A leading developmental psychologist at Northwestern University is preparing to enter into a partnership with the Evanston Community Foundation that will employ policy, practice and research in a “two-generation approach” to move low-income parents and their young children toward educational success and economic security.

Lindsay Chase-Lansdale, who is heading the program, holds a Ph.D. in developmental psychology from Northwestern University and chairs the visiting committee of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

The program uses career coaches, financial incentives and peer-group meetings to prepare parents for high-demand jobs in the healthcare sector and aims to promote positive outcomes for both parents and children. Two-generation programs simultaneously provide children with high-quality early education and their parents with job training in order to help families build greater stability in their economic circumstances and family life. Intertwined outcomes result from bringing together the efforts of both generations, allowing the children’s success to further motivate parents.

Researchers have found that participation in high-quality early childhood education can alter low-income mothers’ views of what is possible for their children and themselves.

Early childhood centers in two-generation programs meet such high-quality criteria as maintaining low teacher-to-child ratios and employing teachers with four-year degrees and early childhood training. Research drawn from early childhood programs indicates that parents perceive themselves as role models for their children’s educational achievement. Mothers maintained that when their children were learning and thriving at early childhood education centers, they were better able to focus on their own goals. The argument is that adding parents’ job-training and education to early education centers is an untapped resource. A two-generation program can capitalize on parents’ motivation on behalf of their children as well as their sense of belonging to a community. The job training in such a program differs from the typical impersonal job training in that it builds a sense of community, trust and familiarity. It is not reasonable to expect the child to be the only agent of change in the family.

New Pilot Program

As to her future research, Dr. Chase-Landsdale is discussing with the Evanston Community Foundation a new pilot program called “Education,” which would be a two-generation intervention model. “We are hoping to develop a small model program in Evanston that may draw upon the practices undergirding the program known as Career Advance,” Dr. Chase-Lansdale says. She believes “the opportunity to develop an action-research program that draws upon the strengths of Northwestern University and Evanston is highly rewarding.”

Planning for the program, which is expected to take from July 2013 till June 2014, will be supported by a $100,000 grant from Ascend at the Aspen Institute. The planning phase will include mapping job training and career-building assets for parents and early education opportunities for children; researching local sector-based employment opportunities; developing a task force of key organizational and community partners; creating a small pilot program; conducting implementation and evaluation research; and seeking the funding necessary for full-scale implementation of the program.

The proposal notes that poverty in Evanston has increased by more than 50 percent in the last decade – from 11.1 percent in 2000 to an estimated 17.3 percent in 2010. In some Evanston public elementary schools, as many as 60 percent of the children receive free lunch. Yet low-income parents face strong barriers to advancing their educational and skill levels, including financial costs (e.g. tuition and foregone earnings); inflexible work schedules; inadequate support from family and friends; lack of access to affordable child care; poor preparation for the post-secondary environment; and challenges in balancing work, family and school demands.

The goals of the Evanston initiative designed upon the two-generation model include helping sustain the gains children have made in early education by increasing parental skills, knowledge and financial resources and testing the effectiveness of early education centers in promoting both children’s and parents’ educational development. The initiative also hopes to increase parental involvement by building relationships of trust between parents and staff and strong bonds among parents in the belief that parental involvement in governance and programming encourages investment in the early childhood center community.

The model draws on best practices in workforce development. Among these practices are occupational training in high-demand careers; establishing partnerships between workforce development programs and local colleges; responding to the needs of employers; contextualizing adult basic education, including English as a second language; “conditional cash transfers” that promote high performance; peer mentoring and support through weekly peer-group meetings; and expansion of family support services, including child care and transportation assistance.

Alumni Network 

Ideally, a network of alumni would serve as mentors and informal coaches. The goal is for the parent to find a job in a career that will provide a supporting wage and an opportunity for advancement.

The program would also draw upon Evanston Community Foundation’s ongoing kindergarten-to-workforce readiness initiative, “Every Child Ready for Kindergarten.”

Dr. Chase-Lansdale says she has chosen Evanston as the site of the pilot program “because of its engaged community and its socio-economic, racial, and ethnic diversity. ECF is the ideal partner because of its longstanding work in forging collaboration aimed at kindergarten readiness within Evanston’s early childhood sector.” 

“This partnership is a win-win for Northwestern and Evanston,” says Northwestern’s Eugene Sunshine, senior vice-president for business and finance.

Ann Mosle, vice president of the Aspen Institute and executive director of Ascend, says, “We hope that this investment will inspire others in Evanston to join the effort to build an intergenerational cycle of opportunities for all families.”