- Associated Press - Saturday, August 9, 2014

WASHINGTON (AP) - The images in the book were bright and the words simple, but many of the women in the classroom hesitated as they sounded out each sentence.

“If you can’t read the words, can you talk about the pictures?” teacher Elizabeth Bergner coached. The goal for the women enrolled in Bergner’s adult-education class in the District of Columbia is to learn English, but an equally important target is to help their children learn to read.

In a preschool classroom down the hall a few minutes later, the mothers had a chance to practice. They pulled their daughters and sons onto their laps and opened the book.

The District’s Briya Public Charter School enrolls parents and young children together in the same school, a novel effort to improve children’s prospects by building the skills of those who are closest to them. It’s an approach that an increasing number of researchers and philanthropists are promoting across the country as experts worry that investments in early childhood education or school improvement can only go so far.

“We spend a lot of money on poor children in our schools,” said Sharon Darling, president of the National Center for Families Learning. “But in reality, there are no poor children. They live with poor parents, and they are poor because they have poor skills. You can’t keep putting a Band-Aid on one part of the equation.”

Many modern school reforms emerge from the idea that schools can overcome the adversities children experience in their life outside of school. But dual-generation approaches - in which parents are pursuing education in tandem with their children - echo research that shows that a mother’s education is one of the strongest predictors of a child’s academic success.

Such programs provide support and training for parents to learn English, earn a degree or train for a better-paying job at the same time their children are taking their first steps or learning to read. Advocates hope they can give adults the ability to learn skills that will allow them to seek better jobs, earn more money and be more effective teachers for their children.

Building on the momentum of President Obama’s proposal to dramatically expand access to publicly funded preschool, advocates see an opportunity to consider investing simultaneously in parents. They cite brain research that documents the lasting negative effects of stress for young children living in poverty and economic analyses that show that even modest income gains for poor families can make a difference in the earning potential of their children later on.

Educators say it’s a far more complicated and expensive endeavor to educate adults and children together. Each group requires different training and expertise. And while children progress through preschool on a predictable timeline, adults juggling competing demands often take much longer to reach their educational goals.

But many say it’s a critical model in the 21st century, when the pace of economic inequality is overwhelming efforts to improve the quality of teachers and schools.

Almost half of children younger than 6 live in low-income families, and 1 in 4 come from families that meet the federal definition for poverty - $23,850 for a family of four. Demographic changes, including an increase in households headed by a single parent and a growing Hispanic population, are affecting poverty rates. And research shows it’s difficult for children born at the bottom of the economic ladder to move up.

Anabel Cruz emigrated from Oaxaca, Mexico, 14 years ago and earned a living cleaning houses. After she had a child, she found herself unable to work, financially stretched and depressed. A social worker referred her to Briya in 2006, where she enrolled her son in a program for infants while she started learning English.

“Since then, I never stopped studying,” Cruz said. She earned a high school diploma and had two more children. Next month, she plans to graduate with a certificate to work as a medical assistant and expects to earn at least $16 an hour, twice what she was making before she went back to school. With improved language skills and a boost of confidence, she became a PTA president at her children’s school.

She credits the parenting classes at Briya with helping her to establish routines at home, discipline her children in a positive way and read with them every day.

“We talk about the sweet spot of mutual motivation,” said Anne Mosle, executive director at Ascend, an Aspen Institute program promoting two-generation approaches across the country.

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