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A Different Approach to School Readiness

A Conversation with Cherie Craft of Smart from the Start

Interview by Ellen Lempereur Greaves
December 2011

“AHHH! I’m so happy to see you! Do you know how much I love you! Your mother tells me you are taking Chinese in school. Can you count for me in Chinese?” This is the greeting that a child gets walking into the Smart from the Start program in Roxbury, Massachusetts. I didn’t really have to ask what Director Cherie Craft does, I saw a smiling child proudly counting in Chinese and chatting mothers filing into a safe space to hear about upcoming programs like parenting workshops and GED classes. Named a 2011 Social Innovator by Root Cause, Smart from the Start is an organization that promotes social and economic prosperity among low-income families in Boston, and it’s a program that works. I sat down with Cherie in November to find out more.

NPi: Can you tell me a little bit about Smart from the Start and the work that you do?

Cherie Craft: Using a strengths-based approach, we work to promote school readiness and eliminate the educational achievement gap among children in Boston’s lowest 10% income families. We provide an array of wrap-around services to give families the tools and resources they need to create stability in their lives and enable parents and caregivers to step comfortably into their role as their child’s first teacher. Our vision is that this program will one day break the cycles of generational poverty and school underachievement among our lowest income families in the city.

NPi: Tell me more about the strengths-based approach.

CC: From my personal experience as a social worker and counselor, I find that most social service organizations assess and address families from a deficit-based, almost medical, model. We tend to look at families in terms of what’s wrong with them and try to “fix” them. What I’ve come to discover is that when we are able to look past the challenges and focus on the strengths of the families–and introduce families to their own strengths often for the first time–we nurture relationships that are founded in mutual respect, and that is when really good work can be done. We’ve had success in engaging and retaining families that other agencies have deemed ‘hard to engage’ or ‘uninterested’ because of these relationships.

I grew up in the projects. I know first-hand what it’s like to live in really difficult circumstances, and I also know first-hand the incredible strengths and resiliencies that the families in those communities have. Many of my staff have walked in the shoes of the families that we serve. We bear witness to the strengths of our families and serve as proof that there are so many opportunities for our kids to do better if somebody believes in them and helps them believe in themselves.

What we do is not rocket science, but it’s unique because we have a level of humility that allows us to acknowledge and embrace what we don’t know. When I was 22, I thought I knew everything. I wanted to go out there, put my cape on and save the world. My real education didn’t start until I met families, and they continue to teach me something new every day.

When we pay attention, we learn that these families have untapped power. All we do is convince them of that. We dig deep enough to find that through all that hurt, pain, disappointment and guilt, there is a beautiful person. I can see it, and I can help you see it. And when they see it, there’s an unbelievable transformation that happens for families.

NPi: What else makes Smart from the Start unique?

CC: Many of our families live in the shadows. We serve exclusively the families that other agencies have failed to reach. We serve families whose average annual income is well below $8,000. Most [heads of households] are unemployed, about half didn’t graduate from high school, and some are self-medicating.

The fact that we are truly family and community-driven is also unique. We have a formula: In order for a child to be successful in school and in life, its family must be thriving and healthy; in order for a family to thrive, the community must be thriving and committed. This notion that the onus is on the child to be successful in school is a non-starter. You can give a child the best early education experience, but if they go home to a family that is depressed and living in poverty, the learning and the nurturing stops at the door. We provide crisis intervention and stabilization services first, and then we get to the importance of their role in their child’s success. For our families who suffer from depression and who feel disempowered, it’s often impossible for them to recognize their strengths and feel empowered as their child’s first teacher.

We tell our parents: ‘Here are some things that you can do with your children and this is how it affects their brain development.’ We keep it simple and fun, and we make sure they have what they need to go home and use every opportunity as a learning opportunity, whether its cooking, taking a bath or reading on the train.

In terms of community engagement, we work closely with agency partners like the Boston Housing Authority (BHA) and the Boston Centers for Youth and Families (BCYF). We work with local health centers. They help us reach more families by giving us referrals, and we co-facilitate programs with them and help connect their families to more services. We also have unique partnerships with 55 businesses that we call “Community Unity Partners”. These include laundromats, bodegas, barbershops and even MetroPC stores.

NPi: So what does a partnership with a laundromat look like?

CC: Well, let me tell you! We ask our families what businesses they frequent, and we go to those places and ask them if they are committed to helping us break cycles of youth unemployment and violence and weave a tighter knit community so that our kids and families aren’t falling through. If they are interested, we ask what they can commit to. Some local Laundromats, for example, let us create and maintain a play space (“community unity places”) so that kids are reading, playing and learning instead of spending 3-4 hours watching Jerry Springer. Some local bodegas allow us to leave fliers and information about free dental screenings or kindergarten registration, or they make donations of whatever they have that they think families can use. Right now we have 55 partners across Mattapan, Roslindale, Charlestown and Dorchester. We hope to have 80 by the end of the fiscal year…

NPi: Where do you see your work in the larger shift of social change that is happening right now?

CC: It’s our hope that one day we’ll do ourselves out of a job. Boston is a really resource-rich city, but we’ve got to work together and listen to the families. The problem is we keep doing what we’ve always done, so we keep getting what we’ve always gotten. To be in this city with all the resources we have and to have such a huge dropout rate–to have 30% of our kids reading proficiently in third grade–is criminal. It’s unbelievable. So I hope that Smart from the Start will open some folks eyes to doing things a different way, a better way.

We want folks to break out of these silos. Every community agency is serving the same families. We’ve got to talk, share resources, engage in joint problem-solving and planning. So we go out and build relationships with groups individually and then challenge them to come together around a common mission. This work is never about us. It’s always got to be about doing what’s best for the families. That is community work.

We have actually recused ourselves from funding opportunities because other partners were interested. Folks will fight over little bits of money, some folks even fight over families… Believe it or not, there is plenty of money out there for everybody, and there are definitely plenty of families.

We have a different approach to school readiness that encompasses everything we feel is necessary to catapult a child living under some very difficult circumstances into a place where they are going to be able to have self-esteem, the social/emotional assets, the language and literacy skills and the support at home and in the community that is necessary for them to break the cycle. Many of our kids are going to be trailblazers, and if I have anything to do with it, their parents will be, too.

I would love to see us take our tried and true model and grow it, start a satellite program in another city like Detroit or D.C. I do think what we do is transformative and I’d love to see us continue to grow.

Learn more about Smart from the Start and how you can get involved.

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