updated to reflect additional funds First 5 Alameda County donated to organizations by publication.

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Early Childhood newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about early learning. Subscribe today!

This story about wraparound services was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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