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Field Notes: Drawing Wisdom from Models of Success

Susan Hallett, Vice President of Programs at The Community Foundation serving Richmond and Central Virginia shares insights from her recent visit with Smart from the Start in Southeast DC.  From this visit and through discussion with her local colleagues who joined her on the journey, she formed 3 key takeaways that we can utilize here in Greater Richmond.


On a chilly morning in January, I set off with my colleagues from Smart Beginnings Greater Richmond, United Way of Greater Richmond and Petersburg, Bon Secours, YWCA and Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority up I-95 to Woodland Terrace, a public housing community in Southeast DC. Built in the 1960’s, Woodland had a reputation for high crime rates and illegal activity, but when we arrived, the community was peaceful and the streets were empty. This lack of activity is a big change for Woodland and we quickly heard why from one of its residents – “there’s no one on the street because now everyone has someplace to go!”

The purpose of our trip to Woodland Terrace was to visit Smart from the Start, a family support, community engagement and school readiness program deeply embedded within the community. Cherie Craft, the founding Executive Director, grew up in public housing and understands firsthand the best approaches to engaging residents in these programs. She pointed out that too often we attempt to “parachute in” programs, which are usually ineffective because they do not include families and parents in the process. Smart from the Start, which began in Boston in 2008 and expanded to Washington D.C. in 2012, now offers 21 total programs ranging from early language and literacy activities to parent engagement and coaching.

ABOVE: Smart from the Start is a family support, community engagement and school readiness organization that has as its mission to prevent the academic achievement gap among young children living in the lowest income families and communities. Smart empowers parents and caregivers in under-served communities with the tools, resources and support they need to break cycles of chronic school underachievement and generational poverty.

The Community Foundation and a wide variety of community partners share a common interest in the future of our youth and the opportunity to improve access to quality child care, especially in our most vulnerable neighborhoods. We also believe our best chance of making progress is to work together and learn from the best. Our hope is that by sharing our key takeaways, you can become part of this learning journey with us.

1.      If we keep doing what we’ve always done, we’ll keep getting the same result.

The mission of Smart from the Start is to prevent the academic achievement gap among young children living in the lowest income families and communities. To date, they have served over 2,000 children, ages 0-5, and their school readiness data is off the charts. So imagine our surprise when we learned that there was no daycare center for us to tour, no preschool classrooms, no early literacy programs. In Woodland, they chose to focus on friends and family care and worked to strengthen that network by infusing resources and quality. In Woodland, a housing unit has been converted into a Child and Family Development Center that provides prenatal programs, parenting classes and playgroups. A robust fatherhood initiative encompasses career development along with parenting support. In essence they are empowering families and caregivers with the tools and resources they need to break cycles of chronic school underachievement and generational poverty.

2.      The whole-family and place-based approach works.

Smart from the Start looks at early childhood development and school readiness as a process that happens at the family and neighborhood level. The model is holistic, addressing issues within the community and the family first, while promoting the healthy development of young children. And the services are provided in the public housing community where families and children live. As noted by Rebekah Holbrook of the United Way, “Just being in the neighborhood and involved with the families increases staff’s opportunity to build trust, get feedback from clients in real time, and build up the capacity of the community to support itself.”

3.      Trust comes from authentic community engagement.

At its core, Smart from the Start is about the power of relationships. Residents greeted us, eager to share about their experiences. Programs are customized to meet the needs of each community, as defined by the residents who live there. They are an integral part of program development and delivery from day one. With a commitment that staff reflect the diversity of the families they serve, some residents from Woodland are employed by Smart from the Start to facilitate and coordinate programming. There is also a large network of business partners that make donations, distribute books and information to families and offer play-to-learn stations.

As we work to tackle seemingly insurmountable challenges in our community – concentrated poverty, the educational achievement gap, quality healthcare, access to employment – it is easy to lose sight of our most powerful resource – people and relationships.  How we show up as human beings and how we learn from others has a direct impact on our ability to affect change.  I was reminded during a recent discussion with Reverend Alvin Herring, Director of Racial Equity and Community Engagement for the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, that philanthropy is only effective when it is a reciprocal relationship, a partnership, and a mutual learning.  I am grateful for the opportunity to learn from the members of the Woodland community and their partners at Smart from the Start.

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