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Program Guides NYC 'Head Start' Parents to College Track

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Low-income parents whose children attend Head Start in downtown New York City now have a chance to get a jump-start on education themselves.

Thanks to the new College Access and Success program launched last October by the Educational Alliance, parents of Head Start students can get the help they need to prepare for, apply to, and begin attending college.

Parents enrolled in the College Access and Success program attend 12 hours of class each week, depending on what they need to become college-ready. After dropping off their children at Head Start, the adults take free classes in the same building.

The idea for College Access and Success came as the alliance was applying for the expansion of its early Head Start grant, where one of the goals included helping parents achieve a GED. "With 70 percent of jobs requiring a college degree, we thought we were perpetuating the underclass if we just aspired for parents to get a GED. We thought we could do more," said Robin Bernstein, president & CEO of the Educational Alliance, which has 24 locations in Lower Manhattan.

A college-preparation program the alliance runs for middle and high school students is "crazy successful," she said, which gave them the idea to offer a similar opportunity to parents. "Only 32 percent [of our Head Start parents] graduate from high school. If it's a second-generation Head Start family, I think we failed that family. We wanted to do something audacious." When they polled nearly 600 parents of Head Start students, they found that less than 1 percent graduated from college.

Working in collaboration with Borough of Manhattan Community College, the alliance developed a college track that includes varying levels of ESL classes, followed by GED classes, and ending with college-prep classes that help parents apply to and get into college. In addition, support services like counseling, child care during classes, and access to homework help and computer labs are available to parents.

In the six months since the program started, it has served 179 parents, of whom 10 have already applied for or enrolled in college. Another 68 are on a waiting list.

Not bad for a program that was just a concept, without funding, a year ago. "We said, 'This is a really good idea. We'll just start talking to parents about it, do some preliminary testing, and start creating a culture where this is possible,'" said Bernstein.

The alliance gathered a think tank of funders and researchers to help launch the project. The New York University Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development is doing formative research to measure the outcomes of the program.

"We were really successful within a short period of time at raising the money, we launched it, and it's successful," said Bernstein, who says this program is one-of-a-kind.

With start-up funding from the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., and support from JP Morgan Chase, the alliance is now considering expansion of its program so that classes can be offered at night for those parents who could not attend in the daytime.

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